has been named as both one of the funniest people in Britain and one of its most influential women. Catherine von Ruhland met the self-styled ‘wobbly’ comedian and activist at her north London local on 20 April 2015.
Photography: Andrew Firth
At the start of your book, What the **** is Normal?!,1Published by Random House in 2014 you declare: ‘I … happen to love life. Every single second of it. I don’t want it to end. Ever. I feel so incredibly lucky to inhabit a body and just be alive that, almost every day, I thank the universe that I am me and not, say, a sock. Or a pot of hummus.’
That’s a pretty impressive thing to say…
Why? I think it’s common sense. I don’t see how anyone could not have that perspective. If you look at the chances of us existing, which we’re always told is almost zero, and trace all the amazing things that had to happen for us to be here right now… It’s pretty easy to take life for granted, but everyone alive today had one lucky break, and to me that’s quite a mind-blowing concept.
We know we’re made up of, like, stardust from billions and billions of years ago, which is an incredibly beautiful and magical thing to be made of. I don’t think the history of the universe could be much more amazing. So, I like to live with a real awareness of that magic. I don’t want to ever forget it, because it helps me not to get bogged down in reality and labels like ‘abnormal’. I always like to think: As far as we know, we’re the only [self-aware beings] in the whole universe, so we are all a bit abnormal, we’re all a bit freakish.
That perspective really inspires me, whatever’s going on in my life. I’m like anyone, you know: I have ups and downs, life gets on top of me sometimes. But I try to retain that perspective, even when I’m going through some grief, or a loss that is terribly painful, and I try to remind myself that this is part of being alive. Even the ability to feel grief or pain is a beautiful thing, because most things in the universe don’t feel anything and yet we evolved with this complex nature, being able to experience a myriad of emotions; and I think that’s absolutely beautiful and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
It looks like we only get one life and that life is over in the blink of an eye in universal terms, and yeah, [that upsets me]. And that, too, makes me very grateful for my body, and that’s why I don’t want to live my life resenting it for not working in a way that other people’s might work, because it’s a complete living, breathing miracle and it gives me this life and it allows me to be me, so I think it’s an absolutely beautiful thing and wobbly or not I love it!
Why do you object so strongly when people say they find someone like you inspirational?
It’s a really simplistic view of people, that just because you find walking harder you’re ‘brave’ and ‘amazing’. I really want to debunk the way that people who are labelled ‘disabled’ are called ‘inspirational’ essentially for living their life. My belief is that however you are born, however your body works, is totally normal to you. Everyone is different, and that’s what’s normal. People look at me and think, ‘Oh my goodness, it must be so hard to have a body that works like that!’, but for me it’s normal. I haven’t lost anything.
I’m very grateful for my body. I don’t want to live my life resenting it for not working in the way that other people’s work, because it’s a complete living, breathing miracle
I really want to challenge this [idea] that your life is defined by how your body works. If it was true, you’d have thought that able-bodied people would all be like the Dalai Lama, walking around full of inner peace and wisdom – and in fact I think it’s the opposite. Just because my body works differently doesn’t mean my life is harder than anyone else’s. You know, the only difference with me is that people can see what I find hard, but there’s no way you can say that my life is automatically harder than that of someone who is able-bodied, because you can’t see what they’re going through. I think our lives are much more defined by, like, the love and the care we received as a child. Those factors have far more of an influence on you because they really define how you feel about yourself.
Very often, I think, embodying what society tells us is valuable can actually be more challenging, because you end up following ideals that are actually quite empty. You know, the more famous and beautiful people I’ve encountered are the most insecure, because they’re trying so hard to uphold this image.
What was your own upbringing like, then?
I suppose the defining factor in my life has been having a family who have made me feel very loved, very cherished and very normal. My parents were very young when they had me – 19 and 21 – and yet they never expressed any kind of disappointment or resentment or sadness. I remember my mum saying that when I was diagnosed [with cerebral palsy], I was such a lovely, fun-loving little girl and they were just so in love with me, they wouldn’t have changed me for the world. I feel so grateful for that, because I think we’re all highly affected by our parents’ views and feelings and I really would have picked up on any grief or disappointment. I was a sensitive kid, like all kids are.
You know, there have been challenges. Like, some of their friends told them to put me in a home. Some of their friends thought they would break up. And they did have a lot of pressure on them and they had to fight a lot to get me the support I needed – in my education, for example. But they are very independent-minded people and that gave them the strength not to take on all the negativity that the doctors were framing my condition with, or that society wanted to place on me – you know, ‘It’s such a tragedy!’
