Seeing Julie Burchill sitting at the back of the restaurant near Victoria Station, I feel a surge of affection. Chin up, sunglasses on, lips fixed in a pout, she is presenting her usual defiant face to the world. In the past, I’ve always thought of her as being like a screen goddess from Hollywood’s golden age — Marlene Dietrich, for instance. Now, she seems more like a fading Broadway diva and I half expect her to break into a rendition of ‘I’m Still Here’ by Stephen Sondheim.
The one-time enfant terrible of Fleet Street is now 53 and lives in Brighton, but she is very much still here. Earlier this year, a column she wrote for the Observer in which she referred to transsexuals as ‘bed-wetters in bad wigs’ caused no end of trouble and this month sees the re-release of Ambition, her 1989 bonkbuster about a female newspaper editor with a penchant for sadomasochism. This seems like a blatant attempt on the part of her publisher to cash in on the success of 50 Shades of Grey, a book Julie says she hasn’t read.
‘Remember how Gore Vidal said television’s for appearing on, not for watching?’ she says. ‘I feel a bit like that about porn. It’s for writing, not for reading.’
I’m a little nervous about seeing her, because the last time we had lunch we both got quite pissed and my wife takes a dim view of lunchtime drinking, particularly when I’m due to pick up the kids from school. But Julie allays my fears — initially, at least — by explaining that the reason she’s in London is because she’s just been to see a hypnotist in an effort to curb her excessive eating and drinking. Or, rather, for the purposes of writing a Daily Mail article about trying to curb her excessive eating and drinking, which isn’t quite the same thing.
‘Can I have another double scotch on the rocks please?’ she asks the waitress, holding up an empty tumbler. Then, turning to me, she says, ‘Didn’t work, did it?’
Julie is completely unembarrassed about her love of alcohol. We briefly discuss a recent Sunday Times interview she did with Camilla Long, winner of the 2013 Hatchet Job of the Year. The piece began with Julie being sick over herself in the Groucho Club and ended with her falling asleep on Brighton Beach, having drunk a bottle of Calvados. Given that Julie used to work for the Sunday Times — and occupied a similarly exalted position to Camilla — she is remarkably sanguine about it.
‘I was so nervous when that piece came out because I thought I’d slapped the make on her,’ she says, laughing. ‘Have you seen her? She’s gorgeous and she was wearing this ridiculously low-cut top. I thought it was some kind of honey trap. Thank God I didn’t.’
Since the pinnacle of her career in the mid-1990s, Julie has worked for a succession of different broadsheets, including the Guardian, the Times and the Independent, but she doesn’t currently have a column. She claims not to mind this since it leaves her with the time to concentrate on writing Unchosen, a memoir about her lifelong love affair with the Jews.
‘I’ve been taking Hebrew classes for two years and my teacher says I can now speak it as well as a five-year-old child,’ she says, laughing.
Julie’s philo-Semitism is one of the things that has helped to heal the breach between us after a magazine we co-founded went bust in 1995. We’re both passionate defenders of Israel, a point of view that’s so rare in the British media you can’t help but feel warmly towards anyone else who holds it. She tells me she’s fallen out with Charlotte Raven, her former lover, because she’s signed up Salma Yaqoob to write for Spare Rib, which Charlotte is relaunching.
‘She asked me to contribute and I told her my Zionism was as non-negotiable as Salma Yaqoob’s headgear,’ she says.
In the hope of getting some sort of scoop, I steer Julie on to the topic of Ukip’s success in the local elections, and at first it sounds as if she might be willing to join the purple team. ‘People aren’t voting for Ukip because they’re ignorant or stupid or haven’t got it,’ she says. ‘It’s because they’ve got it all too well.’
She thinks Ukip’s success is connected to the collapse of social mobility, with fewer opportunities today for members of the white working class than at any time in the post-war period.
‘Someone like me wouldn’t exist these days,’ she says. ‘You wouldn’t get under the wire in journalism. Did you see Question Time where David Starkey said three of the people on the panel had inherited their jobs? It was brilliant.’ Yet in spite of this, I can’t persuade her to throw in her lot with Nigel Farage. ‘I’ve always voted Labour and I always will,’ she says sadly. ‘I’ve got to have one stupid, docile, bovine part of me and that’s the part that votes Labour.’
By the end of the meal, Julie’s confined herself to two double scotches and two glasses of wine, all of which she has recorded in a little notebook the hypnotist has given her. I tease her about this, suggesting that beneath the braggadocio she really is concerned about her alcohol consumption. She denies it. ‘You once told me I had a self-destructive streak, but that’s not the reason I drink,’ she says. ‘It’s because I don’t want to be normal. I like having a messy time. I don’t want to cane it every night — just once a fortnight. I want to feel what it’s like to be young again.’
I walk her back to the station so she can catch a train to Brighton and ask her if she misses London. I remind her that she used to sleep beneath a map of the Underground when she was growing up in Bristol.
‘If I’d stayed in London I’d be dead by now,’ she says, matter-of-factly. ‘Brighton is like Bristol-on-sea. It’s for people who are happy with where they’ve got to in life and don’t want to go any further. I’m a naturally indolent person. I’ve lived there since I was 35 and I feel very at home there.’