Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Jon Ronson Interview 2005

I've decided to transfer a few favourite bits and pieces from my now defunct Wolf Man Knew My Father website. This is an edited version of a 2005 interview with the lovely Jon Ronson, writer and documentary film-maker.

As a youth growing up in Cardiff, culturally what were your interests?

Chapter Arts Center. I remember seeing a double bill of Woody Allen's Zelig and Martin Scorsese's King of Comedy at Chapter. I remember that better than pretty much anything that actually happened to me. Yes, the things I remember most clearly from my childhood are things I watched and listened to rather than things I experienced. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Spillers Records, where I first heard Captain Beefheart. Listening to Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones at Bill Davies' house in Roath Park during the Cardiff High School lunch-breaks. Reading Kurt Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse 5. Sirens of Titan was heartbreaking to me, especially the plight of the jellyfish type animals that lived in the caves beneath Mercury. Seeing The Specials at Sophia Gardens before it fell down in the snow.

I used to go to the Sherman Theatre too. In fact when I was sixteen I somehow landed a part in Death of a Salesman at The Sherman. I played Henry, the next-door neighbour's son. The only line I remember is, "What happened in Boston, Willy?" I don't remember what happened in Boston, but I think it had something to do with shoes.

Other than that, I just hung around amusement arcades (on Caroline Street and Queen Street) with a boy called Dick Johns. I was a hoodie, although I had no hood. Dick and I were obsessed with David Bowie. We used to walk down Cyncoed Road singing Five Years and Rock & Roll Suicide. Non Sadler (who died when she was about 22) introduced me to Lou Reed's Transformer, also on Cyncoed Road. Dick and I and Bethan Morgan used to go busking. I learnt how to play the keyboards.

Did they force you to play rugby in school?

Oh God, yes. I was a prop. There was frost on the ground. Prop. Frost. As I answer these questions I am feeling waves of melancholic nostalgia, which I think is a sign of getting old.

How on earth did you end up in the Frank Sidebottom band?

Well, when I left Cardiff I went to study journalism at the Polytechnic of Central London. When I was 20 I became the entertainments manager for the Student's Union, and somehow I became friendly - over the phone - with Frank Sidebottom's manager, Mike Doherty. One day Mike phoned me up in a panic and said, "We're playing a gig in London tonight and Mark Radcliffe (who was the keyboard player at the time) has had to drop out. Do you know any keyboard players?"
I said, "I can play the keyboards."
He said, "Well, you're in!"
I said, "I don't know any of the songs."
He said, "Can you play C, F and G?"
I said, "Yes."
He said, "Well, you're in!"
So I turned up at the Cricketer's in The Oval, and I told Frank Sidebottom that I was slightly worried because I didn't know any of the songs. Frank said, "Do you know C,F and G?"
I said, "Yes."
Frank said, "Well, you'll be okay then."
They put me behind the speaker-stack and turned my keyboard right down, and when Frank introduced the band at the end, nobody cheered me because nobody knew I was there.

Anyway, for some reason they asked me to continue with the band, and I did, for about three years. In fact I dropped out of college to move to Manchester and become a member of the Frank Sidebottom Oh Blimey! Big Band. Life on the road was a more glamorous prospect than journalism studies. We supported Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers at the Town and Country Club. It is not easy to describe Frank Sidebottom to readers who are not familiar with his oeuvre. Could you provide a picture?

Chris Evans was our driver, briefly. We used to drive around in a transit van. One time we were playing in London and we pulled up on Edgware Road and the driver - I can't remember if it was Chris Evans - wound down the window and said, "Excuse, mate?"
"Yeah?" said a passer-by.
"Is this London?" said the driver.
"Yeah," said the passer-by.
"Well, where do you want this wood?" said the driver.

My favourite Sidebottom story was when he supported Gary Glitter at some Student Freshers' Ball. Gary Glitter's people were really rude. "You haven't got a dressing room. You can't drink any of our beer. You aren't allowed to use our lights. Whatever happens don't go anywhere near the hydraulic floor."

