“Low expectations are the secret to happiness”
From facing death threats to standing up for women who don’t want to conform to unnecessary stereotypes, Jo Brand has seen and done most things. Her new book reveals the nuggets of wisdom the comedian has picked up along the way, as she will explain during a talk in Cambridge. Alex Spencer reports.
When comedian Jo Brand calmly explained the effects of sexism on women to a dismissive all-male panel on Have I Got News For You, it quickly turned into a viral phenomenon.
She had already been thinking about collecting her thoughts on the difference between expectations of women and the reality of most women’s daily life. Now those musings have been brought together in an hilarious book of anecdotes and advice taking stock of what it means to be female today and having a ‘bloody good moan’.
She will be talking to an audience at the Cambridge Literature Festival about Born Lippy: How to Do Female, which is packed with stories from her long stand-up career, experiences as a psychiatric nurse and life as a mum to two teenage girls.
Jo explains she wrote the book as “a kind of tongue in cheek book of advice to my daughters.”
She adds that being an older mother her experiences are often far removed from those of her girls. “I had my daughters so late on I almost straddle three generations. A lot of people think they are my granddaughters because I had my first daughter in my mid 40s. So, I feel it is quite interesting to examine the changes that have happened since I was a teenager and just sound off about things that make me cross.”
The one thing she is definite about is that more of us would be happy if we could enjoy what we have, rather than endlessly seeking fame.
“We are not all going to be TV presenters on music channels, which is what most people under 16 want to be. Lower your expectations – it really is the secret to being happy. If you lower your expectations about things then you are quite pleased when little successes happen.”
However, it’s not a serious book of advice, she says: “Because I don’t really like giving anyone advice. I think to want to give people advice means you are a certain sort of person, like a politician.
“I would far rather say: this is what I did and it all went horribly wrong, but if you want to do it anyway then do it.”
The book is full of the weird experiences women have every day, and includes sections on everything from how to manage a bully and being different, to feminism and getting on a bit.
One of the sections is called ‘You are not what you wear’ and reflects on how she felt after appearing on the Trinny and Susannah show What Not To Wear, during which female guests were criticised for their clothes and then given a ‘makeover’.
Jo reveals: “It was weird, that whole experience. I went into it with my eyes open. I had hugely low expectations of how it would be and obviously I wasn’t disappointed but I felt that their choice was to over feminise and glamorise women and a lot of women couldn’t care less. But we are made to care. Let’s say, for example I turned up at a film premiere wearing a filthy old pair of jeans and a dirty t shirt, which the singer Patti Smith did a few years ago and I thought she looked great just because she was so defiant. It seems we can’t we have a choice without people judging us.
“One time a friend of mine contacted me and said I was on the Mail Online. I had been at a premiere and they described what I had on as ‘billowing’, as if I was the lead ship in the Spanish Armada. It was hilarious in many ways, but it was very judgemental too because it basically said ‘here is a fat woman wearing a tent’.
“Underneath that the gist was ‘look at all these other women at the premiere: they all look like sticks and they are all in very expensive clothes, which one of these do you think is in the wrong?’ Obviously, it was me. You can’t get away from it. But you can moan about it which I think I have done a fair bit of.”
As one of the UK’s best-known comedians, Jo has numerous TV credits to her name including Getting on, the Bafta Award-winning series set in hospital geriatric ward; the social work sitcom Damned; and Bake Off: Another Slice.
She tells me that she doesn’t have a favourite on Bake Off, but misses Anthony since he left and is also very fond of Briony and Rahul, “who is like a sweet little shy squirrel.”
Jo is also a regular host on Have I Got News For You, where she suddenly found herself the voice of modern women. Her comments in which she explained that a constant low-level stream of misogyny, discrimination and sexual harassment could wear women down a bit, seemed to come as a huge surprise in some quarters and were widely shared on social media.
“My daughters were gobsmacked that I was trending on Twitter they couldn’t believe it,” she laughs.
But she doesn’t want to embarrass her children when they leave home to go to university in the next couple of years and plans to be a low profile presence for them.
“I’m looking forward to being no platformed at some point,” she laughs. “That seems to be quite a common phenomenon. I will try to get them to choose a university that I have been no platformed at then they never have to speak to me or be embarrassed by me again.”
Jo describes her own mum as quite an unusual character. A social worker and feminist ‘before feminism was invented’ who didn’t ‘adhere to the rules of femininity at the time’.
“I felt that I was a child ‘whose mum wasn’t really like any other people’s mums,” she explains.
In her chapter on ‘Being different’, Jo recalls a time when she was about seven, living in rural Kent and had rescued a sick baby hare and nursed it back to health.
“One day it was obviously to crack on with its life it started to run away and it jumped over the fence. My mum ran after it, hurdled the fence and caught its back legs in mid-air. Up until that point I’d thought my mum was about 90 years old. We were just so shocked she had done that, and it put her in a different light for me from that moment on.”
Returning to Cambridge is always a highlight for Jo, she says, especially as one audience response at the Corn Exchange made it into her act for months afterwards.
“I think the audience here is really posh and it is because in one show in Cambridge I was showing the audience something called a ‘wife leader’ which was a woven bit of straw with an elastic bit on the end that men used to put on women fingers to lead them about.
“I just held it up and said: ‘Does anyone know what that is?’ And this fantastic woman front row said: ‘Is it a cassava juice extractor?’
“That is the poshest thing anyone has ever said to me, I just thought it was hilarious. The next night I did a show in Warrington and asked that audience what they thought it was. A bloke at the back said: ‘Fat bird with a stick?’”
There may be a different class of heckler in Cambridge audiences, but it takes a lot of unnerve Jo. After years working as a psychiatric nurse in south London. “Whenever I was on the stage experiencing horrible abuse it was never as bad as when I was in charge of the emergency ward on the Maudsley Hospital because I was always the one wheeled out to tell people they couldn’t have what they wanted. I would get it in the neck in a far more imaginative way than any heckler.”
Only once has a heckler really worried her. It was at Loughborough University and a member of the audience threatened to kill her.
“But there were security guards, so it would have been unprofessional of them to let me be murdered.”
Jo Brand is in conversation with journalist, critic and broadcaster Alex Clark at the Cambridge Literary Festival on November 25, from 8.30pm at The Babbage Lecture Theatre, Cambridge. Tickets: £16. Box office: 01223 357 851, Cambridgeliteraryfestival.com.
More by this authorAlex Spencer