Bringer of the best medicine

by
19 August 2016

Comedian, ‘cult optimist’, and aspiring Quaker, Josie Long is appearing for the first time at the Greenbelt Festival. She talks to Jemima Thackray

Idil Sukan 

Not amused? Josie Long’s publicity photograph

Not amused? Josie Long’s publicity photograph

THE titles of Josie Long’s comedy shows give her away: Kindness and Exuberance, Trying is Good, All of the Planet’s Wonders, Romance and Adventure, Be Honourable!, and — her latest — Work in Progress, which she will take to the Edinburgh Festival and Greenbelt this summer. She describes getting into the comedy scene with a “wild and free and open heart”, and, so far, the anti-social hours spent in dark clubs, and her burgeoning celebrity status, have done little to dampen the playful earnestness of her approach.

Long wanders on stage as if it were her own front room, and speaks to the audience as an old friend rather than as fodder for acerbic one-liners. As she meanders through material covering “whatever’s preoccupying her at the time” — from pre-30th-birthday bucket-lists, to the Special K diet; Charles Darwin to the current “1980s tribute government” — she gives the impression that we are seeing an overflow of herself rather than encountering a drier, more polished alter-ego.

“I do prefer performing in small spaces, just being myself and chatting to the crowd. But it has built up. I’ve done seven tours now.” She is too modest to mention that she won the prestigious Edinburgh Comedy Award for Best Newcomer, and has three times been nominated for the Best Show award. Instead, she says: “I still do gigs to just 15 people, and I’m glad of that.”

This aversion for stadium comedy, and preference for making personal connections (including at her own monthly comedy night, The Lost Treasures of The Black Heart, at a pub in Camden), is one of the reasons that Long has enjoyed venturing into radio work, as a guest on panel shows, as the presenter of Radio 4’s Short Cuts, and even writing her own sitcom. “I like it as a medium, because it’s so intimate with the listener — the idea that you can be right in people’s ears through their headphones. It’s hard to achieve something that delicate on stage.”

 

LONG’s rise to fame began when she won the BBC New Comedy Award aged just 17, which is about the age she was when I last saw her in the late 1990s. She was in the year above me at our all-girls’ grammar school in Orpington, Kent; my memory is of her wafting through all the classrooms at break-time, indiscriminate with her jovial attentions. Older girls, younger girls, teachers, dinner ladies — she had us all giggling at her whimsy, and what she calls her “weird voice” (low, slightly goofy, and with a south-London twang).

It was, perhaps, this knack of being comfortable in her own skin, of not conforming in competitive environments, that meant she “thrived at school, although a lot of my friends found it unbearable”. I am interviewing her just after it has been reported that the new Prime Minister’s administration is planning to lift the ban on the creation of new grammar schools. “It’s daft,” she says, “A few kids enjoy it, most kids find the pressure immense, and then there’s the 95 per cent of kids who don’t even get a look-in. Harsh, innit?”

“But I loved school because I’m one of those weird people who like tests. And also because of what was going on at home at the time — I think I was just glad to be away from it.” (She makes several allusions to a tough childhood, but prefers the detail to stay off the record.)

 

INDEED, education is a subject close to Long’s heart. In 2012, she co-founded a charity, Arts Emergency, which supports underprivileged young people in pursuing the arts and humanities at university, just as she did (she is proud to have read English at Oxford University). The charity offers 16-to-19-year-olds access to an army of creatives, wryly called “The Alternative Old Boy Network”, who volunteer their time as mentors, and provide access to their contacts.

She is also a longstanding advocate for a grass-roots protest movement, UK Uncut, which campaigns against cuts in public spending. If her tone is fanciful at times, her politics are unequivocal. “I always had strong views, but I had an epiphany after the 2010 election that I needed to put my money where my mouth is; that I had a responsibility to use whatever platform I had to speak out against some of the injustices of Tory policy. I knew I would regret it if I didn’t.

“But what I didn’t realise is that political activism is a one-way street — once you’re into it, you can’t turn back. You get more and more involved and passionate. I couldn’t be a politician, though. I’ve said too many violent and sweary things on my Twitter account which would be used to discredit me.”

“Partly that’s 140 characters, right? And I am trying, believe me, to put aside the level of emotional distress that this Government provokes in me. But there are things like the bedroom tax where there can be no nuance — it’s just incredibly unfair and immoral.”

I ask her whether she has had to battle inequality, too, in a male-dominated industry. “You know what? there is systematic sexism everywhere. Comedy is no different, it’s just a reflection of society at large. When I got into it aged 17, I had no idea how much I was going to be told to doubt myself, how much this fucking discourse was going to come into my life. Even just talking about it now, with you, means it’s there again, implicitly.”

 

LONG’s focus on fairness — what she calls, even on stage, her “desperate love of social justice” — means that she anticipates feeling at home on her Greenbelt debut. Her friend and collaborator, the comedian Robin Ince, has told her that “It’s a good atmosphere, with good people,” and goodness is something that Long cares about. Nor is she uncomfortable with the festival’s Christian rootedness: “I was very religious as a child. My Dad was a churchwarden, and I was in the choir. I used to choose to get up at 5 every morning and read my Bible.

“I’m an atheist, now. I stopped believing in God when I was a teenager, although I aspire to be a Quaker because I hear they let atheists in. I have a huge respect for people with faith, and for the fellowship they have, and many Christian ideas still live with me. But, on an ontological level, I’m not with it, plus I have a problem with the lack of women in Christian theology. As a kid I remember thinking, ‘Where are all the women in this story?’

“I felt like I was being watched a lot of the time. And I was taught to pray in a way which meant I had to apologise a lot first, which probably wasn’t that helpful. But the older I get, the more I respect my dad’s faith — I see it as a really beautiful thing in his life. A lot of the people I know who are religious blow my mind: their faith seems to make them practice compassion more than most people, and they see it as an actual practice. I mean by that something that has to get done practically rather than just talked about.”

 

YOU don’t have to look far to find compassion in Long’s own work. In explaining her show Romance and Adventure, she quips, “It’s really about how you keep going when you’re in the pits of despair.” And her common refrain, “Whatever gets you through the night”, is not a throwaway line, but an acknowledgement that, for all of us, at times, the dawn can seem distant.

“Fortunately, I don’t suffer from depression; but I do understand what it’s like to have lived through really difficult circumstances. I’ve had a lot of anxiety in my life. But nobody gets through the world unscathed, do they? And that’s all I’m trying to express. If you don’t have times of pain, heartache, despair, you’re not doing it right.”

Is that true, even for a young woman who appears to be living the dream? “Of course. There are disappointments: goals you don’t achieve, projects that don’t come off. And being so busy is draining, and it takes a toll on my relationships. But at a deep-rooted level I am so thankful that every day I get to do what I love.”

 

Josie Long is appearing at the Greenbelt Festival on Monday 29 August.

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