Lost At Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries, by Jon Ronson

Lost at Sea cvr

Having seen Jon Ronson speak a couple of times (about The Psychopath Test), I have an inkling how he must operate – by appearing so unworldly and colourless it disarms his interviewees; plus the likelihood they have never read anything he has written.  Otherwise it is difficult to see why they would open up the way they mostly do.  He has no reservations about asking awkward questions that in other hands would terminate the conversation, which means he gets good interviews and writes enjoyable – sometimes hilariously so – and mildly informative articles.  He is not though an investigative journalist; while he at times tackles serious issues in a measured way, he is usually shallow, and for someone so experienced there is often a wobbliness of tone.

This volume is a collection of articles roughly grouped into themes, and I was surprised how many of them I had read, either in the Guardian or online (versions have also appeared in his previous collections Out of the ordinary and What I do).  That I had forgotten I had until rereading them suggests they are generally not profound enough to stay with you.  He covers the stranger reaches of human psychology, but while he refrains from being heavily judgemental he brings a moral dimension to his work, and on the few occasions he does dig into a story, examining injustices and official neglect, he is excellent.  Some of the lesser pieces though perhaps worked well in a newspaper entertainment context but feel too slight for book form.

He has a particular empathy with people who are sad, and he can spot and gently prick pomposity.  The two elements work particularly well in the opening article on the TV game show Deal or No Deal, with its cast of superstitious, insecure contestants overseen by the preposterously self-regarding Noel Edmonds, about whom the best that can be said is that he is rare among his generation of minor celebrities for not having been accused of sex crimes.  At the other end of the spectrum Ronson follows the trial of the oily and indefatigably upbeat Jonathan King, convicted of sex offences with young boys. A poignant visit to Nevada with pop star Robbie Williams highlights Williams’s interest in ufology and shows him to be a rather lost soul, but sheds little light on the alien abduction phenomenon, or on Williams himself.

The best stories are the more serious ones, such as an examination of how the vulnerable were given loans with such ease before the credit crunch, lenders profiling households with computer programs and then targeting those who were most likely to borrow, even though least able to cope with debt, in the search for easy profits.  His hook is a man who racked up £130,000 of debts on credit cards before he killed himself.  Yet he did not use the money to fund a lavish lifestyle: the debt spiral began because his wife needed an operation and didn’t fancy the local NHS hospital, so she went private instead.  He then found he could only manage his repayments by obtaining multiple credit cards and swapping around balances, a certain recipe for disaster.   The article’s title is ‘Who Killed Richard Cullen?’, the implication being it was not only his own hand that was responsible for his death.  Money played a part too in the murder in France of a wife by a husband with more ambition than financial savvy.  Running a run-down provincial guest house, advertised as being much grander than the reality turned out to be, was the finale of a series of failed business attempts in a downwards financial spiral.  (The terrible customer reviews are still available on TripAdvisor and Mumsnet, and when I looked up Château de Fretay on TripAdvisor to take a look, the site asked me if I would like to stay there.)

By contrast another story, on Christopher Foster, a man who, just before the bailiffs arrived, shot his wife and daughter in the head, then shot the horses and the dogs before setting the house on fire and shooting himself, is much less successful.  It largely deals with his friends at a local gun club he used to frequent, and while it includes an astonishingly tasteless joke about prostitutes, comes nowhere near any understanding of Foster’s motivation in wiping out his family.  Ronson wonders about appearances of affluence being deceptive, but while many people lead lives of quiet desperation, they don’t generally shoot their families in the back of the head, and he gives no answers to the conundrum why some men prefer to kill themselves and sometimes their loved ones than face bankruptcy.

The disappearance of a young employee on a Disney cruise in the article which gives the collection its title opens out into a discussion of just how many people disappear from cruise ships in international waters (scarily, rather a lot), and how such deaths are brushed under the carpet with little or no investigation.  It is truly shocking to learn of one such case that it was not reported at all, and had the person had not been tracked to the ship by her father, the authorities would never have known from where she had disappeared.  There is a hint that not all such deaths are necessarily the result of suicide or accident.  Disney in this instance were most concerned with their corporate image, and the enquiry was scandalously perfunctory, involving a single policeman (who subsequently refused to return Ronson’s calls) being flown out from the Bahamas for a couple of days to interview a few people.  The grieving parents were left with questions to which Disney refused to supply answers, on the grounds it was a police matter.