They always taught me and my brother, Raoul, that the most important thing in life is to think for yourself and question society’s assumptions, because often those assumptions aren’t born out of, you know, great philosophical debate, they’re born out of lazy thinking. A lot of the norms we accept haven’t been thought through at all. And they don’t serve to make anyone happier or more liked or empowered – often, they do the opposite.
My parents always encouraged me to search for a perspective that would be empowering, [even if it was] not widely shared, and when I stumbled upon that idea of, like, winning the lottery of life, it resonated so deep-ly with me that I didn’t need it to be shared by society, it was enough to be shared by myself; and it really fed me at a deep level. I think that the independence of thought my parents encouraged in me is the best gift you can give to anyone: to teach them how to stand up mentally against the pressures to conform.
On top of that, I had my Spanish grandparents, who were absolutely devoted to me and showered me with a lot of love. And then, when I was five, my brother was born, and we were very, very close from day one and of course I was totally normal to him. I remember a kid in his school used to say, ‘Why does your sister talk funny?’ and he’d say: ‘What do you mean?’ I think ‘normal’ is just what you’ve grown up with, and so to him having a wobbly sister was normal, because he had known me all his life.
What other values did your parents instil in you?
Well, we didn’t have a TV while I was growing up – it was quite funny, because I was on TV before I had one.2She was cast for the long-running BBC1 drama series Grange Hill at the age of 14 and appeared in 55 episodes between 1994 and 1998. Again, they wanted us to form our own opinions, not just to be passive viewers for hours on end. So, Raoul and I would spend our days drawing and writing and talking – you know, I love talking and we would talk about every subject under the sun! It really had a deep impact on our lives – my brother is now one of the top portrait-painters in Britain, and he’s also an award-winning documentary maker. We were always encouraged to pursue our dreams – our parents never said: ‘Think of a degree, think of a mortgage, think of security! Get a proper job!’ They just said: Try to pursue something you love, because if you do something you love, your life will be a joyful experience.
Other parents might have said to us, ‘Don’t be silly, go to uni!’ – and had we taken that path it could be that we’d have achieved nothing of any significance and no one would think we were talented at all.
They seem to have had great confidence in you both.
You know, you’re so right. And they treated us a lot like friends and equals. There were never really any rules. I think my dad in particular was like: If you trust your kids and treat them with respect, they will trust you. They never pulled the ‘We’re your parents. Listen to us because we’re older than you!’ thing, to try to control us. I think a lot of kids hate that and really rebel against it, because they’re like: Just because you’re older than me doesn’t mean what you say has to be listened to.
I think they instilled in us a very healthy distrust of authority and I think that’s really important, because there are so many forces in our culture that try to dominate people. I mean, to me school is not about education, it’s about basically knocking all the individuality and passion out of you and getting you to obey authority – and getting you used to enduring boredom – to prepare you for a role in our economic system. I don’t think it’s about developing you or empowering you or giving you the tools of critical thought, which is what education should be.
How come your parents had that perspective? They were very young to have that attitude to bringing up children when it must have been a very shaky time for them.
My dad’s father was a very, very independent spirit. He fought in the Spanish Civil War and he wrote an anti-Franco novel – which is why we’re here, because he got political asylum in London because he was nervous that there would be repercussions. He was incredibly passionate and had a very strong sense of justice and a real distrust of authority, and so my dad grew up in an environment where it was totally normal to make up your own mind and to follow your own values.
My mum grew up in a less close family and she had quite different values from them. I was very fortunate to get them as parents, because I reckon I would have been a totally different person without them.
What do your parents do?
My dad is a writer – he’s a novelist and a playwright. My mum wrote books as well, and they were both journalists when they were young.
Your book gives the impression that as a little child you were pretty fearless. You would climb trees and eat ‘poisonous’ berries for a dare to impress the boys…
I felt utterly fearless, confident, capable – and whenever my physical limitations emerged, there would always be a momentary shock – like, ‘Oh!’ – and I’d try to just sweep them aside as soon as I could.
When did you really confront those limitations?
The turning point was going to high school, and that was a real shock because I suddenly realised that, even though I felt so capable and happy, the world around me had a very different view of me. In fact, it saw me as, you know, abnormal, faulty, an object of pity, uncool – all these things that I never felt I was.
That must have been devastating.
