Sugar Rush - Julie Burchill

Julie Burchill; donchajusluver??!!

Well, yes, actually. There once was a time when I agreed with all my Graun reading friends "that bigoted bitch" should be humanely shot, but it seems a very long while ago now. My obsession with her venomous vitriol went from fascinated horror to perverse admiration in the time it took to squeak "public hanging" in a Bristol accent. Every Saturday when I dutifully bought my Graun it was, without fail, to her page I turned first. Whilst my comrades sang "ding-dong the witch is dead" when she left last year, I felt I`d lost a limb, an itchy, scabby limb perhaps but a part of me nonetheless. I wasn't going to follow her to The Times though. Let's not go nuts here.

I'm not one to "admire the candour" of "politically incorrect" columnists as a rule. Watching Richard Littlejohn, Melanie Phillips, Peter Hitchens and Taki being sodomised by chimpanzees whilst devouring the bloated corpses of Paul Johnson and Simon Heffer at gunpoint would be my dream reality TV viewing. I`m an overpaid bigot, get me out of here! So why my weak-kneed ardour for a woman unafraid to sing the praises of history's greatest monsters (Thatcher and Stalin) whilst occasionally drawing the ire of the Commission for Racial Equality?

The short answer is the sheer energy, insight and wit amongst all the shit. Reading one of Julie's better columns is to ride the rapids. A violent tug of agreement here, a buffet sideways into the realms of entertaining irrelevance there, recoiling at the scathing extremism whilst simultaneously entranced at its vicious and shameless perversity. And along the way, just occasionally finding something you may agree with that you never thought of before.

And yes, I do love a good wind-up merchant. No-one can match her for sheer vicious spite. When she's massacring the vacuous world of celebrity it reminds me of the old Day Today headline "Crazed Wolves In Store A Bad Mistake Admits Mothercare." And for all the knee-jerk reaction, I was amazed to find how frequently her targets deserved everything (or at least nearly everything) they got.

The bourgeoisie, still dehumanising the working-class, but cloaking their exploitation under a silky Benneton-shroud of faux-progress. The ludicrous irritancy of pontificating film stars. The moral, hypocritical black hole of most journalism. The spineless and simpering betrayal of New Labour and the "post feminists" (offering to remove their clitoris and voting rights if they found the new era of relative equality so awful.) She'd left most of her pro-Thatcher phase behind by the time she'd gone to the Graun; this was a brutal patriot-Commie bruiser. I found myself punching the air in agreement (metaphorically of course, I am a Graun reader after all), overjoyed that she'd hit the nail on the head with far greater accuracy than her more measured colleagues.

Of course I still strongly disagreed with vast amounts of what she said; the death penalty, Israel, Ireland, invading Iraq, paedophiles and the talent of Gareth Gates springing most immediately to mind. But even then my perceptions were challenged and above all I was entertained. She could even ignorantly defame my idols George Orwell and Mike Leigh and I`d still lap it up. When she went into perversity overdrive, calling for public hanging, and claiming suicides should book their bloody ideas up I just found the middle-class outrage of those taking the bait on the letters pages hilarious (bringing to mind one of her classic put-downs "now, before you get out your pink Forever Friends notepaper...")

Basically, violently agreeing with about 40% of what she said and reeling at the rest was a damn sight more edifying than vaguely nodding at 60% of what Polly Toynbee puts out. I don`t read her Times columns, and by all accounts she's gone into manic pro-war, extreme Zionist overdrive now, which even I mind find too much. But when I hear about her typically savage dissection of the loathsome neo-snobbery of those sniffing at "chavs" I still think "that`s my Julie!" with a warm glow.

When it comes to her books though, even a fan such as myself remains a sceptic. There was no way I was going to read her hagiographies of Princess Di and Beckham, no matter what clever class-conscious leaps she was doing to laud her unworthy heroes.

And the fiction? I once read a chapter of Ambition and found it pretty awful, an unconvincing English take on Dallas and Dynasty, neither of which I liked in the first place. I actually picked up Sugar Rush, Julie's lesbian-driven "first novel aimed at a teenage audience" as a kind of aversion therapy. This is a woman who now claims to support George Bush for God's sake. I needed to quell my ongoing crush for her perversity. Surely this rubbish would put me off for good?

