« Desert Island Discs

Jon Ronson, writer and broadcaster

2022-07-03 | 🔗
Jon Ronson is a writer and broadcaster whose award-winning podcast and Radio 4 series Things Fell Apart investigated the stories behind today’s culture wars. His television programmes and books – from Them: Adventures with Extremists to So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed - explore what he calls “the worlds that are going on underground” and his subjects - from conspiracy theorists to internet trolls - inhabit the fringes of society. Jon was born in Cardiff in 1967. He started a media studies degree at the Polytechnic of Central London but left after two years to become the keyboard player for the musician and comedian Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band. He also managed the Manchester indie band Man from Delmonte. He worked as a presenter on KFM Radio with Terry Christian, Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash before moving back to London where he wrote for the listings magazine Time Out and later produced a weekly column about family life for the Guardian. In 1993 he began his television career with a BBC series called the Ronson Mission which he describes as having little adventures and interviewing people who were classed as outsiders by the mainstream. He went on to make programmes about the Ku Klux Klan, the Jesus Christians cult and the First Earth Battalion about a secret New Age unit which was set up within the US Army in the late 1970s. In 2012 Jon moved to New York. He became an American citizen in 2020. DISC ONE: A Message to You Rudy by The Specials DISC TWO: Cabaret sung by Jane Horrocks, from the Sam Mendes production of the musical Cabaret at the Donmar Warehouse, London in 1993 DISC THREE: Underground by Tom Waits DISC FOUR: Drivin’ on 9 by The Breeders DISC FIVE: Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear by Randy Newman DISC SIX: Extraordinary Machine by Fiona Apple DISC SEVEN: America by Simon & Garfunkel DISC EIGHT: Jersey Girl (Live at Meadowlands Arena, E. Rutherford, New Jersey - July 1981) by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band BOOK CHOICE: A Magnum photography book LUXURY ITEM: Legal medical marijuana CASTAWAY'S FAVOURITE: Jersey Girl by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Presenter: Lauren Laverne Producer: Paula McGinley
This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
Bbc sounds music. Radio, podcasts, hello, I'm Lauren Laverne, and this is the desert island discs podcast. Every week I ask my guests to choose the eight tracks book and luxury they'd want to take with them if they were cast away to a desert island and for rights reasons the music is water down the original broadcast. I hope you enjoy listening. The the. My castaway this week is the writer and broadcaster Jon ronson his best selling books and award winning programs? Tell stories about people on the fringes from into chose to porn stars. His choice of subjects
It's prescient them adventures with extremists published in two thousand and one introduced the spirits he theorists and radicals who would go on, to dominate the news agenda in twenty or the psychopath test, debated the narcissistic tendencies of political leaders, the characters he these are not always likeable, but he doesn't judge them, preferring to use a mixture of curiosity and empathy instead to reveal what he calls their human side. He's this technique to great effect in his. Podcast and radio. Four series things fell apart, which investigated the antecedents of today's culture wars. He says I can only it's about a world. That's a mystery to me trying to solve the mystery it's what I enjoy most about writing.
