“For some reason I’m feeling nervous”, the corkscrew-haired twenty-something taking a seat next to me says, with some trepidation. Perhaps her apprehension stems from the fact that the man preparing to address us, Jon Ronson, has experienced some of the strangest phenomena humanity has to offer; frequently sharing the company of society’s greatest eccentrics, at times bonding with conspiracy theorists, occasionally keeping the counsel of extremely dangerous men.
The seasoned investigative journalist is at Waterstones Deansgate to discuss Lost At Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries, an assortment of his wildest and wackiest adventures over the past two decades. A decent crowd has turned up on a typically rainswept Tuesday evening to hear Ronson read a series of extracts from his new book. The compilation chronicles three nights of crime fighting with a real-life Batman; depicts life in the Alaskan town of North Pole, where it really is Christmas every day; and sees Ronson join Robbie Williams for a spot of UFO hunting in the Nevada desert, to introduce just three chapters from a thoroughly entertaining collection of stories.
It is the first time that Ronson has talked to an audience about Lost At Sea. Though visibly nervous, his effortless charm, vaguely camp mannerisms and unusual vocal inflections bring the highlights of the book to life. In an interesting juxtaposition, I am forced to consider whether I have ever heard the word ‘fuck’ used quite so many times outside of a Chris Rock show, though much of this is down to Ronson’s ingenious channelling of the little-known evangelical Christian rap ensemble Insane Clown Posse (sample lyric: ‘Barrels in your mouth, bullets in your head / The back of your neck’s all over the shed). Needless to say, the crowd go home extremely happy.
The following day, I receive a call from Ronson a couple of hours ahead of our scheduled meeting time: rather than chat to him in the bar of his central Manchester hotel, could I accompany him on a trip to Fallowfield to meet a small group of anti-abortion protestors? Naturally, I agree. As we edge our way down the Curry Mile, Ronson, who lived in Rusholme for eight years, savours the surroundings of his “old stomping ground”. I sense that this will be the perfect opportunity to see him in his element.
The secret of his success is obvious: Jon Ronson is, quite simply, a brilliant observer of people. Where many journalists would approach a belligerent racist or religious fanatic with an abrasive, gung-ho attitude, Ronson eschews the Paxman-esque approach in favour of a conciliatory one. His conversational tone puts his subject at ease and ensures that, eventually, whatever he wants to hear will more than likely come to the fore. “If you ask the questions that they’re used to being asked,” he argues, “they go into automatic mode. It’s good to ask them more leftfield questions”.
But what fuels his desire to throw himself into such bizarre situations? What is it about these sub-cultures that he finds so alluring? “It’s mysteries. It’s a mysterious world that you want to try and understand – you want to try and solve the mystery”, he explains as we climb into another cab. “And it just so happens that the mysteries often happen on the fringes of society. I like to go to places where people are displaying the outermost aspects of their personality”.
This penchant for the peculiar has seen Ronson enjoy a remarkable career. Throughout the ‘90s, he made a series of documentaries for Channel 4 focusing primarily on extremists, placing him in direct competition with the man synonymous with the genre, Louis Theroux. “We went through a difficult patch many years ago”, Ronson says of his rival. “We were always being compared to each other so we both became very aware of that. But that doesn’t happen anymore because we’re older and we’ve both had success.” Today, Ronson accepts that he is better known for his written work whilst Theroux is best associated with television; between them, the pair have essentially carved up their chosen field for the best part of twenty years.
Ronson really hit his stride at the turn of the century. The 2001 bestseller Them: Adventures with Extremists followed his attempts to infiltrate a supposed “secret room from which a tiny elite rules the world” – considering former BBC Sport presenter David Icke’s claim that the world’s most powerful political and business leaders are in fact twelve-foot tall lizards in human suits, before being unmasked as a Jew at a Jihadist training camp run by “Osama bin Laden’s man in London”, Omar Bakri. His 2004 follow up, The Men Who Stare at Goats, began life as an investigation of a crack team of US Army soldiers who would try to kill goats just by looking at them. The 2009 film adaptation saw none other than Ewan McGregor take on the prestigious role of Ronson himself.
