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The NS Interview: Ruby Wax

“None of us has a manual on how to live life – it’s a crapshoot ”

Were you always going to be a comedian?

In Chicago, they have one of the best senses of humour outside Glasgow. So, if you grow up around that, it's a real advantage. Also, nobody can take the piss out of Americans better than an American.

It gives you licence?
Exactly, I know them backwards. I know what they are going to say before they've even finished their sentence. I can smell their mentality.

You are from a Jewish family. Is religion part of your life?
No. I wish I had it - it's a really good safety raft. It would have been so easy, to be born with religion, but it missed me.

Your new show, Losing It, is about struggling with mental illness. Why did you want to do it?
For about ten years, I'd been trying to figure out a way to do something very funny but about something, getting behind why Hello! magazine would drive me to envy, eventually making me sick, and why, ultimately, I want all those people dead.

How does the audience respond?
I am telling the truth, using myself as the target, but usually everyone in the audience is nodding their head. I think that it's cathartic. None of us has a manual on how to live life: we are all winging it. It's a crapshoot.

Why do you think that we still find it so hard to talk openly about mental illness?
Once, we didn't say cancer and we didn't say gay; the new one is mental illness. It's because people can't get it into their heads that the brain
is an organ that can go down, too.

What did it feel like to be unwell?
People think that there is a little guy sitting up there who has nothing better to do than be a wanker and say, "Let's feel a little bad today." If you are mentally sick, that means every day, in and out: you can't get up. Eventually, you lose the ground you stand on.

Do you think that it was something you were born with?
Sure, my mother was mentally ill. I come from a long line of people who were ill.

Were you ashamed of your condition?
Yes. I never talked about it. Especially when you're someone who has a lot going for them - you know, I worked my ass off to get that.

Did the pressures of being on television - of celebrity - contribute to the problem?
It doesn't make you break down. It's a coincidence. You don't get it from something unless you were a soldier or around during 9/11.

When you spoke out about your illness, did you worry that people would define you by it?
They used to think that I was just a clown. People like to put you in a category. I might have studied the trapeze - so, what am I? A trapeze artist?

You've said the tough economic climate might help people's well-being. What did you mean?
I was being facetious. But we have got into this culture of "get as rich as you can, get as famous as you can". For a banker to suddenly work for
a charity might be interesting.

Are you politically engaged?
It depends on what time of the day it is. So I am not political, no. I mean, I think George Bush should have been assassinated, but for reasons of stupidity, that is.

What do you make of Sarah Palin?
A country that comes up with someone like her gets what it deserves. She's the hero of morons.

Do you think she could win the presidency?
She's popular, but we are dead if that happens. It always astounds me how stupid the whole thing can get between New York and Los Angeles. I don't know what is living in Arkansas but I would be very afraid.

So, you prefer living in Britain?
In Britain, they don't tolerate fools; in the US, we celebrate them.

Do you vote?
I can't vote here. I vote in America.

Did you vote for Barack Obama?
Oh, yes. I trust him as a human being.

Is there a plan?
I would like to take my show and rewrite it. I always like things that have been reinvented; otherwise, I'm just competing with people who are funny. You are not just being a comedian: you are making a point.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
I would like to forget my early childhood. My kids, growing up - they have such a great childhood. I think, "That would have been nice."

Are we all doomed?
No. We're just going through a stupid phase.

1953 Born in Evanston, Illinois
1974 Moves to UK to study at Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama
1978 Joins Royal Shakespeare Company
1987 Launches Don't Miss Wax chat show
1988 Meets her future husband, the television producer Ed Bye
1994 Diagnosed with bipolar disorder
1996 Presents Ruby Wax Meets
2010 Starts performing Losing It, about mental illness, at the Priory clinics

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times