John runs and welcome to that island. High learn. I thank you. Sir John F Kennedy prepare when you're about to interview a new subject, attempt not to prepare a don't, have a list of questions. I want to be like her trapeze artist without the thing up, something that we can lead to the magic circle because I think of it. I have a list of questions. I d: really, you have to listen and then, if you listen, you become a tool can that stream of the conversation and you can go to other places. You don't see yourself as adversarial, but you do an interview, people with very extreme views, many incomplete opposite into your own? How do you keep your pay opinions in check when you are in those situations, I that approach people hoping for the best you've got russian alatri intact. Let you dont give anyone out free pass for any kind of the bombing
so controlling all it, our behavior wet weather victims, but at the same time I think it's esque to go into a situation, just try and connect to somebody on a human level, because you just make it something. Can We unexpected event said all human stories are valid, John. Does that mean there are no limits to what you will consider covering. I want to stories that are just perpetuating what we already think about someone. So, for instance, I wanted a story about a neonazi whose destiny in art I wanted to surprise people. I I want to try and find counter intuitive stories stories that shed light on the world. So I'm not one of those people who just want to hither. That's a terrible person I'll go and spend enough time with them to portray them being terrible and then we'll put out
command ship. Our book about how they're terrible like I won't do anything like that. It's tangy, first disc. What have you chosen and why do you want to take it with you today? Well, when I was twelve, my permissive mother dropped me off at mitzvah, gardens in cardiff by myself to see the specials, and I decided to pretend to faint so in the hope that I would be lifted over the barrier and I could watch the show from the side of the stage. Did it work like a dream? Terry hall said he, oh, are you? Okay and I said, are you in the specials and he said, I'm the singer and for the whole show it was Alice Alice through the looking glass for the whole show. I was standing on the side of the stage watching the specials. It was magical, it was this time I saw what it was like to be in the other world,
call- and the the specialist and a message to you, rudy, so Jon ronson, let's go back then to europe bringing you were born in cardiff in nineteen sixty seven, your dad David run a warehouse and your mom paula was a social worker and if we'd met the young john, What kind of impression do you think you would have made on us one as a very young child? I think I was very insular. I had a lot of imaginary friends to remember we have them, they were. They were kind of imaginary friends, a member then names heck. They will go to zico half below and
Bird said, those words are ass. If I was for, while half the lower and tumble united the names come from cardinals arava, a member, we had left very rounded conversation with it with a good. It was clear that good relationships and what about your parents? How did you get on my mum still is really great, was always very supportive might make my dad was great. He was very solid wooden still in these things, like always pay taxes on time, navigate into financial difficulty, and so my life has transpired. These are the terms of japan's you. Just let you get on with it is that free range kind of seventeen. Eighty answering servants dance when I was but ten or eleven, my grandparents lived in london. So we go to london and at this thing that I would do that there will be chosen with the others would be chatting and sneak out the flat, and
to get on a bus and just get to stay on the bus until the bus driver would come towards the conduct to come towards me, then I jump off the bus and then get on another one and I'd end up all over london or just go for buster buster battle over londoner for hours and after a while, I think, orbit a family. But if I'm away batman, they're, probably worried about me, so I had somehow found my way back to the flat and had come in and they'd go. Oh hi meeting notes that good so gross to that conversation that really notice had been god or a tempting music junior. Second choice. What is it and why are you taking it with you,
Today, I'm a huge fan of cabaret. It's like my favorite thing. I out the most recent production in new york. I saw five times august. Being jewish has got something to do with it. The powers, the authoritarian powers encroaching on people who just want to live free is very, very moving to me and in the original sam mendes, production, Jane Horrocks play Sally bowles and the way she sings cabaret, particularly the last verse, when you think about everybody, thinks of Liza Minnelli version of cabaret, but when you think about it, she's just had an abortion, the nazis, can over germany and the way she just leaks out. Copyright is like a rhyme or screen from her soul is just it just takes the death of you
the goosebumps cabaret
and by jane horrocks in the donmar warehouse production of the musical directed by sam mendes, so Jon ronson. Let's talk about your school days. That was when things got difficult for you in your teens. You were bullied quite badly. What form did the bullying take a cut of all forms? Rarely both physical and psychological? It was at three bad years of cut relentless bullying the air from like fifteen to eighteen, I mean all sorts of terrible things like grabbed and blindfolded, and had my hands tied behind my back and then stripped and thrown into the playground, though that was that was probably the most probably the most dramatic of what you'd have settled. I've always been awkward socially, and I think that was clearly something that they smelt at the time. How did you deal with it? Who did you talk to only talk to anyone? Thus the law
I really appreciate the fact that my parents allowed me to do things like get on buses and lose myself in london and go to the specials and so on. I really appreciated that, but I suppose the downside of that is you're also on your own to deal with the bad stuff. So I didn't really talk to her anyone about it. I remember after while it was covered in its numbing, a member thinking account potent an imaginary suit of armor. And I hope a tech me so a member walkin around in an imaginary suit of armor thinking. Whether can't get me in here did you get the chance to have a conversation with your parents about what had happened to you later when you grow up my father apologize to me for not being there for me when I was in the twenties, did help I'm an officer of the law.
