Root Menu

Julia Burchell

A Self-Portrait

Burning the skin of tomatoes releases their flavour best.

I don’t know if this idea applies to people.


Forgive the slightly random metaphor – I wrote my first draft after discussing steak and chips – it sparked me off so I’m going with it – but I think the idea of encountering a state-changing element or process – some kind of catalyst – is really important to which parts of our personality emerge. Being able to study poems and plays and words on the page is an amazing privilege that makes me really happy – discovering someone else has been able to articulate a very abstract feeling in a stunningly beautiful way can really change my mind and my mood. I love being able to thrash ideas out with other people, about what we think texts mean and how they make us feel. I’m lucky I get to study something I truly enjoy. It also shows how literature can literally bring people together – corny that may be, but it’s true and I live it so don’t knock it. The fact that we’re also encouraged to study language as it’s spoken is a really good thing. It helps revalue all those utterances that aren’t ‘standard’ English that every single one of us makes everyday. It highlights our diversity and doesn’t immediately reduce our language use to right and wrong. In some small way that could translate to appreciating people in those terms: not reducing them immediately to right and wrong. It’s vital to examine the non-standard.

Another ‘state-changer’ for me is acting: if it’s going well, I get the same sort of high – I’ll get home afterwards and talk at people at break-neck speed, gesticulate and just generally be slightly manic. Acting was the first thing for me that integrated both brain and body – or at least had the potential to. It’s the ephemerality, the fact that a slight change of volume or tone of voice or movement can immediately change the whole way a scene works. And even if you hit on something that does work repetition can kill it so you have to experiment with something else – which is why it’s often so incredibly frustrating and prone to making you hugely insecure – you can never rest on your laurels, there’s never one sure fire way of doing it, you have to continually find ways to keep it fresh and there is always something to aim for.

It can change the way you interact with people. The last play I acted in involved profound disability, of which I had absolutely no experience whatsoever. For research we helped at a school for children with disabilities where I became a lot less wary of being with them; we learnt in a very direct way about how these children are treated in society and it made us confront some of the moral questions involved in raising a disabled child. I’m not denying that our help at the school was ultimately for our own benefit, but it increased our understanding about other people, especially people who have very little voice in mainstream society, which can only be a good thing.

Extreme stress has released exceptional strengths and creativity in me – I’ve got my best results during these times – but it’s also revealed the depths of my dependence. I used to be under the impression I was a very strong, independent individual who could cope and succeed to a high level on her own. But this illusion was based on a blindness to how many essential things my family did for me: driving, cooking, washing, hugging, soothing, listening…and when my family are not there physically, when I’m working or at university, I seek other people who can provide that support.

My priorities have changed as I’ve grown older. When I was younger I wanted to be the absolute best at whatever it was that I eventually chose to do and I saw no problem with working all the time on my own to achieve that. My father instilled that discipline in me. Most important was how well I did at school. When I was 16 my Grandad, to whom we were very close, slowly and painfully died of lung cancer and at the same time, my Dad was told he might not recover from an operation to remove a growth on his lung. From then on, my Dad, who did recover, kicked back. I’ve only really noticed after looking back, but now we all spend a lot more time together, eating meals around the table instead of the TV, altogether instead of at separate times, going to the pub every so often and so on. He still works very hard, but we see more of him now and we spend quite a lot of time together.

Later, I began working in another city during the week, only seeing my family at weekends: they were the refuge, the safe people who didn’t care how I looked or what I was doing with my life as long as I was happy. They did a lot to keep me sane and I would look forward to seeing them.

Now I want to be able to work hard for success, but I don’t want to sacrifice my relationships in the process: life is very short. Do I take more than I give? Probably. That worries me. I want to be able to pursue my goals not only acknowledging the support I need but with some kind of genuine reciprocity.

Loneliness comes over me when I feel there is no reciprocity, that I can’t share the mess in my head with anyone. It overwhelms me when I have love to give and it’s rejected or pushed aside or ignored. I don’t know how I remedy loneliness…I think I keep offering until it is clearly futile, then I shut down completely. Not much of a remedy…I feel very passionately about my friends and I’ve always sought to share and trust emotions with them, wanting them to share theirs with me, but I surprised myself this year: I dealt with the loss of a relationship not by seeking out other people, but retreating into myself, deliberately isolating myself in a space where no one could be hurt by my hurt and where I couldn’t be further bruised by theirs. Loneliness is so painful, but apparently a very bizarre coping strategy. But perhaps it’s only painful when it’s inflicted by external forces and perhaps self-imposed isolation is not loneliness. I don’t know.

Raw emotion suffers at the hands of utility. It seems in public we’re supposed to quantify everything, to make it concrete and measurable. Sometimes you can’t quantify something you need to deal with through public channels. It frustrates me incredibly that my phone company will accept ‘loss of business’ as a valid reason for my annoyance at their inability to transfer my number to another network; yet they will probably laugh at the real reason, missing phone calls from my boyfriend who lives 200 miles away and with whom I need a seriously overdue conversation about something that’s bothering me about our relationship. Even though it’s stressing me out and keeping me awake and provoking me to want to throw things. OK, yes, loss of business – incredibly important – work is necessary for feeding, housing, clothing…and I really do not want to deny the elemental necessity of those things, but it’s as if the unquantifiable, the abstract, is meaningless when you’re dealing with a stranger. We have to repress the emotional facets to appear more rational and reasonable, which we are told are the most desirable things to be: it’s nice and safe and easy if you can reduce a situation to three words and a tick-box. But it’s demeaning, to both the stranger’s experience of feeling and yours. I hate it.

