The Edinburgh International Book Festival is all closed up and gone, but we’ve still got a few choice morsels left over from the feast. First up is last Friday’s event chaired by Mark Thomas with Francesca Martinez on her book What the **** is Normal?
Thomas kicked off the event by reading the book’s introduction, or rather “a disclaimer” about how much she hates being called “inspirational” or, worse “an example to us all”. She’s actually quite proud of being lazy. One of her life mantras, she said, is that “everyone should be left to sleep more”: “The world is so fucked-up because people have done too much. We need more laziness in the world.”
Mark concurred: “I do feel a new revolutionary group emerging. I love the idea of a subversive lazy group.”
Francesca continued: “We wouldn’t have runaway climate change because we wouldn’t have produced too much carbon dioxide. Apart from under the duvet. Margaret Thatcher apparently only slept for four hours a night. That might be why her policies were a bit inhumane, she was just cranky. Maybe I’d want to destroy unions too if I’d only had four hours’ sleep.”
Thomas was a bit worried that she was evoking sympathy for Thatcher in Scotland.
“I’m not really sympathetic, she can go to hell,” she said.
“I think you’ll find that is the address,” Mark replied, to a big laugh.
They moved on to her book, specifically the chapters dealing with growing up.
“Growing up in a culture which worships normality and perfection makes it hard for anyone to be happy. It’s a giant unhappiness machine, pumping out unhappy people. It’s totally normal to not like yourself. How awful is that? People call me inspirational because I like myself! It’s not inspirational, it’s just common sense.”
Thomas noted that there was a line in the book that he loved: “Choosing to accept yourself is a political act.”
She said: “I think it is. Accepting yourself as you are is an act of civil disobedience. It really is, because everything in society is set up to manipulate you not to like yourself. Consumerism can only work if it convinces enough of us that we need to go out and buy shit we don’t need to be ‘better’.
“Advertising is basically saying ‘you’re not good enough’ in a million amazing ways. It is political because while we’re worrying about the thigh gap we’re not doing anything of any meaning. Any human right we have today has been won by people who focus outwards on stuff that matters, not cellulite or whatever … Martin Luther King wasn’t worried about wrinkles, was he?”
Has she ever been offered any advertising work?
“I’ve been offered corporate gigs but I always say no … I was offered a gig advertising a car company. It’s a very individual choice. Financially, I’m lucky enough that I can turn down stuff that I don’t want to do. But I don’t get offered TV adverts because being wobbly isn’t seen as aspirational.”
This brought the conversation round to her “wobbliness”. Mark highlighted the fact she doesn’t like the words ‘cerebral palsy’.
“No, they’re awful. All my life I’ve hated saying, ‘I have cerebral palsy.’ I can’t even fucking say it! Who gave that name to people with speech impediments? They didn’t think it through, did they? The names for conditions are often so scary. Being told you’re brain-damaged, oh that’s really nice. I grew up with this, and I was a very confident child, very blessed, but the labels slowly began to make me feel freakish. So I adopted ‘wobbly’, my attempt at saying, ‘I’m not wrong or palsied, I’m Jessica.’ I am a bit wobbly sometimes, especially in Edinburgh. It’s liberating. I don’t have to use their words, they’re not objectively true ,they just made them up, too!”
Thomas then moved on to the descriptions in the book about the games she would play in her childhood with a gang of boys, specifically Knock-Down Ginger, which held interesting problems for her, but which she enjoyed until an incident with an off-duty police officer and some oversized Y-fronts put her off it for life.
The point of the story is, she said: “I felt totally normal. No-one on the planet grows up feeling abnormal. Whatever your life is, what your body is, that’s normal to you. I’ve never woken up and thought ‘Oh, no, I’ve got CP, my brain is damaged!’ I’m always forgetting what I can’t do.
“I really felt so happy and capable and one of the key schisms in the book is when I realised that the world around me didn’t see me as I saw myself. They saw me as a pity object and someone who was abnormal and disabled, and I found that very hard to deal with: ‘I’m not disabled, I’m just really crap at being able-bodied!’