worry about it. I never resented my parents and he they were who they were. You know my dad had his interests it. He he would play bridge knee play golf and anyway did, but he apologized for not being more hands on father. It's probably not too much of a stretch to say that what you went through at school went on to massively influence your work as a writer. How do you cs, as is shaping your approach to your subjects and in the areas that you interested into. Maybe the thing the noise them all about me? Is the same thing. That's bade me good it. What I do love, which is not because I am not naturally,
also purse person, I don't walk into a room and know exactly what to do. I think I'm better at sort of trying to figure out why people behave the way that they do like. If I just knew it, I wouldn't have to work so hard to try and figure it out. So I really really think about these things. Why did that person act? That way? I think it's given me a a higher emotional intelligence than I think I would otherwise I've had ten phoenix disjunct. What are we going to hear? Well when I was around fifteen or sixteen when the bullying was at it's worst guy from a classical will Davis invites me back to his house, and he played me this album. He just got at it with swordfish trombones by Tom waits and the first song on it was like a beacon, I'm in your hair. It's so strange, feels like is coming from another dimension, but also what it's about there's a world going on in the ground, and it was all like that's what I wanted to do with my life
I want to explore the world going on underground, the tom weights and underground joan runs in nineteen. Eighty five. You start a media studies costs at the polytechnic of central london and this was in your modulation. Could it be the time when everything changed and give said that it did your life totally chain?
overnight, but a minute my mother drop me off at those residents and the guy in the next room, dip joshua said there are about with us and with it the click of a thing is my life. Just told me tat. I left I left it all behind. I was where I belonged. It was exciting. I became the social secretary of that of my college and I was in the hadn't one day, the phone I was shattering my predecessor and his voice, Sir Frank's playing at your bar tonight, but I'll keep a player can't make it he's, got medical issues and said we're going to have to cancel unless you know a keyboard player- and I said, I'd play key boss and he said: can you play c f and j at the at? Is that, while you're in luckily safe in jail? So that's how I ended up quitting college and moving to manchester and being in frank, Sidebottom s band? I remember hidden from the music scene of the nineties.
but for listeners who don't talk us through the character. The concept and and very importantly, the large papier mache heads the front where a big fake head that he never took off that never took off in public, but sometimes in private too. Now, if we were going to turn up at the gig, what would we have seen lots of cover versions of pompous pop classics, which he would then skewer, because his character was the sort of weird man child, a cartoonish man, child from south manchester, from timperley and yet most of the songs would be all c f and J, and it would be things like. Oh we well away. Wow rock hill, or I space select lucky
and then you get the picture- and eventually I got fired from Frank spanned, the tax reasons he owed thirty thousand pound tax. He stood up and call the judge that this is very serious. You a lot of money. Thirty thousand pounds have you considered a payment plan and he said to her with a pound a week. Suffice, millard and bitter to note. Without I do is I got we got fired this fact needed the money. Can footpaths any more time for your next piece of music turn its number four? But if you got the bans, the love more than we had a falling out with was the pixies. In fact, I and see them all of the all over the place parameters and the pixies song have chosen a song by the breeders which is a member of he is an advocate and dale who was just? She was like you can hear her smile and in the song she was like the most smiley of all grunge post punk people it's warm and delightful saw one in one of her,
Songs on the island- and this is driving on nine by the greatest driving You could be shot beneath the behind my dr and the the driving on nine. The breed john wants, and he stayed in manchester and worked as a late night radio presented before. Moving back to london, there you wrote columns about family life for the Did you ever worry that you might be revealing too much of yourself in your person?
