One of the downsides of getting older is witnessing your friends and acquaintances being honoured in various ways. I don’t just mean knighthoods and peerages, I also mind the little things — an entry in Who’s Who, for instance, or an honorary degree from a red-brick university. It’s reached such a point that I daresay I’ll feel a pang of envy when I see their obituaries in the Times. ‘That should be me taking up all those column inches, not them,’ I’ll think, before realising what I’m wishing for.
So you can imagine how I felt when I heard that Julie Burchill was going to be on Desert Island Discs. Burchill! I’ve known her, on and off, since I was 19, when she moved in with Cosmo Landesman, my next-door neighbour. We became best friends and remained close until 1995 when we fell out over the Modern Review, a magazine we’d started together. There then followed a colossal bunfight and we didn’t speak for ten years. But we’ve since patched things up and occasionally exchange friendly emails.
I tuned in, of course — mainly to hear what she had to say about me. Not a mention, if you can believe it. Then again, Landesman didn’t get a name check either and she was married to him for ten years. But she talked a lot about her present husband. Half the show seemed to be about him. The other half was about her lifelong love affair with Judaism. She said the most fun she’s had in the past three years — when she hasn’t been with her husband — has been in Hebrew class.
But it was impossible to stay cross for long. Like her, I’m an ardent -philo-Semite so I thoroughly approved of her choice of records: Exodus by Andy Williams, Hebrewman by Ehud Banai, the Israeli National Anthem, etc. She also came up with the best ‘luxury item’ I think I’ve ever heard on Desert Island Discs — a still so she could turn all the pineapples and coconuts into alcohol.
Listening to her being probed by Kirsty Young, I was reminded of what good company she can be and why I liked her so much all those years ago. Most of Young’s questions were based on a fairly conventional view of what makes people tick and Julie took great delight in sending up this armchair psychology. But in a charming, self-deprecating way, which made it all the more effective.
‘Was your father affectionate with you?’ asked Young, clearly working on the theory that the reason Burchill is such an attention seeker is because she had a distant father.
‘Not as affectionate as he was with the dog, but that’s par for the course in working-class homes,’ she replied, cheerfully. ‘I knew he loved me but he would have been embarrassed to tell anyone apart from the dog that he loved them. But I accepted that. I knew what he felt.’
The high point was an exchange about drugs. Burchill had already shocked the presenter by talking about her fondness for alcohol. ‘I know you’re not meant to say it, but I love, love, love getting drunk,’ she said. ‘I don’t just like to have a glass of wine and relax, I don’t just like to sip at a single malt whisky. I like to get drunk.’
Young let that go, but when Burchill described the New Musical Express as being like ‘a youth club with a lot of amphetamine sulphate’, she felt obliged to interject.
‘And when you’re up, of course you come down, down violently,’ said Young, just in case there were any teenagers listening. ‘How did you deal with that?’
‘Didn’t really mind,’ said Burchill. ‘Just took some more. I mean, I was very young, I was very resilient. I know I’m not meant to say that, but I just took some more and I was all right. Lots of people did freak out, but luckily I didn’t.’
It was marvellously entertaining stuff. It reminded me of the famous interview Evelyn Waugh did with the BBC in which the old reactionary ran circles around a group of trendy metropolitan types, all desperate to trip him up. Not that Kirsty Young is a ‘trendy metropolitan type’. God no. If she’s reading this, I want her to know that I regard her as the finest interviewer in Christendom.
Now isn’t it about time you had me on the show?
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator. For a link to the show, go to www.spectator.co.uk/burchill
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 16 February 2013