Peter Ackroyd or Julie Burchill?

By Evangeline Jennings

Earlier today, I listened to two episodes of the BBC radio show Desert Island Discs that featured – separately – the writers Julie Burchill and Peter Ackroyd. Previously I knew nothing about Ackroyd beyond his books – which is how he likes it – and had written Burchill off as a mouthy cow who would benefit from a good kicking.

I found myself warming very much to both.

And wondering, yet again, about the Image Thing.

The conventional wisdom for “emerging” writers – where “emerging” is a word that means unknown, unproven, and possibly talentless – is that we must invest in our Platform, must market ourselves to some imagined version of our potential readership.

Peter Ackroyd would disagree. A celebrated biographer (Dickens, Blake, Eliot, London – the city, not Jack – and Shakespeare), novelist, poet, historian, and TV presenter, he believes it’s his books that matter, not his public persona. And he said as much to Kirsty Young in May of last year.

Julie Burchill, of course, is all public persona. “I find myself endlessly fascinating … I’ve always been a showoff,” she told Young earlier this month and she doesn’t so much divide public opinion as confuse the shit right out of it. She is criticized, for example, for being both a deranged Marxist and a rabid right winger. And it’s clear she loves every moment of it, and – my interpretation – finds it all deeply amusing. She’s also prepared to consider the possibility that she’s Different in Some Way and celebrate that.

I don’t give a damn what they think of me and, I have to be honest, I think I was born without something. It is not something I put on – hand on heart. It is a thing I feel. Maybe there is something wrong with me. Maybe I was born with something missing. But if I was I am glad because I don’t want to creep around looking for people’s approval. I think they are pathetic.

Both proud heavy drinkers, where Peter Ackroyd buries himself in research and self-deprecation, Julie Burchill rouses rabble for her living. A polite word might be polemicist. I favour Professional Gobshite and wonder if perhaps I was born with same the missing gene. As I’ve often said about myself, I like to drop hand grenades.

But I also understand Ackroyd’s perspective. The play is the thing, not the twat that threw the words together. So why should I play the performing seal?

Many people, some of them writers, apparently love to share their emotions, hopes, doubts, beliefs, whatever with the world and the whole wide web – one of my closest friends does it very prettily – but it’s not for me. The life I’ve had so far predicates against it, and recent experiences have reinforced that stance.

And if I did? Why on earth would it help me land a publisher or sell books? Like Burchill, but less lucky and likely less talented, I’m very hard to like unless you actually get to know me and I won’t be chatting with Kirsty Young any time soon. From a commercial perspective, I should probably pretend to be nice and cuddly with an unfortunate cross to bear – with a plucky smile, of course – and maybe flash my boobs from time to time.

But that’s not me. If I had a cross to bear, I’d keep it entirely private. I’m what I sometimes think of as a traditional writer. I abuse my system and myself and I live in my dark places. Recently-ish, a friend told me that:

You do an incredible job of showing despair.  I recognize things I didn’t know I knew.  I wouldn’t have thought that such strong, rare emotions would have been so easily recognizable. I think it’s fair to say I don’t recall another book showing me that.

So there we are.  If you want to know me – and let’s be honest, why would you? – then you need to read what I write. Because that’s where I am. Somehow, in my silly little stories, I’ve found the keys to unlock my own dark and secret places. It’s a very revealing process. You start out with an idea and as you build it up with layers of plot and meaning you discover a depth in your characters that points to a hidden truth about your own. Maybe.

But I’m versatile. I’m not a one trick misery pony. I’m also – as has been said – a dropper of hand grenades. I like to fuck shit up to see what happens. I play roles and provoke. Kick up neat piles of leaves for the sheer hell of it all.

Sadly, of course, I don’t see any of this making much of a Writer’s Platform. So on the whole, I’d rather be judged for my writing. Problem is, I’m not sure the modern world will allow that.

When Peter Ackroyd became Literary Editor of the Spectator at the age of 23, he was about to publish a collection of poetry. Fearing either homophobes at the Spectator or the disapproval of his mother – I’ve heard it both ways – he asked the printer to change the pronoun He to She throughout his love poems. I’ve read an interview in which he called this ‘one of the most shaming episodes’ of his life and a ‘moment of craven weakness’. While talking to Kirsty Young, he was much less hard on himself, but the issue remains the same. What the fuck does it matter who Peter Ackroyd is or how he represents himself? What counts is what he does.

Occasional lesbian Julie Burchill, however, is what she does. Sort of. I think.

Sooner or later, I’ll to have to make up my mind who I am.

In the meantime, here’s a song.

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