if in those pieces no not about my own life but about my family life, I've often fats have often thought it's good to write about your own absurdities. Urine ridiculous nessus, because I, like it, since not be high. If I'm going to interview somebody and a b. I will highlight some absurd aspects of this story. You have to do the same thing for yourself to your girl, so you're happy to take it as well as to share in the eyes of never wanted to be high up in some come hierarchy. I've never wanted to be the rapid and to have of righteous society going in to the fringe world of the crazy people and being the right person like I'm right, they're wrong and I've never wanted to be their. Hence the fat rev cut off the poor in my own absurdities into stories, and if I got really in the nineties
he's made louis through- had a bit of a rivalry, a rivalry yeah, and I and I, and even though it was kind of embarrassing that that we had to strive for it. You know I would talk about it because it was so absurd. I used to have this cut the stage that mainly were like college twins and for one of us to grow stronger, the other one had to die, but I would deliberately put those things and for that reason like I didn't want to be a sensible one whose beyond reproach- the first tv series at the ronson mission started in nineteen. Ninety three is on BBC two. How did you get it commissioned mile college lecturer, frank, healthily, etc and call him in time out, which was a matter for governor little mini adventure? Then I'd write about it, so my lecturer, frank heartedly, said I think he could make a tv show a chance at uber meeting with the bbc, so we're into the bbc and John street porter was with it, and I was the head of youth television at the time and she went there
it's a fantastic idea, and I sat there saying nothing because I actually had no idea what the idea was like what they were talking about. I was been commissioned to make a show, and I didn't know what the show was. So you were going to meet people that had a bit of a kind of gonzo feel you said that you'd take something that is huge, will be extremely questionable ideology, and then you puncture it with something colloquial and silly skewering pomposity, so that was that was an attraction, for it was more. Action than being being ideologically against it. I thought it was much more fun. It was more human and fun and revealing- and a new on certain something to connect to. I always preferred that gentle absurdist comedy to polemicist stamps among easy. Your fifth choice today tell us about what we can here. Next well, rounded
Men smoke. Piero noise has been a start. Listen to him when I was eighteen. When I first move to london and ease the first singer, who I knew who really taught Me- new, wants unreliable writers and begin tat. Maybe what your hearing is about? You actually herring and the first time round in human did that he taught me when I interviewed him was with the sun, summoned smith and the amazing dancing there. It's a song there isn't really about what you think it's gonna be about. I I think it's a song about a lovely deluded guy who thinks that if he goes to a restaurant or the rich, people were florida but in fact they just exploiting human laughing at him, and he thinks everybody loves him, but that she then laughing at him. So the last like the song, is very plaintive in and bitter sweet
the good men? The amazing see, the simon, smith and the amazing dancing bear rounding human gene, johnson in nineteen ninety seven, so a few years before the nine eleven attacks, you made a film for channel four called tottenham ayatollah which you say was your breakthrough film. It was about alma, women Hammett, a radical islamist preacher. What exactly did involve we spent a year,
with ozma on his various jihad warriors wow. Well, in retrospect, him in a bunch of them ended up. Blowing themselves are also serious. There were serious doubts Obviously, Omar bakri Muhammad had some extremely unpalatable views. Do you think that you got the balance right in terms of poking fun at him and and bringing out the absurdities that you were encountering, while also, you know addressed, in the dangerous things that these talks by nine eleven and seven seven happened. A few years later. A member mike wine from the jewish board of deputies, spotted a participant as jews said to me during that process he said, I think the world hasn't woken up to the dangers of militant islamism and I didn't
I know that nine eleven was going to happen. Five years later, and what about in terms of the conversations that you had, we were able to challenge him. We were able to ooh. Was that know what you were trying to do? I think not what with what I was trying to do. Their work of a just making a kind of gentle could be dick locker. Somebody tried to started jihad campaign and having to use our symbols to destroy them. How do you look back at it? Now? Only positively, I am really pleased that we did it. We call this moment of makes sense. British militant islamism movement a few years before anything happened to make me call it at at its very beginning. So I'm proud of that A few years ago you made a pug cassie. We called the last days of august about the porn actress August aims. He took her own life and twenty seventeen. You went into quite dark place
Making not series, I think why did working on it, affect you so much the ethics of that too much for me, I realized I was in a. It was an almost impossible ethical situation. How can I do this story? She just died the people around her who could have acted differently, but they've just lost a loved one. Would he do with that? I, I think the worries that rattled around my head so much I had liquor. I guess you call a nervous exhaustion. I got diagnosed with something called adjustment. Disorder, Mccain would have to say it's kind of disappointing name for a dessert. It sounds like accountancy yeah. It must have felt more dramatic than yeah. It was it's situational depression, which is, I think, the best saw a depression to get, because once the situation changes, the depression goes away. Thus, the only time that's happened, our work just got too much. It was to hurt. I mean I had sick about a euro
To be honest us how long it took me to get my strength book it's time for disk number, six john! What's next well when my son was born for some reason, the the only person who would get him to sleep was Fiona apple. There's something about her voice is like calpol. So I have memories, though, from holding my baby in my arms off your lap or played and is finally going to sleep, somebody wanted, one of her songs and after an extraordinary machine, I certainly haven't been shopping for any new issue. I certainly I haven't been spreading myself around, I still travel by foot and by foot it's a slow climb, but I have been uncomfortable, so I can't stop changing all the time. I notice that my opponent is always on the go.