“My parents were very young when they had me, but they were incredible parents, they were told I was ‘mentally retarded’ and they totally didn’t believe it. Although they may have reconsidered when I bought a Jason Donovan album. They’ve been a defining factor in my life because they made me feel totally normal, and never used the labels, and so they filled me with confidence.”
Thomas said he knows her family and that they are particularly close.
She said: “Your family and the circumstances in which you’re raised are much more of a crucial factor on you than how your body works. If you get the right love, you can deal with anything. The worst disability of all is when you don’t get love. You can be totally able-bodied, but if you don’t get love, you’re fucked.”
Understanding that the world didn’t see her the way she saw herself is summed up by the chapter on going to secondary school, which is a great gag that I won’t spoil.
“High school was when all my illusions came tumbling down. Everything I thought wasn’t important — how I looked, how I walked, how I talked, how I dressed — suddenly became the most defining factors that everyone was judging me on. I failed epically on all of them.”
Being vegetarian and wearing Spurs kit at a Highbury school didn’t help, either. Getting a part in Grange Hill rescued her from that, although people from the school still, she said, try to be friends with her on Facebook. Her reply to them triggered a funny exchange where Thomas was disappointed he missed the sign for “fuck off” by the BSL interpreter, Jo, behind him. The rest of us saw it plenty more times throughout the show.
They moved on to her stand-up career, and the story which she’s told many times, about how she wrote her first set on the same day that Glen Hoddle claimed that disability was karma for past lives. The reception to that set, people laughing, led her to realise “acceptance isn’t about hiding who you are, it’s about embracing it, being honest about it. It was such a relief. I’d spent years trying to hide my brain damage. That isn’t easy, guys!”
A long, familiar anecdote about how a boy called Dylan inspired her to apologise to her body and transform her life closed with another choice insult that Mark got Jo to repeat for him. There then followed the equivalent of what every teenage boy does with a dictionary, throwing rude words at Jo to find out what the signs were. She coped admirably.
Thomas talked about a quote she’d given in another interview that “if we want to celebrate diversity and difference, we have to organise society differently to support that rather than suppress it”
“How can we get more inclusive? I think consumerism and capitalism are fundamentally at odds with embracing disability. You can’t on one hand preach conformity and then say ‘we’ll embrace diversity’ because 99% of our culture encourages us to fear difference: to fear each other, to fear ageing, to fear infection and illness, so we’ll try to numb the pain by buying iPhones or whatever. We can’t really create a cultre that celebrates diversity and realises difference is natural and normal. Disability is normal. It’s always existed but we have that attitude of a culture that is so focused on superficial bollocks. That’s why we need a wobbly revolution.”
“A wobbly, sleepy revolution?”
“That would be a bonus. Maybe we could sleep afterwards. We live in a culture where the profit motive is destroying every precious asset, so if you try to shoehorn in an appreciation of difference, it doesn’t work. Disability challenges the superficial values that we’re made to embrace. After writing the book I looked around and so many beautiful able-bodied young people hated themselves. It’s so sad. We took 4.5 billion years to evolve and we’re creating generations of people that sit at home and mope because they don’t have a Sega. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad about yourself because life is too fucking short.”
A few questions followed, one about the suitability of the book for teenagers. Mark quipped that it probably was and the concerned mother “should buy it for your daughter because you need to buy her things like this to teach her consumerism is bad”.
Another was about the use of terms like “disability” instead of other euphemisms. Martinez said: “British people really get their knickers in a twist about labels. What is more important is the attitude behind the labels. For example, the current government use all the right labels, but they’re fucking shafting disabled people.”
Had the girls at school who ran up and tanuted her by saying “you’re a spastic” had said instead “you’re differently abled” it wouldn’t make much difference, she said. “In my wobbly revolution we would have no labels because everybody has things they can and can’t do. I don’t think a segment of humanity should be siphoned off and defined by what they can’t do. Everyone can be defined by what they can’t do. For example, you don’t introduce George Osborne by saying, ‘This is George, he can’t run an economy.
“Labels dehumanise people and concentrate on very narrow aspects of people. They make out that able-bodied people are somehow perfect. Everyone’s got their own disabilities … some people I know call the able-bodied the ‘Not Yet Disabled’. Labels obscure more than they define.”
Francesca Martinez’ site is at http://www.francescamartinez.com/