It was. It happened over a period of a few months, but it was like I could feel my self-esteem ebb away and very quickly I adopted society’s view of me. I really felt: I’m abnormal, I’m uncool, I’m unattractive, no one’s ever going to be my friend. It completely transformed how I felt about myself: I started feeling very depressed and insecure and my whole life was reduced to a tiny pinhead of, basically, what other people thought of me. So, I had this, like, kind of private narrative going on in my head all the time: Oh, that guy is thinking that about me, he’s thinking that… And that’s a very unhealthy way to live your life.
It must have been strange having that experience at school and then going home to this loving family.
It was. I kept it private from them because I thought that if I said it out loud it would be an admission that I wasn’t happy, that things weren’t right, things weren’t normal. So, I kept it all unsaid, and that put me under great pressure and it made me very unhappy and uptight. The central theme of the book is how I got over it, and it’s a journey that I think we all go on, whether we are wobbly or not: the journey of, like, self-acceptance.
The turning point was going to high school. I suddenly realised that, even though I felt so capable and happy, the world around me saw me as, you know, abnormal, faulty, an object of pity, uncool – all these things that I never felt I was
What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
[When I was 20,] I had a conversation in a pub which changed my life. This guy Dylan said to me: ‘You’re not brain-damaged or disabled. Those are just labels made up to define you. You are perfectly you. You don’t walk badly or talk badly; you walk and talk the way you walk and talk, and they are perfectly you.’ I found that incredibly inspiring.
He explained that the only real power we have is the power to choose what to think, and that made me see that I was choosing to be negative about myself and that I could choose to be positive about myself. Up till then, I’d felt that I was being objective and accurate in the way I viewed myself, but now I realised that was absolute rubbish. It was just a point of view, like any other point of view.
So, he gave me back the power to define myself – because I’d given that power away. And I think that’s the most important thing any of us can do: to make up our own definitions and our own values for ourselves. He also reminded me that life is too short to worry about trivialities and he said to me: ‘The only person you should worry about what they think of you is you.’
And that really hit home, because I thought so little of myself, and I then realised: I can’t control what anyone thinks of me and it doesn’t matter to me – it’s not going to affect my experience of my life. Even if everyone is pitying me, it doesn’t have to affect me, it doesn’t have any real impact on me. As long as I feel secure and at peace with who I am, that’s what matters.
I went home and lay in bed and I was like: He’s right about everything. I cannot argue with that, it’s irrefutable. It was a personal awakening – and a political one, because I also realised that we live in a culture that encourages dissatisfaction with ourselves and that breeds anxiety and poor body image and low self-esteem. It’s not an accident that we have such a fear of difference and such a worship of normality – they are carefully constructed to disempower us and make us feel not good enough – essentially, so that we’ll keep this consumer society going, because if we feel we’re not good enough as we are, we go out and buy stuff we don’t need.
And so I now see accepting yourself as an act of civil disobedience. I don’t buy into this value system that says there is a normality we should aspire to – that’s an absolute lie. There’s no such thing as ‘success’ or ‘beauty’ – they’re just social constructs designed to disempower you. I think that knowledge is power, because once you have realised the forces at play, it’s much easier to liberate yourself from them.
Is there any sort of religion in your background?
No, because my grandad had a real dislike of organised religion because he saw how the church backed Franco. His own father was tortured to death in a police cell and he himself suffered terribly for seven years in concentration camps.
[However,] we had a very strong moral sense, and a very strong sense that you should try to use your talents in life to make a difference to other people. I was raised believing that, you know, we have a duty to each other and that all work has to have some social value.
I guess the closest thing I have to a religion is nature. We always had a very strong connection to environment and planet – my mum did voluntary work for Friends of the Earth when we were growing up. I just love nature so much: I think the world is just so beautiful and magical, I’m absolutely overwhelmed by it and so happy to be part of it. I think we’re here because of the planet, the sun and the moon and so they’re like my gods. And I feel a great connection to the planet and to other living things.
A lot of stand-ups today are outspoken atheists…
I have a deep suspicion of religion, primarily because it divides people. When someone says, ‘I’m a Christian’ or ‘I’m a Muslim,’ I feel that it’s divisive – and as someone who grew up with a label, I hate labels! I think they obscure far more than they reveal. I have a very visceral dislike of anything that separates us from the truth that we are all human beings and we have far more in common than divides us. We share this planet and yet somehow we’ve created all these factions: I’m a this, you’re a that, he’s disabled, she’s normal. And it’s so corrosive!
