Monday, 9 June 2014

Love It Or Shove It - Julie Burchill


When in 1976 the New Musical Express advertised for two hip young gunslingers to join their staff, what they got was Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill who as legend would have it immediately went to war with the hippy hacks at the paper by surrounding their corner of the office with barbed wire. This was, of course, at the advent of Punk and the reason for them being taken on by the NME was to inject new blood into what was an increasingly moribund state of affairs at the paper.
Being so young (Parsons was 21 and Burchill just 17), so enthused and so willing (or so young, so dumb and so full of come, as Burchill might describe it) they both flung themselves into the Punk maelstrom with Burchill heading straight down to the Roxy and Parsons heading out on tour with The Clash.

From such tiny acorns mighty oaks can grow and as the years passed they both managed to climb the greasy pole of success to become fully-fledged authors and pundits for the national media. Parsons became a columnist for the Daily Mirror and a regular fixture on BBC cultural review programmes where his opinions steadily shrivelled to the point of insignificance, ending up as the UKIP-voting antithesis of his younger self. Burchill became the Queen of the Groucho Club, holding court over a constant stream of coke-blitzed acolytes and fellow media travellers, hopping from one national newspaper to the next as an outspoken, somewhat provocative columnist.

Of the two, Burchill was always the better writer due to her no-holds-barred approach to any subject. Blasting away with a double-barrelled shotgun assault upon anything that fell beneath her expansive gaze; offering praise to things which in media circles were often deemed unworthy; going against the grain without fear of ridicule or condemnation; and just generally speaking her mind and getting things off her chest. To this day, for anyone familiar with her oeuvre she is either loved or despised and in the process has become an unacknowledged national treasure.

Burchill - as she has forever reminded us - was born and raised on a white, working class estate in Bristol and though her readers might be bored to the point of distraction in hearing about it, it is precisely this fact that separates and has caused her to remain separate from all other writers. You can take the girl from her class but you can't take the class from the girl, and Burchill is no exception to this rule. Unlike others in the media (particularly Parsons, for example) she has never turned against her own kind and has always been a staunch defender of her class and the demonisation of it in the form of terms such as 'chav'. In her writings she has criticised the proletariat (and so she should) but it has always been done through a sense of understanding, and this is one of the very things (quite apart from her dexterity with words) that makes her interesting.

When she's in the throes of pummelling something or someone with baseball bat-like prose and you're in agreement with her, she's brilliant and you could be egging her on thinking 'Go on Julie, tell it like it is'. But then the next moment she could be turning around and saying "And what have you got to smile about?", as she makes her way towards you with her baseball bat once again swinging. And then she's doubly brilliant.
One of the annoying things about her, however, is that she'll throw something into her writing in an almost off the cuff manner simply to cause controversy for the sake of it - as Morrissey testifies in his autobiography. Whether any of these off the cuff comments might be true or not doesn't seem to matter because she does it in such a way that it's almost taken as read, or if there's any doubt over what she's written there's no quick way of checking it. The reader simply moves on though the seed has been planted and remains. In Morrissey's case it was her stating in an interview with him that he 'lives with his boyfriend in Santa Monica', to which he took umbrage because according to him the subject of his sexuality or Santa Monica was never broached.

But Burchill is actually a very funny writer and it's this aspect of her that a good many people seem to miss. She's what might be called 'a wind-up merchant' and her comment about Morrissey should probably be taken as a joke. A misplaced joke, perhaps, but a joke all the same. As Morrissey himself writes in his autobiography regarding the incident: 'We suddenly have a picture before us of Burchill alone at midnight, a bottle of Gordon's gin resting against her typewriter... suddenly laughing at the inclusion of fingerlicking fantasy'. And this is the giveaway. Morrissey may have found her comment unpalatable but he can envisage her laughing as she writes it because she finds it funny. After wishing her dead, he even goes on to concede that Burchill 'may very well give genius a bad name, but she can still wow and slay like no other entertainer. Yes, entertainer'.

On reading Love It Or Shove It - seeing as how it was first published in 1985 - it's surprising how much of it has stood the test of time. Much of the reason for this is down to the timeless subjects that Burchill covers as in Hugh Hefner, Graham Greene, classic pop, agony aunts, feminism, class, pop idols and so on but it also has a lot to do with her sense of humour.
In an article entitled Food For Faith, for example, she writes: 'Healthfood really has very little to do with health; America's oldest citizen, Charlie Smith of Florida, aged 136, has two shots of vodka for breakfast and a hamburger dipped in sugar for dinner'. Which is actually pretty funny though not, of course, if you're a dietician.
In another article entitled Old Bores' Almanac she makes her predictions for the year 1984: In May - 'Factory supremo Tony Wilson announces that in future all gigs by Factory artistes will be known as 'rallies'. The Factory package tour plays Nuremberg, the bands appearing in Waffen SS uniforms. Comments Tony Wilson, 'The accusations of crypto-Fascism are simply facile'.
In June - 'Factory Records invade Poland', and 'In a sensational article in the News Of The World, reprinted from Christian Review, Cliff Richard reveals, 'I have not had sex since 1961'.
In July - 'Cliff Richard explodes' and 'Sting's Maserati ploughs into a Right To Work march, injuring dozens of unemployed health workers. 'I am still a Socialist,' insists Sting through his lawyer'. And 'Tony Wilson takes poison in the bunker under his Manchester office'.
In October - 'The BBC bans Julien Temple's video of the new Rolling Stones single, 'Everybody Suck Ma Thang'. Comments a distraught Mick Jagger, 'The song is about Belize. Or is it Grenada? Somewhere out there, man. Julien told me all about it. Now I can see no hope of resolving this issue peacefully'.
Which again is all pretty funny so long as you're not Tony Wilson, Cliff Richard, Sting, or the Rolling Stones, that is. 
And we may all laugh but only up until when she turns her baseball bat prose on us. And then, apparently, it's not so funny. Though still very brilliant.
John Serpico


  1. I'd say you've nailed it in paragraph four. I once sent her a letter, following something she wrote in some newspaper about employers getting away with murder, specifically in the case of a work experience kid crushed to death by a fork-lift truck due to lousy management who found themselves not only not accountable by some crazy legal loophole, but not even obliged to say sorry. It was a great article and actually reminded me of some of the shit I'd seen where I worked. She actually took the trouble to send me a postcard saying thanks for the letter and with some more info on the article and the dead kid etc.

    1. Cheers, Mr Burton. And do know, even though I more slightly preferred Andy and Pete's Time To Think project, it's actually just dawned on me that I must be one of the very few people around who has all your records?