Ideas changed my life – Francesca Martinez

9 May

Looking at Francesca Martinez’s book, Swindon Festival of Literature director Matt Holland said, ‘Let’s talk about the end.’ Francesca laughed – ‘Don’t give away the end!’ Then turned to the audience, ‘It’s alright – I don’t die!’ Matt grinned – ‘I really like you.’ And she replied, ’I really like you too, but I’ve got a boyfriend.’

This is the tone for Francesca’s event. She made her name firstly in BBC school-based drama, Grange Hill, back in the 1990s, before embarking on a career as a comedian and then as a social commentator and campaigner. Her appearance at the Festival is belly-laugh funny but also profound.

But (*whispers*) there’s something I have to tell you. She’s disabled!!!

Of course, I’m not mocking her. I’m too afraid of a hilarious (for everyone else) putdown (and also, FYI, not a dick). I’m emulating her teenage self before she had a life-changing conversation with Hot Dylan – Francesca was so desperate to be normal that she would make friends then share that she was disabled, like they wouldn’t have noticed she was ‘wobbly’.

Then came along Hot Dylan. He changed her life with a conversation, she said, but still an arsehole, ‘Even an arsehole can change your life.’ In a pub in the middle of Soho, Dylan told her “You don’t have “cerebral palsy”. Those words are vague attempts to try and define you…The only power we have in life is the power to choose what to think…You are Francesca. Full stop.”

(I wondered what Hot Dylan thinks about having such life-changing words attributed to this beer-laden encounter, and being described as hot – and an arsehole. And what he did to go from hero to near-zero.)

There’s a theme during this year’s Festival. Or it’s always there and I absorb it by osmosis. Before Francesca, Terry Waite talked of the power of words and hope. After her, Lionel Shriver describes a possible future Third World America which goes from rich to poor overnight, and how they cope without big houses, decent coffee and wine. The Festival has heard from individuals who’ve travelled with just a bicycle, a horse and strangers for company and found it wonderful.

Now Francesca comes out and says it with a big fat smile, ‘Ideas changed my life! Isn’t that amazing!’

Materialism is- ‘a load of bollocks. Accept who you are. Appreciating what we have. We are told to focus on what we don’t have…Focus on what you do have. One thing that really blew my mind is just existing. I could have been a Rice Crispie! Or Donald Trump!’ Or, from the book – a sock or a pot of hummus. (‘Though I do like hummus.’)

Her childhood was a happy loving one, despite the labels put on her by society and ‘stupid doctors’ – “What we call disability is a normal part of humanity,” she said. “What are they assessing human beings on? We as people are far more shaped by the love we received as kids.” Something Oliver James back last Wednesday would agree with. “Stop being superficial on measuring how people suffer. Challenge perceptions of normal and abnormal. We are not defined by our bodies. We all suffer and we deal with it in a different way.”

But then school. Although Francesca is a firm supporter of mixed schooling (“it’s normal to be diverse. Diversity encourages us to develop and grow, fundamental to human progress”), she hated her secondary education. “They put me into an all-girls’ state school. It was sh*t. They made me feel like a faulty product. It was a real wake up call. At home I was loved and cherished. At school I was the unloved pariah.”

Now she regrets spending time on wanting to fit in, to be normal, “I wasted eight years of my life.” These days, she gives talks to secondary schools and is frustrated that teenagers aren’t happy with themselves, “’It’s such an indictment of our culture that we’ve created a generation that don’t feel good about themselves.’”

Ultimately, she tells us, she’s ‘grateful for being wobbly as it forced me to look at myself.’

“Society is a giant unhappiness machine. We need a new value system which puts people at its core. I want to give people the tools to stand up and reclaim the ability to feel happy about themselves.”

“Who wants to live a normal life? I want a ****ing amazing one!’

Francesca Martinez appeared at Swindon Arts Centre as part o the Swindon Festival of Literature, 8 May 2017, with her book What the **** is Normal?.

Words by Louisa Davison. Pictures © Calyx Picture Agency.

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