Not in her name
The sharp arguments and choice quotations in Burchill’s new book on hypocrisy – a scathing assault on chav-bashers and posh greens – suggest she’s been reading the most enlightened magazine in Britain: spiked.
Around seven years ago, I pitched an idea to the features editor of the now defunct style magazine, Sleaze Nation. I proposed to examine the changing portrayal of working-class lives in film and on TV. ‘Huh, it’s a bit… Julie Burchill, innit?’, came the reply.
No doubt the editor intended it as an insult. I took it as a compliment. Back then, Julie Burchill was the star columnist in the Guardian’s ‘Weekend’ magazine. And, amongst my friends, no Saturday night out was complete without someone asking: ‘Did you read Burchill’s column this week?’ My female friends were particularly enamoured by Burchill’s quips and insights. She seemed to pinpoint the dilemmas and preoccupations of modern women far more effectively than her younger and supposed ‘hipper’ imitators.
Burchill has always been a fabulous writer, ever since she arrived at the New Musical Express as a precocious 17-year-old punk in 1977. Yet whereas male music journalists continue writing about pop music into their forties (including, er, me), Burchill quickly graduated from the NME to The Face and the Mail On Sunday, wrote bestselling books, including Ambition, established the notorious Modern Review magazine, and, more recently, adapted her teen lesbian fable Sugar Rush into a successful drama series for Channel 4. Burchill often says journalism is a ‘skive’ but there is little evidence that she’s a garret-room slacker. Maybe her full-on workload helps to stave off any gnawing unease about her now non-proletarian status?
Burchill is also no slouch when it comes to partying hard. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, she reportedly (by herself, funnily enough) drank, smoked, drank, snorted, drank and fornicated the nights and early mornings away. One of Burchill’s former Modern Review editors, Toby Young, said recently that having lunch with Burchill was like being with a female version of Keith Richards.
Burchill’s love life has been equally as colourful, with enough tangles and turns to keep a soap opera plotline going for a few years: acrimonious break-ups with fellow writer and author Tony Parsons; leaving Sunday Times journalist Cosmo Landsman for the PA on Modern Review, and future Guardian writer, Charlotte Raven, before marrying Raven’s brother, Daniel. On account of all this, Burchill was once described as ‘the worst mother in Britain’ by the Daily Mail, while her public feuds with the likes of American feminist Camille Paglia have frequently been as entertaining as her writing. It would be a foolhardy exercise to try to pigeonhole Julie Burchill, but I’d put her alongside other British iconoclasts such as Mark E Smith, Julian Cope, John Cooper Clarke, Chris Morris and Bill Drummond.
In a recent interview, Burchill mulled over whether she should retire from journalism, feeling that she had started repeating herself (1). ‘Repetition’ is a criticism that has already been levelled at her co-authored new book, Not In My Name: A Compendium of Modern Hypocrisy. With co-author Chas Newkey-Burden, Burchill takes up the double standards expressed by critics of Reality TV and ‘Strong Women’, as well as Chav Haters, Israel Bashers, Reformed Smokers, Anti-Americans, Amy Winehouse Knockers and, above all else, Posh Environmentalists.
As proof that Burchill hasn’t really lost it, her chapter laying into greens has ruffled more than a few organic feathers, sending irate green bloggers into overdrive and leading to a memorable appearance by Burchill on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. At nearly 50 years of age, Burchill still has a knack of getting under people’s skin.
One reason why she provokes aggravation as much as admiration is because of her apparently incoherent and contradictory political viewpoints. For example, she was a Communist Party member who championed Margaret Thatcher. And she remains a Rule Britannia (rather than a Cool Britannia) British patriot all the way. Burchill has replied to the ‘inconsistent’ accusation by saying that ‘consistency is the hobgoblin of the small mind’. But on closer inspection, there has always been a peculiarly British consistency in most of her political positions.
Take her support for the Soviet Union. Given that the old Kremlin hacks were hostile to the working classes, introducing austerity and authoritarian measures and championing a return to ‘family values’ in Soviet Russia, actually they had more in common with Thatcher’s Conservative Party than many people think. Why shouldn’t someone like Burchill admire both? It was certainly a more honest position than Thatcher’s own claim that she was the very opposite of Soviet Russia. Also, Burchill was never alone in supporting British nationalism at home and abroad; countless trade union officials, Labour Party leaders and even apparently radical socialists did likewise. In fact, the ‘socialism in one country’ model of Stalinism, promoted by the British left and others, provided a theoretical consistency between left-wing rhetoric and supporting ‘the national interest’.
Burchill was little different from others ‘on the left’, only she was brasher and more honest about being loyal to ‘the mother country’ and in acknowledging the influence of Stalinism on mainstream left-wing thought. On Ireland in particular, her hostility towards the struggle for Irish freedom was no different to that put forward by the Labour Party or, shamefully, by Trotskyite factions in organisations such as Militant Tendency and Socialist Organiser. Far from being a jumble of contradictions, Burchill’s views have been entirely consistent with the long established ‘pink patriotism’ of British socialism.
In more recent years, she rattled people by supporting the invasion of Iraq in 2003, on the (very shoddy) basis that it was a ‘liberal intervention’. Of course, these kinds of interventions were first demanded and cheered by the very broadsheet newspapers which today attack Burchill for her warmongering antics (while she attacks them for having gone spineless). The war in Iraq badly dented the nonsense idea of ‘humanitarian interventionism’, yet many liberals still strongly believe that Western forces must ‘do something’ in various trouble spots around the world – witness the post-Iraq demands for intervention in Darfur or for the US and the EU to put Russia in its place over Georgia. Again, it is Burchill who is consistent, while others in the liberal media balk at the Iraq war alone (it was a bit too Texan for their tastes) while trying to rehabilitate the destructive humanitarian militarism of the 1990s.