Also, I have huge issues with the way religion perpetuates prejudice against groups like gay people. I often say I’d have a lot less problem with religion if everyone religious was really loving and tolerant towards everyone else. I’d be like: Well, I may not believe what they believe but they’re the most amazing, inclusive people! But that’s often not the case. Often, religion legitimises prejudice and division.
Obviously, like anyone, I can see that there are positive aspects to religion. I see it as metaphors and fables, and some of those tales, I think, have valuable insights into being human. But religion is so contradictory: one minute it’s ‘Love each other,’ the next it’s, you know, ‘Kill people!’ So, I think there are really valuable things to learn from all the religions, but I also think they’ve caused a hell of a lot of conflict and pain.
So, am I an atheist? I don’t think there’s a God. It seems so obvious that God is a human construct. Having said that, I feel there is mystery in the universe. I would love life to go on in some form, because I love life, but the truth is, I don’t know what happens when you die. But, whatever happens, I think it will be perfect and beautiful, because life is beautiful, so I trust that whatever happens is the right thing.
I certainly don’t have a dry kind of purely scientific view of everything – though science to me makes things beautiful, and I think the story of how we think we got here is just so amazing, and the fact that we live on this little rock spinning round in space with billions and billions of other rocks couldn’t be more magical! So, yeah, I don’t know where I would place myself on the spiritual spectrum but I definitely think that life is a miracle. Even though it’s not created by God, it’s still a miracle.
Did you always have a desire to make people laugh?
Yes. For me, it was a very conscious thing from a very young age. I really hated being pitied and even before I knew quite what palsy was, I hated it. I detected that people looked at me like, ‘Isn’t it tragic?’ and I was so happy, I used to think: ‘What are you pitying me for? My life is great!’ I thought that if I could make people laugh they wouldn’t pity me and they’d respect me, so I became very cheeky. And, you know, it’s a great feeling to make people laugh, so you really get fed by it.
And then when I was doing Grange Hill, my father said to me: ‘Why don’t I write you a film script?’ And he wrote this script and he made my character a stand-up comedian! I remember saying: ‘Dad, why did you make me a stand-up? It’s the scariest job ever!’ And he said to me: ‘Oh, I think you’d be really good at it.’ And then the script got bought up by a film company and they were keen on casting me, so I got very nervous and went to a comedy workshop in London just to research it. Somehow it was decided that I would do a gig, and when I did it, although I was utterly terrified, I had this deep realisation that this is what I am meant to do. I said to my dad: ‘Forget the research, I want to be a comic!’ And a year later, [in 2000,] I won [the Daily Telegraph Open Mic Award] for the best new comic at the Edinburgh Festival, and my dad was like: ‘I told you!’
I’m so grateful, yet again, that he saw that in me, because comedy has changed my life. Up until then, my whole approach to myself had been to try to hide my difference and appear ‘normal’. Obviously, that’s crazy, but it’s what I did. And what stand-up made me realise was that if I accept myself and just am honest and open, other people are far more likely to follow me. If you can stand up in front of strangers and say, ‘Guys, this is me’ and not try to hide anything, it’s very empowering.
It also made me appreciate being wobbly, for the first time in my life, because it gave me something different to talk about. As a comic, if you’ve got a unique view on something it’s a gift, because you walk on and people are curious, they want to know what you’re going to say. I was like: Oh my God, this thing that has caused me so much pain and embarrassment is suddenly being seen as a positive. Francesca, you don’t have to hide any more. You can come out of the closet and be wobbly!
Some people have criticised you for making jokes about disability. Does that bother you?
I think it’s a very lazy [criticism], because I make jokes about my life, not about disability. What does the word ‘disability’ mean? It covers thousands of other conditions. I’ve no idea what it’s like to be deaf or blind, in a wheelchair or short. I don’t talk about those things, I can’t talk about those things; I can just talk about being Francesca.
The beauty of comedy is that you can express powerful and beautiful and important ideas but you can make them accessible and entertaining. It’s like a Trojan horse
Obviously, being wobbly is part of my life, and I’ve made a conscious decision to be open about it because much of society still fears it so much that there is rarely any platform for it to be looked at in an honest way. It’s either kind of ‘inspiration porn’ or, like, a freak-show documentary, The Man with 25 Heads or whatever. I felt it was really important that I could be open and could humanise this label that creates fear, and kind of play with preconceptions in a light-hearted and entertaining way. But I never saw it as talking about an issue; I just saw it as doing what any other comic does, which is talk about their life and their views.