But I used to be guilty of it too. For example, other people’s definitions of the different varieties of love have always puzzled me. When I was younger I spent a lot of time trying to articulate it for myself, defining my own frameworks, putting friendship, sex, spirituality, familial love and so on into amusing arrangements of shapes and lines in my head – literally! – but it never worked. Loves are fluid, they spill over into one another and I’ve now come to the very definite conclusion that my attempts to separate them were pointless. I feel the way I feel about someone and as much joy or pain as that may cause, slotting them into a certain space in the triangle (welcome to my head six years ago), apart from possibly giving me an illusion of control over my emotions, will do nothing to change that. Saying that though, although I feel as if my life so far has been incredibly full of love, there’s love I have yet to experience – maternal love for example – and so I’m very ready for my opinion to change.

I was 17 when my opinion about the two sexes began to change quite quickly. I had one older sister and we’d both gone to an academically geared all-girls school since we were little. I personally grew up with the impression that I could achieve anything I wanted to, regardless of my gender, as long as I worked hard for it. I was also under the impression that women and men were essentially the same underneath, that shared humanity was stronger than what people like my Nan tried to convince me the differences were. When I came out of the mono-gender school environment and into full-time employment, whether you were male or female seemed to have a substantial bearing on how people treated you. I found that to negotiate this world, instead of asserting my similarity with the boys, emphasising my difference was more effective. I’d never ‘played’ the ‘role’ of girl before – I would never have known what that would have meant – it was strange, it seemed almost too easy, as if I was copping out. I still feel like that sometimes, not just in terms of my gender but in terms of how I present my abilities and talents – I’ll play up some, others down, creating, if not roles, versions, sometimes stereotypes of the me I could be. It’s easier to miss out the details. I’m an English student, so automatically ‘I don’t do numbers’ – and it’s true that I’m much better with words than I am with digits. But I got an A* at Maths GCSE. It’s strange when I see people from a few years ago who know the old Julia stereotypes that don’t apply so much anymore. Perhaps that’s why some families, old friends or institutions have the potential to be so constrictive: maybe the roles, the stereotypes, the versions of themselves that each individual has performed since the beginning of the relationship haven’t always been allowed to develop or change (and that can be both a haven and a restraint). And maybe that’s why gender roles are taking so long to be even a little more fluid: it’s easier to stick to the old formula, to miss out the details of the reality – we’re just putting new clothes on old pegs.I feel incredibly lucky to have got so far through life without realising how different the two sexes can be – I think it helped give me confidence in myself as a person, rather than as a woman.

I still want to believe that we are all the same underneath. When I talk to women I know from older generations, behaviour that they have accepted from men I would tolerate from no one, especially if they tried to excuse themselves on grounds of gender. I believe and I hope to God I am right that strength of mind and purpose can overcome biology or cultural straitjackets. But then I think my expectations may be too high; maybe my intolerance of disrespect stunts compassion to human beings who have simply made a mistake or were affected by the social climate of their upbringing. Compromise and forgiveness may be abilities I need to play up.


Two years ago I went away on my own. Travel in that instance enabled me to escape and to relax enough in order to be comfortable being me. I spent every day with people from all over the world and I returned having met some of my best friends. It was so good! It was some of the best preparation I could have done for university, because I was in the habit of relaxing by the time I got there. Many of my closest friends at university are those for whom their English life is only one part of their existence. They know there’s not just one way of looking at the world because they live it everyday. They show me new perspectives, they are open-minded and I like that. I want to learn from them. The conversations about cultural difference are enormously interesting, and paradoxically reinforce the similarities we obviously share in order to be friends.

I have a sneaking suspicion that part of why I’m drawn to more ‘international’ people is that it’s always a given that there are parts of them you can never know. In the past I’ve been incredibly hurt by friends who didn’t share everything with me, when I was willing to share with them. I understand now that complete discovery of each intimate thought is impossible, unreasonable to expect of someone, presumptuous and just generally highly unhelpful a lot of the time. But, with a sigh I acknowledge that that’s reason – my instinct is still to blurt everything out and show those close to me that I trust them with my thoughts and want them to trust me in return.

When you go away with friends you find out who gives a damn. I’m more wary of certain friends now as a result of travelling with them – I saw sides to them I didn’t like. Others I simply grew to like even more.

Whilst travelling this summer I encountered people who at first I thought were boring, opinionated or suspicious. However, the fact that we were only ever in a place for one or two nights meant I was willing to spend a day or an evening with them, just for the hell of it. I was wrong about some of them. A couple had some extremely interesting things to say to stop me in my tracks; some were extremely kind and generous, with no hint of wanting to scam us at all. I was humbled. Human nature is good sometimes. I was pleased I’d been proved wrong.

People being nice to each other doesn’t get enough press.


When I was four I was going to eat tomatoes. When I was five I was going to eat tomatoes. And when I was six, and seven, and eight…

If my family read that they’ll smile – it’s a running family joke, that as a child that’s what I’d say. Now I will eat the dubious fruit although they don’t inspire me (unless they’re burnt! Try it!). Inspiring food is a really important part of my life – some people close to me would say a bit too important – good or bad food, the presence or lack of it has quite an impact on how my emotions manifest themselves. I get teased mercilessly for telling people about what beautiful things I ate that day – but it’s fun! I think I enjoy reliving it…

September 2005