Last year, The Psychopath Test tapped into an innate desire within the human psyche to characterise almost every conceivable quirk as some form of mental defect. Upon his startling discovery that according to the DSM – a comprehensive manual detailing 374 mental disorders – he might suffer from as many as 12 such disorders, Ronson turned to the twenty-point Hare psychopathy checklist to ensure that he wasn’t a psychopath, too.
“It’s possible that if I was properly scored by a psychologist who applies the test I might get a zero”, he was relieved to find. “It’s because I’ve got anxieties and anxiety is the opposite of psychopathy. So if you’re an anxious person you’re just not a psychopath.”
In many ways, Lost At Sea continues where its predecessor left off – “looking for the right sort of madness”, as Ronson puts it. He explains that the sheer variety of stories in the book is a reflection of the fact that you never quite know where a story is going. “Quite often you’re doing something and you’re thinking, I’m getting nothing here, this is really disappointing. Then you write it up and you realise that it’s actually brilliant.”
Though mundane on the face of it, Ronson cites his time behind the scenes at Deal or No Deal as a case in point; utterly fascinating, it explores the division between happy-go-lucky contestants and those convinced that their ‘system’ will work, that ‘fate’ will win out. The latter is seemingly a viewpoint perpetuated by the show’s host, Noel Edmonds, who emerges as one of the least likeable characters in the book. “He was more likeable than he was when I grazed past him about ten or fifteen years earlier. He seemed humbler and less of a bastard… I think the fact that he’d had some failure before Deal or No Deal has seen him improve as a person”.
In light of the ongoing revelations regarding Jimmy Savile, one story from Lost At Sea stands out. In 2001, Ronson followed former pop impresario Jonathan King as he stood trial for a string of sexual assaults on young boys throughout the 1980s. The result is an extraordinarily harrowing story, as King reveals himself to be “completely, totally remorseless”. It is quite a departure for Ronson; even his most serious stories tend to have a funny side. “That one was definitely less funny”, says Ronson. “When I read it back the other day I was surprised at how graphic I allowed the piece to be. But then if it’s going to be about something forensic like a trial, you have to be forensic in your writing as well.”
King was convicted, and sentenced to seven years in prison, for his part in what was to all intents and purposes “a paedophile ring”. Whilst Ronson has no sympathy for “his absolute narcissistic inability, or unwillingness, to see it from his victims’ point of view”, the story throws up an interesting question about the ethics of similar cases. “Where he’s sort of got a point is that nobody thinks of [Rolling Stones bassist] Bill Wyman, or any other good looking, heterosexual men, who it’s known have had sex with people under the age of consent, as monsters, and yet he is considered a monster – so why is he being singled out?”
Perhaps, I suggest, this dichotomy of sexuality goes some way to explaining the apparent cover up which saw Savile evade justice during his lifetime. “Well everybody knew”, Ronson claims. “There are big rumours about two other people from the time… one definitely and another person I won’t name because he’s too famous. The allegations have been made in public, but very fleetingly. A very disproportionate number of paedophiles hung around Radio 1 in the 1970s”.
With only a short period of time left before he must leave to catch a train, I turn attention to Ronson’s idiosyncrasies. What are his foibles? “Well I’m definitely overly anxious, and I stress all the time. It’s always irrational worries… if I tried to phone home now and I couldn’t get my wife on the phone, my first thought is, she’s dead. It always manifests itself in ridiculously irrational ways, as I think happens a lot with anxiety.” True to his anxious streak, he is sinking into a severe dilemma as he weighs up the various merits of catching the 15.42 or the 15.56 train.
“My anxiety today is ‘at what point is my body going to crash?’ I can’t tell you how much easier this is than writing… I find the writing exhausting and draining and massively stressful.” It strikes me as unusual that a writer should find his craft so gruelling, but then Ronson has never been one to do the simple thing. He has just moved to New York “entirely on a whim,” and his next book is underway. “I am a natural worrier,” he maintains, “which makes it ridiculous that this is what I do for a living”.
Lost At Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries is out now, published by Picador.
This originally appeared in The Mancunion: www.mancunion.com