Jon Ronson at Banter
Some notes from Ronson’s talk in Dublin
Jon Ronson did a great Banter session last week with Jim Carroll in the Twisted Pepper. I love Ronson’s work – who doesn’t? It’s smart and funny and insightful and empathetic and curious and articulate and entertaining. With Frank the film and the book marking 2014 as another bumper year for the Welsh writer and journalist, it’s always good to hear what someone at the top of their game has to say.
Here are some notes I took.
You don’t have to be good to get somewhere
“I was an aspiring songwriter. But the problem was, I didn’t have any imagination.” Instead, Ronson basically wrote songs about whatever he was observing at the time, including one memorable ditty called ‘Drunk Tramps’. In the film Frank this song is replaced with another about a woman walking down the street, as Lenny Abrahamson contended that Ronson’s original was actually too bad to include. Nevertheless, Ronson ended up playing keyboards with Frank Sidebottom’s band, even though his “musical heritage” consisted of “C, F, and G.”
Scenius is real
“Our driver decided to make it in radio. And he was Chris Evans… My next door neighbour had a band, and they were the Stone bloody Roses.” Caroline Aherne was working as a receptionist at Piccadilly Radio where Frank Sidebottom had a show, and she developed the character Mrs. Merton. Richard Jones, the band’s later bassist became a hugely successful band tour manager, working with everyone from The Spice Girls to Woody Allen and currently manages The Pixies. All around Ronson and the Frank Sidebottom orbit, people started becoming successful.
You can end up working on things you think are great opportunities, but that you actually don’t like.
In 1994, Ronson was working on the documentary series The Ronson Mission for BBC2. It was a tricky one, because Ronson found that what he actually ended up doing was ridiculing people, and having interviewees edited in such a manner. He went from being in a marginal situation – touring with Frank Sidebottom’s band – to being in a hierarchical situation ridiculing the marginal and defining the barriers of normality, “thank god I found my way out of it.”
False rivalry isn’t useful
Ronson mentioned that for a while, he was accidentally competing with Louis Theroux, and that like “conjoined twins” in order for one to grow stronger with success, the other had to die. This of course is a ridiculous situation. He realised that he was drawn to “outsider personalities”, everyone from Sidebottom to the Insane Clown Posse, because they are people “trapped” being themselves, and that outsider personalities are “trapped being us” and for a while he felt he was trapped being him. After not winning an award at a ceremony on one occasion, he bumped into Adam Buxton who had also not won an award. Buxton said they were never going to win because they were marginal, and everything they liked is marginal, and that’s ok. Ronson felt a weight lift off him. It was ok to be him. It’s funny how you never expect people as successful as Ronson to have these professional concerns, but obviously everyone does.
Public shaming is alarming
Ronson’s next book is “a radically empathetic book about public shaming.” Public shaming as something that was banned in the 18th century for being too brutal, has become a part of everyday activity via social media. “Every day on Twitter there’s a new impossible hero and a new monstrous villain.” He wants to explore why we engage in this manner, why people with 200 followers are being destroyed for a badly worded joke. He likes “old Twitter” when it was relaxed and laid back, “Now it’s like a performance, and if you fuck up they kill you.” Why did it become so stressful?
It’s hard not to feel close to some interviewees
Ronson said that apart from watching his kid grow up, his favourite thing in the world is to go off on adventures for work. He met David Icke in the bathroom at Heathrow recently and they ended up hugging like two old warriors. He also spoke rather affectionately about Ian Paisley. When you spend days with these people that you enjoy so much, then “you have to have respect for that, and for them.”