go slow, so the focus Fiona apple, extraordinary machine? and you very open about living with anxiety, and yet your work often puts you in extremely stressful situations. How you need your anxiety at times like that. There is a front of a notice of this at the beginning of the pandemic that it was the people with anxiety disorders, who seemed to be the calmest start. We waited our life for this. This is the moment. We've been waiting for so we'll have this much hun sen yeah. We we would. We figure these things out, went straight into coping mode yesterday into coping mode and isn't that odd? I'm certainly not sure if everyone with anxiety disorders, bad, but it's, but it's true more than I think people would think we spend our lives happiness ridiculous. What, if worries I don't get my wife on the phone. She must be dead. You know there was a time when I was writing. My book them was trying to sneak into a Bilderberg meeting. So these were like this powerful secret group who are meeting in a fight
star hotel? I was trying to sneak in and infiltrate their meeting. Was I worried about that? The night before no I was in my room in a hotel room. This is the day before cell phones trying to reach my wife on the phone, and I couldn't reach her. I was panicking. I started phoning the places too often. What am I minds? I shall have bain. First time I phoned, she will have worked telephone. fallen down the stairs she'd be lying dead at the bottom of the stairs, or my son, who read a bit about two at the time, would be reaching up for the flecks of a just boiled kettle sure. If the fo disaster scenario from the very beginning, when I checked out of the hotel the next morning, my phone bill from that one night with nine hundred dollars just try to reach new life. Eight interesting, though, that if said actually going into those very kind of high stakes interactions.
professionally you're much more comfortable than, for example, being a dinner party are having to make small talk with the person s t, let you feel more comfortable on the background of a porn set, you making a document about that where situations that were the people would have on size, he dreams about for you, you more comfortable there. Much more comfortable with set about giving a guess. You got something to do your gathering material, whereas when you a dinner party you're, just you I'm not talking about just not liking dinner parties onto it about hated them so much. You feel like physically propelled the room, let you need to leave the roman and sit in the toilet for twenty minutes or to get your energy back. Extroverts dont know what this is like, John, it's time for your seventh choice, but and why you take me with you to the island to our last summer, in Britain, before moved to new york with the sum of twenty twelve, which everyone remembers, does the man,
summer, the olympics, danny boyle's opening ceremony and post iman played in hyde park? I went with my son and it was just so much I hope so I wanted it is having a gaffer costs are going to, and I chose this song america, it's a sum. You can have a million times that the gas fine and then on the million first time. You think this is I've heard Simon.
go for Google and america joan wanting you once wrote a piece cold at things before I die in which he said you you'd like to reach the moment when you feel happy with what you've got, how close if you got there yet. Yes, I think so yeah! I do I think of a member. My mother, saying to me you get less ambitious as you get older, less driven enough that's happening. I am really happy lately alone, just constructing my nonsense. Stories and polishing them once have done that I don't really care what happens to them at a really care, whether that successful or not successful. For me, the pleasure is all in that, putting together the story, I'm that's that's enough ass. You know, there's a phrase in duties diane move that is sufficient and that like sufficient for me, you talked a lot today about how important it is to you.