Sugar Rush tells the tale of 15 year old Kim, a middle-class girl at a private school, who is forced into the nearby rough-as-shite comprehensive due to the financial hardship of her stuffy dad who's been left holding the kids by her feckless mother, herself still trying to live her teens in her 40s.

Left behind by her hard-nosed friend "Saint", Kim falls under the thrall of the head hard-bitch at the new comp, Maria Sweet, AKA "Sugar". Sugar is rough as hell and live as wires, and drags the prissy yet uncomplaining Kim into her world of Ecstacy, vodka, dance music and sarky-faced rebellion, offering her a tang of freedom she never tasted before. Doubt-ridden, fucked up Kim falls for her sexually as well as spiritually. Their relationship crashes up and down, side-to-side on the winds of teenage abandon. But can such a bliss-ridden union of opposites last?

What strikes you while reading this is that Julie can only write one way, and that every word in Sugar Rush, no matter who's speaking it, is very much her own. Indeed the three main characters are a split triumvirate of Jules herself, every bit as cute as the ones in the Catholicism and Freudianism she so loathes (actually I don`t know she hates Freud, I`m guessing.)

Kim is the shy, intelligent, doubting, deep, wry side; Sugar the spirit of wild working class abandon that Julie so admires; while mum Stella is the shallow, formerly working-class but lavish spending strumpet who thinks of no-one but herself and has abandoned her kids, the very demonic caricature of Julie herself the Daily Mail laid on her. Believe me, I`m not playing slap-dash Raj Persaud here (that being a tautology anyway); it's pretty damn plain.

All the familiar themes from her columns crop up, sometimes down to the same wording. The sanctimonious futility of well-meaning liberalism (the private school and the comp come together in farcical "exchange" sessions, a pseudy drama troupe resonant of the one from The League Of Gentleman displaying to braying teens the evils of homophobia), the sad atavism of "the family dinner-table" and the depressing middle-class accoutrements of such (the means by which her sad dad tries to hold the family together) the hypocrisy of anti-racists who hate the poor (ex-best friend Saint is a bourgeois black who despises "white-trash" Sugar with a passion) the joys and contradictions of lesbianism, higher education being for losers, the fetish for Soviet-Army uniforms (an art project of Kim's gone wrong)........ Christ, she even manages to shoe-horn in her newfound passion for Lutheranism (don`t ask....)

The result, is, I'm afraid to say, a lot of fun. Yes it's tacky and obvious at times, and yes both the dialogue and thoughts in the book really do stretch credulity occasionally too, ringing pretty false as realism. This is Julie talking, and no-one talks like that, not even Julie in real life. The over-excitable metaphors are endearing and evocative at times, but sometimes they really make you cringe.

But you know, much to my regret, I'm not a teenage girl; and that's the audience for this book. And I really do think they'll love it, like the young mum I saw avidly reading it on the bus the other day (I'd better stop there, lest Julie lead a misguided anti-paedo lynch mob against me.) The thing about Julie's voice is that it is indeed perennially adolescent, and this suits the book perfectly. She still seems to be a lost teen aching to shock the grownups.

Much has been made of the "explicit content" of this book (not least by the cover), but in reality there's very little muck to be had here (there is one scene of group sex, but nothing is described.) But she brings the bitchiness, the longing, the loneliness; the SHOUTING to make your point that are all part of the teenage condition to life very well.

I won't spoil the ending, but I must say I find it a pretty terrible cop-out by Julie's standards. A triumph of middle-class safety against the working-class "other". You traitor Julie! What would Uncle Joe say?! But it is I'm afraid to say.....sweet, indeed Kim's whole tale resonates a certain empathy which brings a warm glow to even to this jaded heart.

So, once again, I`ve been won over. What can this evil woman, this "sociopath" and "moral cretin" (her words) do to finally put me off her? Defend the images of torture in Abu Ghraib? Oh dear, I've just heard she's already done that. Time for more soul-searching you bad, bad boy..........

[First published at Spike Magazine, 2004] Back