Newkey-Burden’s chapter on the anti-war protesters of 2003, and the problem with their political arguments, is very sharp. He rightly says of the protesters’ favourite slogan: ‘Lest anyone mistake the marchers’ fury as being primarily motivated by any admirable qualities, they marched under the most narcissistic, self-centred and revealing slogans: Not In My Name.’ Newkey-Burden also hits the mark on why so many people turned up to the anti-war demos: ‘It was the same “we just felt we had to be here” mentality that occurred when Princess Diana died.’ Elsewhere, his and Burchill’s entries ripping into the left’s anti-Americanism, the dubious politics behind the recent anti-Israel lobby, and how Western liberals share the same hostility towards modernity as al-Qaeda are striking.
Not In My Name is an enjoyably frothy and well-timed assault on the retrograde and reactionary tendencies of Western liberal-leftists, in a similar vein to James Delingpole’s How To Be Right – though the observations are both wider in scope and more microscopic in their examination of contemporary mores and culture (read Brendan O’Neill’s interview with James Delingpole here). Burchill’s strength is her sharp observational eye. On women who buy ostentatious sex toys, she notes: ‘A glass dildo from Coco de Mer costs £1,000: imagine how odd you’d have to be to spend that much on a pretend cock that you could snap in half if you got carried away! Not to mention picking out the splinters afterwards… But how do you factor a glass cock into your fantasies? Who’s your dream date – the Invisible Man?’
Another key strength of her writing is that, no matter how outlandish her arguments appear, they are shot through with a familiar ring of truth. On self-styled ‘strong women’ who say that men are not interested in bolshy members of the female sex, she says: ‘In my experience, any man worthy of the name is only too happy to have a Her Indoors who can lighten his load in more ways than one, rather than a simpering Baby Jane manqué who needs her hand held to open an envelope.’ In the same chapter, her comment about the Canadian singer Alanis Morrissette – ‘sounds like a car’ – is the kind of off-hand remark that will stick in the mind.
Burchill’s keen eye and inbuilt BS radar means she hasn’t been bamboozled by two of the most widespread and reprehensible currents of recent years: environmentalism and anti-masses sentiment. To her credit, unlike vast swathes of the British liberal and radical left, Burchill sees green politics for what they are. In the chapter that upset environmentalists, she points out that the green lobby is ‘chock-full of Etonians’, the pampered offspring of aristocrats with entire drawers of silver spoons crammed into their mouths.
She writes: ‘Despite the amount of human anguish in the world, nothing appeals to the rich the way Greenery does. This is because Greenery actually reinforces the prejudices of the elite about the masses: that they are intrinsically “spoiling” everything simply by doing things – breeding, travelling – that the rich seem to believe should be reserved exclusively for VIPs. It’s yet another snobby variation on the way that “the great and the good” are absolutely fine with things like divorce and abortion when only they have access to them. Then the masses get their mitts on these choices and it’s Fall-of-Rome time!’
While other well-known left-wing writers like Mark Steel complain about proley lager drinkers ruining his trips to France, or as ex-NME (and Socialist Worker) writer Steven Wells bizarrely lays into vinyl record collectors for ‘ruining the planet’ (2), Burchill seems to be one of few writers who posses what we might quaintly call ‘class instincts’ (at least on domestic issues). And Burchill (alongside Newkey-Burden) also believes that modernity and its spoils are worth defending. Indeed, it is very clear from some of their sharp arguments, and the people whom they quote, that they have been reading the most enlightened magazine in Britain: spiked. And you can’t argue with that.
However, attacking greens and others simply for ‘hypocrisy’ can be problematic. It is sometimes right to talk about the ‘double standards’ of politicians and media commentators, but this should ideally be done only in relation to what they say and do in public. To pick up on what individuals do in private – whether it’s what car they drive or house they live in – is effectively to demand the further erosion of the public/private distinction, and therefore attack a key component of modern civilisation. It also plays into the authoritarian idea that what we do in private should be open for inspection and scrutiny by outside observers.
Ironically enough, many greens have already been ‘naming and shaming’ celebrities and academics for failing to live up privately to their public green rhetoric. However, if we are sceptical about the idea that flying abroad, driving expensive cars or leaving the hall lights on are ‘destroying the planet’ – as we should be – then surely we should avoid attacking greens for doing these very things. Doing so can only give credence to the idea that these killjoy moralisers might have a point. Instead, we should attack them for what they say about us in public rather than what they do in private. It is the public consequences of environmentalism – housing shortages, authoritarian recycling measures, restrictions on travel, a general sense that people are a plague – that should bear the full brunt of our arguments, our anger and our contempt. Burchill does occasionally move in this direction, though not enough. ‘Far from being a revolution, Greenery is a savage defence of privilege and tradition’, she says.
Not In My Name is a slender book that is big on laughs and acidic polemics. The key to being a star columnist is originality and personality; Burchill still has both. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with all of her and Newkey-Burden’s arguments: reading their book still feels warmer, more humane and life-affirming than wading through Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine or the latest ‘ethical living’ supplement from the broadsheets. Let’s hope she doesn’t retire from public writing just yet. After all, as far as demolishing posh greenery goes, there’s still a world to win, right Julie?
Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell. Neil is speaking in the session Consuming children at the Battle of Ideas festival on 1&2 November.
Not in My Name: A Compendium of Modern Hypocrisy, by Julie Burchill, is published by Virgin Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
(1) ‘I Have No Ambition Left’, Guardian, 4 August 2008
(2) ‘Why Records Should Face the Vinyl Curtain’, Guardian, 4 September 2008
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