In recent years you have become a respected advocate for disability rights, and in 2013 you spoke powerfully at the People’s Assembly against Austerity in London.3See bit.ly/1bt3VyR. What has shaped your politics?
To me, politics is morality, because if it isn’t based on morality, what is it based on? Nothing of value. So, my political views are based on moral foundations that I feel are irrefutable. You know? That everyone, no matter what their background or who they are, should have equal opportunities and equal rights to education, to health care, to housing. There shouldn’t be a stratum of society with all the wealth and all the power – that just breeds corruption, as we’re seeing today, when governments are basically just dictated to by the corporations whose interests they are serving.
For me, it’s quite basic: you know, are these policies going to make the world better or worse for most people? I truly believe that no one has more right to happiness than anyone else. So much of our system is based on the assumption that some people’s lives are worth more than others’, and to me that is a disgusting concept, because any one of us could have been born anywhere. Everyone on this earth wants the same things: essentially, to live in a safe community, with people they love, doing fulfilling work. It’s not complicated!
Often, politics is framed as something that is done in Parliament, you know, by people from Eton; but I think politics is life and every decision is political. I really think we need to challenge this idea that there is a group of people with power and most of us don’t have any. To me, values are at the heart of everything and I think the present system is a manifestation of values that are greedy, selfish and elitist, that totally ignore the wellbeing of the majority and the health of the planet.
I think we have got to challenge that very strongly – otherwise, we’re facing huge inequality and climate chaos. I think we’ve got to talk about new ideas about community, family, health, sustainability, democracy and equality.
Some people mistake light-heartedness for levity, but you do seem to take life seriously.
I take life very seriously. I think you have to take it seriously when there is so much inequality and suffering in the world. But I try to balance that with the knowledge that I’ll probably only get one life, so I also want to enjoy being a human being on this earth.
And I take comedy seriously. The beauty of comedy is that you can express really powerful and beautiful and important ideas but you can make them accessible and entertaining. It’s like a Trojan horse. And it’s one of the few art forms left that isn’t censored or sponsored and doesn’t express corporate views. It’s still raw and pure and unfettered and anarchic, and I think it’s very important that we value it. Society has to have a space where dominant views can be challenged.
So, yeah, I don’t believe that comedy is trivial at all. It is incredibly important. Even though it’s funny!
This edit was originally published in the June 2015 issue of Third Way.
Francesca Martinez was born in 1978 in London and attended Parliament Hill School. She was diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy at the age of two.
From 1994 to ’98, she acted in the BBC1 drama series Grange Hill. She has also appeared in Holby City and in 2005 starred (with Kate Winslet) in an episode of Extras on BBC2 that was written especially for her.
In 2000 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, she won the Daily Telegraph Open Mic Award for the best new comedian and was a finalist in the competition So You Think You’re Funny?
She presented her debut solo show as a stand-up, I’m Perfect, at Edinburgh in 2002 and the following year she was listed among the 50 funniest acts in British comedy by the Observer. She has had many sell-out runs in Edinburgh since, as well as off-West-End runs at the Tricycle Theatre, the Hackney Empire and the Soho Theatre. In 2014, she completed a 68-date solo tour of the British Isles.
Further afield, she has performed in Australia (at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, the Adelaide Fringe Festival and the Perth Festival, where she was nominated as ‘best comedian’), Canada (at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal), Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa and the United States (on Broadway and in Hollywood).
She has appeared many times on the radio and TV, most notably on 4 Stands Up and The News Quiz on BBC Radio 4, Russell Howard’s Good News (BBC3), The Frank Skinner Show, The Jonathan Ross Show and Loose Women (ITV) and The Saturday Night Show (RTÉ), as well as on BBC2’s Newsnight and This Week.
Her first book, What the **** is Normal?!, was published last year by Random House.
In 2008, she spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos. In 2012, she launched the campaign War on Welfare, which in a year raised a petition of 100,000 calling for an end to cuts to disability benefits.
In 2013, she was named ‘public affairs achiever of the year’ in the Dods Women in Public Life Awards, and in 2014 she was put at eighth out of 10 ‘game changers’ in the Woman’s Hour ‘power list’ on BBC Radio 4 and nominated for ‘hero of the year’ in the European Diversity Awards and for ‘woman of the year’ in Red.
She is patron of many charities, including Pegasus Theatre, Building for the Future and Baby Lifeline.
Up-to-date as at 1 June 2015