“We don’t get big for our boots here. That’s boasting.”
I’m not what you’d call a highbrow.
As I write this, I sit beneath a disco glitter ball with an evil-eyed weasel staring from a shelf. Behind me is a man-sized chicken costume.
Don’t believe me?
Okay, it could be a rooster.
The point is, I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for sequins and spotlights, for an ITV Christmas special.
For light entertainment.
It’s a strange term, as though there’s some kind of alternative, weightier entertainment available on another channel. The idea here is that it’s frivolous, undemanding, moving wallpaper.
That may be true, but it’s quite a trick getting wallpaper to move.
It’s a trick that’s been employed by the diaspora for decades. Val Doonican, Des O’Connor, Danny La Rue, Terry Wogan, all engaged their charm and native wit with a gossamer touch. When properly performed, there is something genuinely noble and self-effacing about light entertainment. Graham Norton and Brendan O’Carroll are both smarter by far than they let on (the history of Mrs Brown is worthy of a film of its own).
The essence of the trick – as with any illusion – is to make it all look effortless, to hide the heavy lifting involved. So when Jessica Martin adopts a Northern Irish accent or the voice of Princess Diana, there is a sense of the mystical taking place. She herself talks about it in terms of magic, of hoping that a part of the impersonated’s sparkle or character will somehow become hers.
It’s not just magic, though. It’s survival. This is what we do with voices . We adopt the tones of others to make sure we don’t stand out ourselves. To make our neighbours feel comfortable. Like a cardigan and a rocking chair.
You could argue that impersonation is part of the diaspora experience itself. The tales of Irish men and women – particularly women – who studiously lost their accents, in order not to be identified as a suspect other, would easily fit into that thesis.
But I’m not a highbrow. That’s something for others to debate.
What seems undeniable is that after years of sonic glamour, Jessica Martin accessed her own voice through the writing and illustration of graphic novels. Her memoir, Life Drawing, isn’t just a series of dropped names – although there are plenty of those lying on the floor – but a touching portrayal, and not just of her parents.
Actually, “touching” is the wrong word. It’s too light. There is honesty here.
There are also trials and triumphs and loves and betrayals and prizes gained and prices paid. There are faces you’ll recognise and others you won’t, all depicted with a simplicity of style that disguises the hard work she’s put in to learning this new craft
Because that’s Jessica Martin’s particular gift. She makes it seem easy.
Life Drawing (Published by Unbound)