The greatest ever social media spat took place before the first tweet was sent, and was conducted via fax, which was like email but with the satisfyingly tangible tear of a fresh missive just arrived from across the planet. It was early 1993 and Julie Burchill, then of the Modern Review, was locked in a war with Camille Paglia, then of any US talk show you cared to tune into. The conflict began with a disobliging review Burchill filed of Paglia’s Sexual Personae, before shifting to the Xerox front, where Paglia made the mistake of questioning her interlocutor’s working-class credentials. Burchill brought hostilities to an abrupt close with her final communiqué, which read in toto: ‘Dear Professor Paglia, Fuck off, you crazy old dyke. Always, Julie Burchill.’
Since I was a teenager, I’ve been obsessed with that ‘always’. It just makes it, doesn’t it? Adolescence is the best time to be introduced to Burchill. Famously, Karen Grant, the teenage termagant of Brookside, idolised her, but, like the Merseyside soap, Burchill hit the buffers in the 1990s, that drearily good Blanche Hudson of a decade to the 1980s’ self-obsessed and deliciously evil Baby Jane. Since then she’s had perches on the Guardian (where I discovered her), the Times and most recently the Telegraph, from which she was dropped for tweeting her surprise that the Sussexes didn’t name their daughter ‘Georgina Floydina’. It wasn’t her best material.
The real indignity was that her heave-ho prompted one of those SEO-chasing online explainers that the Sun is now better known for than Page Three: ‘Who is Julie Burchill and why was she “sacked” from the Telegraph?’ Who is Julie Burchill? You mean the gobby provocateur once paid oodles of Fleet Street dosh to be Britain’s most reviled insult-chucker? The helium-voiced troll rated, hated and imitated for her dazzling verbal aggression and her facility for offending both suburban tastes and liberal pieties? How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a forgetful public.
Welcome to the Woke Trials is Burchill’s take on the twin factors that make a career like hers impossible today: identity politics and cancel culture. It originates in a 2013 Observer column defending her mate Suzanne Moore from a Twitter pile-on by trans activists, a polemic so incendiary (the phrase ‘a bunch of dicks in chick’s clothing’ was used, among others) that a government minister called for her to be sacked. As a result, Burchill writes, she was ‘sent into the professional wilderness’.
She traces the Great Awokening to the summer of 2020, ‘a conflagration of sensibilities as one cultural artefact after another went up in flames lest it offend some petulant cry-bully’. This places the hinge moment in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, but apart from a chapter touching on race, ‘the vanity of the bonfires’ that Burchill rails against is mostly that related to the gender identity movement. Or, as Burchill characterises it, ‘the small, well-financed, extremely loud trans lobby who have never seen a drama that wasn’t about them, even if it was the killing of a black man in Minneapolis’.
About half the book is given over to documenting the various excesses of this movement, which Burchill sees as part of a broader war on women by men who want to imitate them, men who want to sleep with them and men who want to kill them. This leads her into broadsides against both male feminists (‘once men have said they’re feminists, they feel free to behave in whatever scummy manner they see fit towards women’) and younger, sex-positive women (‘when you get your tits out for public consumption, the only thing you’re empowering are erections’). Amid the gratuitous swipes at the woke, there are spurts of insight into the purported impact of porn, including a grim statistic placing the average life expectancy of an American adult actress at 37, and Burchill’s assessment that ‘woke men have promoted the idea of white privilege being more oppressive than male privilege’ because it deflects the conversation from where power truly lies.
Veering between joyful venom and earthy cynicism, Welcome to the Woke Trials is a slangy, exclamation mark-laden indictment of identity politics, a toe-to-the-testes feminist polemic that prefers to cudgel rather than convince. The intellectual terror running through higher education has made scholars such as Kathleen Stock the reasonable faces of feminism in Britain. Burchill’s feminism is neither reasonable nor scholarly, but if it’s reasonable and scholarly you’re after, pick up Literary Review, not a Julie Burchill book.
Yet Welcome to the Woke Trials is an odd Julie Burchill book. It’s cruel, belligerent and overly certain, but it reads, especially in her conviction that women’s progress has been yanked into reverse, like something more than pay-day provocation. It reads like she means it. A controversialist in an age when controversy is ubiquitous, Julie Burchill has found a surprising new way to vex her critics: she’s turned sincere.