You chronicle your own corks and strange obsessions. You lead you to the very amusing beef between you and me. We threw back in the day, that's concluded friends, yeah yeah
when I'm on it's so nice to sit and watch when a louis documentaries are not feel any thing other than just. You know, joy watching it yeah. You don't want of us being chased by this by the Bilderberg group and a security guard started. Chased me in a car chase ensued and I was like driving through the street. I'm gonna say a cartoon. I was going thirty miles an hour, so the guy behind me was awesome, but if I come faster, a low speed car Jesus, so I phoned at the british embassy and I said I'm being followed by the Bilderberg group and woman for the pigeons to Portugal, and she said what are you doing here? I said I'm essentially a humorous journalist out of my depth. Maybe you can phone the Bilderberg group and explain that and cheese to sounding puzzled. So I said
I said I'm a bit like louis through and she went oh and I said, but actually I was. I was doing that even in even in the moment. I thought these convert to the last conversation I haven't, but I could die want it on record, as I was going to use my last breath on earth Well, John! I'm about to send you off to the islands, didn't you handle it. I think I handle it with a plum go on economic myself, like a spirit, fish topless. I could do that. Italy will go well. for you go we'll, let you have one more tune. What's it going to be so I live in new york now and I've got the apartment in manhattan. Then, We live on the river and look new jersey and very often sit that listening to Bruce Springsteen have become very american. Ask as a listen to bruce Springsteen and nothing else.
At this stage. I always got very moved when I send it a live version of that song and the audience cheers. when the singer name checks the place where they're from I was on a very moving some reason: it chokes me up Nobody loves that more than when Bruce Springsteen mentions, jersey in one of his arms. The cheer suggest incredible. saying ross the it's. Josie girl,
bring steam so Joan once and I'm gonna send you away to the island, I'm giving you the bible, the complete works. If shakespeare and you can take one of the book of your choice, what will it be? I'm gonna choose the biggest book of magnum photographs. You could find hope ones that have too many war scenes or black photographs of, like amazing photographs, I came from family, non writers and so on except my auntie Mavis, who was a photographer and she went on welcome to meet the dalai lama and stuff and cib work for magnum, so maybe one of her photographs will be in some of her pictures will be in the book fantastic. Well, it's yours! You can always have a luxury item. What would you like? I'm sorry I want very well made per legal medical weed made by a spoke weight manufacturer some alike? massachusetts. So that means I can sleep at night, which means when I'm trying to spear fish, then one. I'm going, you know I can do it.
Well there's, allegedly there's plenty of precedent, so that's yours and finally, which one track of the eight that you've shed Yesterday, John, would you save from the waves if you had to jersey girl by bruce springsteen because of the cheering, because you are out yet what a crowd on the island and it's the perfect kind of crowd, because you can hear it, but need to be right in the middle of it. If you want to tell you getting older pleasure without any of the awkwardness, John runs and thank you very much. See your data island discount you own, it was a pleasure, the enjoyed. My conversation with John will leave him enjoying the sound of the crowd on his desert island
castaway many nonfiction writers, including Malcolm Gladwell, added Michael Louis, John friend and rival louisa rule is also in our case, you can find those episodes desert, island discs, program archive and three BBC sounds due to your manager for today's programme was Sarah hockley thesis. Producer was christine pavlovsk and the producer was pull him again. The next time I guess we'll be Frances O'Grady. The general secretary of the british tuci do hope. You'll join us the his back, the hit paranormal podcast returns with some especial, they will tell you tat. It was a real dream holiday running
family trip a lifetime becomes a holiday from was in that room wanted to do at home. I wanted to frighten us the uncanny some especially out now. What do you think was in that house? It's frightened tourists and something else that didn't want us. There subscribed uncanny on BBC It's the.
Transcript generated on 2022-07-11.