Francesca Martinez: “I may be Disabled but at Least I’m not a Pot of Hummus or Donald Trump” (Swindon Festival of Literature 2017)

When it comes to mutually exclusive, “disability” and “comedy” are two words which you would normally expect to be considered in the realms of taboo. To utter or even infer the ‘d’ word within comedy has been traditionally likened to punching one’s Mother in Law in the face. You can do it, sure, but no one invites you to and no one applauds it when you do so. So why, all things considered, do I find myself on a weekday evening laughing at a wobbly lady’s failed attempts at cherry knocking?

Welcome to the hilariously wonderful mind of Francesca Martinez. Born with cerebral palsy, but waging a one-woman mission to have it renamed to ‘wobbly’, Martinez’s recent autobiographical release What The **** Is Normal?! sheds a brilliantly comedic, if not at times brutally honest, look on her experiences growing up in an able-bodied world. From the school girls who lash out, to the text-book doctors who can’t compute with emotion, What The **** Is Normal?! is physical proof that no one is safe from the pen (or indeed the mouth) of a comedian.

Disability aside, Martinez has a unique eloquence with words, even the rude ones. Without blinking, she sweetly comments “funny how the girls who used to bully me now want to add me as a friend on Facebook. F**kers!” It makes you wonder why anyone would pick a fight with Martinez. Not because she’s funny or a genuinely lovely person, but because under the smiles is a mildly vengeful personality that you don’t want to get on the wrong side of.

Far from making her new release solely about herself (because who wants me, me, me when it comes to autobiographies?) Martinez’s conversations often divert to address the issues facing wider society. In the author’s opinion, the root cause of unhappiness is the consumer-based drive to always want better. “We want to look prettier, be thinner, have a better mobile phone, a better house. Our society is so aspirational we never stop and think about what we have. Once you stop and reassess those things you realise that life could be a lot worse,” Martinez poignantly observes, before quickly adding “for example, I could have been a Rice Krispie, or Donald Trump.” Cue roars of laughter from the audience.

Five minutes later it is the same audience that can be heard piping up in agreement with the speaker’s views on consumerism. The realisation that swathes of multibillion-pound industry are founded on toxic principles that support those at the top and leave the majority feeling miserable and compelled to buy products they do not need. “It sounds really obvious, but we’re all trapped in a toxic cycle,” she summarises to the audience, “so, when you think about it, breaking yourself away is actually a form of civil disobedience.”

Having taken years to discover this capitalist truth and liberate herself from the evil clutches of self-loathing, Martinez is keen to spread the message of positivity, be it through word of mouth or her book. “I spent years of my life thinking negative thoughts and my only regret is that I’ll never get that time back,” she comments, “I do a lot of talks at schools nowadays where I ask sixteen year olds to put their hand up if they’re happy with how they look. No one ever raises their hand and it’s really sad. I tell them ‘you’re in the prime of your lives. Trust me, this is as good as it’s ever going to get!’”

It’s that perfect mix of inspirational, humbleness and comedy that makes Martinez so fascinating to watch. Sat in a room with hundred people you feel like you’re the only one there. It came as no surprise that one of the first questions put to her by the audience was simply “have you ever considered going into politics?” Later on another woman opened up about her recent diagnosis with Schizophrenia. Ever the inspirational figure, Martinez smiles at the nervous figure and states “why make our differences into negatives? Diversity is what makes us stronger.”

While I cannot lay claim to the honour of having read her autobiography just yet (I remain at the mercy of the Amazon delivery Gods) I can justifiably say that spending an hour in the company of Francesca Martinez is a delightful, if not insightful, experience. Watching her on stage you have to remind yourself every so often that society has branded this lady as disabled. It is a testament to her abilities that the viewer can see beyond the disability to the woman who lies beneath. Perhaps put more succinctly by the wobbly expert herself, “if I was retarded I’d have voted for UKIP.”

 

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