And so, as soon as Frank went on stage, he jumped onto the hydraulic floor and started singing: "Come On! Come On! Do you want to be in my gang...?" And the floor rose, setting off various fireworks and smoke bombs, and floated out towards the audience. After the show, Frank jumped off stage and ran down the corridor, chased by Gary Glitter's bouncers. Frank took off his head and costume - he had his own clothes underneath - just as the bouncers caught up.
"Did you see Frank Sidebottom?" they asked him.
"He went that way," said Frank.

How much of a grounding for your later books and documentaries was your Time Out column? (I seem to recall lots of new age madness and eccentric behaviour in those pieces).

There was indeed much madness in those columns, but I wouldn't say that they had any relation to the later books. When I was a Time Out columnist I was only 23 or 24, and really I hadn't found my voice. I was just copying Victor Lewis-Smith and PJ O'Rourke. I only really worked out how to write when I wrote Them: Adventures with Extremists.

I got the column, by the way, because when I was in Frank's band I started presenting a late night radio show on KFM in Stockport. I co-presented with Craig Cash, who went on to create and act in Early Doors and The Royle Family. Those were happy times. But then we got sacked, and there was a 'Reinstate Craig Cash and Jon Ronson' campaign in the Manchester media. This somehow got the attention of Time Out in London, and they offered me a column. I never got reinstated though.

Craig Cash still calls me from time to time. When The Royle Family was nominated for a BAFTA, Craig left a message on my answer-phone: "Ronno! It's Craig. Am I going to see you at the BAFTAs tonight? Oh no I'm not, am I, because you haven't been nominated again. Poor old Ronno with his face pressed up against the glass."

And when I became a father, Craig left another message on my answer-phone: "Ronno! I've heard you're a father. Congratulations. But you haven't got two BAFTAs on your shelf, have you?"

How did you get your first break in television?

It is a strange story. When I was writing my Time Out column, I got a call from my old journalism teacher from the Polytechnic of Central London.
He said, "You should do a TV series. Do you mind if I approach Janet Street Porter?"
I said, "Do you know her?"
He said, "No."
So he wrote to her - I had no idea what he said, I still don't - but the next thing I knew I was in her office at the BBC in White City.
She said, "I think it's a BRILLIANT idea for a series."
I just sat there, because I had no idea what the idea was. I just smiled and nodded.
And the next thing I knew I had been allocated £420,000 to make a six half-hour series for BBC 2.It was nuts. It is always a mistake to commission a series when one has no idea what the series is. So I made a series called The Ronson Mission. We basically made it up as we went along. Some of it was terrible. Actually, most of it was terrible. I was just in my mid-20s. I had had no ambition whatsoever to be on TV. It was all quite surreal. There were a few good ideas in there, but I must admit that the Guardian called The Ronson Mission one of the five worst series of Michael Jackson's tenure as controller of BBC2. I didn't enjoy making it, primarily because these were the days before DV cameras, and so there was a huge crew, a van full of us turning up at people's houses trying to replicate reality.

After The Ronson Mission I didn't make any more TV shows for at least three years. I was glad to have it behind me. But then I got a call from one of the series' only fans - a man called Peter Grimsdale who was a commissioning editor at Channel 4. He said he wanted to put me together with a director called Saul Dibb. By now hi-8 cameras had been invented so film-making was much more like writing. the camera was like a notebook. We made a film called New York to California, which was an epic journey from a little village called New York, just outside Norwich, to a caravan site down the road called California. And then we made Tottenham Ayatollah, which was our breakthrough. Tottenham Ayatollah documented our year with Omar Bakri Mohammed, an Islamic militant. That was the beginning of the story that ended with Them.

Which do you prefer - filming or writing?

Writing. I am a natural writer, and not a natural director. I have friends - like Adam Curtis, who made The Power of Nightmares, and Saul Dibb, who has gone on to direct Bullet Boy - who are natural directors. They love pictures and sound and pacing. They are aesthetes. I like words.

For Them: Adventures With Extremists you did actually put yourself in some genuinely scary situations - do you regard yourself as a courageous person?

Absolutely not. I am not fearless at all. I just felt I had to go where the story took me, and that included being chased by Bilderberg, and infiltrating Bohemian Grove, that strange secret club where the Bushes and the Cheneys go and have their ceremonies. These things were not fun for me at the time, although I'm now glad that I did it.

Why do you think people like David Icke and Ian Paisley allowed you to get reasonably close to them, given that you have a reputation as a journalist who allows his subjects to make themselves look foolish?

It isn't always me who makes the initial approaches. Ian Paisley was approached by a Northern Ireland television producer called David Malone, who secured the access before I was brought into it. I did approach David Icke myself. We'd had a bit of a sore past together, but he gave me the benefit of the doubt. Remember that - by and large, I would say - the people in my stories often come out of it very well. David Icke, Alex Jones, Lt Col. Jim Channon and General Stubblebine (from The Men Who Stare At Goats), even Omar Bakri, I would argue, come out of the stories as human beings, with character traits the reader can identify with. Some of the people I write about come out of it extremely well: The Weaver family, for instance, from Ruby Ridge. They have been demonized for years by the media. Them was really the first time that their story was told.

How did you first learn about the new age influence on the American military that eventually produced The Men Who Stare at Goats?

In 1995 the CIA declassified the fact that the Army had a team of psychic spies, and they'd been trying to be psychic for 23 years. They'd been based in a condemned clapboard building down a wooded track in Fort Meade, Maryland. They were Black-Op, nobody knew they existed. Anyway, when the CIA declassified them and closed them down it was such a colourful story nobody wondered whether it was the tip of an even weirder iceberg. In 2001 I met a psychologist called Ray Hyman. Ray had been employed by the CIA to evaluate the psychic program. They knew Ray was a sceptic and would say the program was nonsense. They wanted this conclusion so they could close the unit down. Ray indeed concluded it was nonsense. When I met Ray (in Las Vegas), I asked him if he'd heard of anything else going on, and he said he had some vague notion - he'd heard some rumours that they were trying to teach soldiers how to be invisible and walk through walls. He gave me a few half-remembered names: Channon. Stubblebine. So I clung onto that scant information and followed it, to Channon and Stubblebine, and then onto the War on Terror, where these ideas live on in mutated form.

How has The Men Who Stare at Goats been received outside of Britain, particularly in the States?

It has been received very well indeed in the States. Rave reviews in all the major papers.

You've used your family a lot as raw material for your Guardian column. Do they find it disconcerting that casual remarks might end up as part of a humorous anecdote in a national newspaper?

No. My wife feels the same way I do about the column - if it works, if it is funny, it is fine. If it isn't funny, it isn't fine. I wrote a short memoir called A Fantastic Life, about taking my son to Lapland to meet Santa, which I think is the best bit of writing I've ever done. It is not exploitative of my son. He is the straight-man in it. I am the idiot. I see the columns as additions to that story. One day they will all come together to form something else. Maybe a film script? Maybe a book?

Have any particular writers or humorists influenced your prose style or approach to writing in general?

Oh yes. Kurt Vonnegut. Raymond Carver. I learnt short sentences from them. And nowadays, Jonathan Coe's What A Carve Up! This influenced the kinds of subject matter I write about. I love Lynn Barber's journalism. And I am a great fan of an American radio show called This American Life. I contribute to it sometimes. It is full of people who do the kind of things I do - Sarah Vowell, David Sedaris, Ira Glass. William Leith has a brilliant new book coming out called The Hungry Years - a memoir of a compulsive eater.

Finally Jon, you have an excellent website with a lively forum but let's be honest, it's like having your own cult. Is there a danger you might turn into a crazed egomaniac - the kind of person who ends up in one of your own documentaries?

Things don't go to people's heads when they get to 37. By the time we get to 37 we are too bowed by the travails of life to become crazed egomaniacs.

Thanks Jon, for those very generous responses.

©Anthony Brockway/Jon Ronson 2005