Ronson has a love of eccentricity, such as the ‘real life superhero’ crime fighter phenomenon, of which he writes with affection, or the man who tried to split the atom in his kitchen, or the bizarre behaviour of broadcaster Ray Gosling who came to inhabit a fantasy world to such an extent that he falsely confessed to having murdered his lover, even though he was abroad when the man died.  He interviews the ghastly arrogant pseudo-psychic Sylvia Browne who brought such misery to families with her wildly inaccurate predictions of the fates of missing persons, inaccuracies for which she had no shame, given to people she considered marks and for whom she harboured only disdain.  The pretentiousness of labelling offspring ‘Indigo children’ is dealt with lightly by comparison – well, it’s not the kids’ fault their parents have co-opted them in their narcissistic self-importance.  The ‘coughing major’ trial, which made Who Wants to be a Millionaire? actually entertaining, is a sympathetic depiction of the case, helped by his prior knowledge of the family.  He examines the Jesus Christians, an austere and unsurprisingly small religious sect who controversially committed themselves to donating kidneys to strangers as an act of altruism, leaving it to the reader to decide whether the members are heroes or manipulated cultists.  An article on American eating competitions lays bare this stomach-churning ‘sport’, and Ronson interviews with compassion an artist who has drawn a series of pictures while on various drugs (these last two articles are not in the 2012 hardback but have been added to the 2013 paperback).

Of the ones that work less well, an interview with physicist Paul Davies about the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, and what will happen should we find it, would have been more illuminating if someone like Bryan Appleyard had done the interview.  Ronson is rather out of his depth with an irascible Davies probably irritated at having his time wasted.  Appleyard would probably also have been more successful at conveying the thinking behind efforts to endow artificial lifeforms with human personality, another Ronson misfire.  Examining people at various wealth levels in the US (though including himself – I was surprised how much he earns) from minimum wage to billionaire, says a few interesting things about their attitudes, but he does not spend long enough with any of them to really dig down into the issues, and at one point seems to be saying that the lowest paid worker, clearly a victim of racism and unfair employment practices, isn’t trying hard enough to better his situation.  A drive from London to Geneva in an Aston Martin, following the route James Bond took in Goldfinger and emulating Bond’s prodigious intake of food and drink, is singularly pointless filler.

One of his themes is self-delusion.  There is an interesting article on suicide assisters who claim to be philanthropically helping people to die, yet seem to enjoy the process more than is appropriate, but the absence of Jack Kevorkian, the granddaddy of the movement, is a significant omission.  A large percentage of the population of North Pole, Alaska, indicate they are happy to live somewhere it is Christmas every day, even though it is hard to see how it can be special when it is there all the time (it’s ‘Season’s Greetings’ for a reason after all).  Ronson visits to learn about a ham-fisted plot by a group of thirteen-year olds to carry out a Columbine-style massacre.  He finds a lot of guns in the town and young children obliged to pretend to be elves while replying to letters sent to Santa from around the world.  One has to wonder why anybody would want to live somewhere like North Pole, Alaska, and what impact pretending every day is Christmas has on mental health.  Perhaps the surprise is that there are not successful massacres.  Whether Insane Clown Posse, a pair of face-painted, poorly-educated, white rappers, are fooling themselves, or simply trying to be provocative, in arguing that behind their violent lyrics they have actually for the last couple of decades been trying to promote a Christian message is left open.  If their initial intention was to smuggle in Christian sentiments, they hid it well.  Perhaps pretending to be Christians is for them the last taboo.

The lack of journalistic balance is indicated by Ronson’s tendency to evaluate individuals according to how much he likes them, to the extent of giving Jonathan King an easy ride, his approach coming across as suggesting he thought the trial was all a bit of a shame really.  One might have hoped that in these post-Operation Yewtree times he would have been somewhat harder, or at least done some research into the dynamics of sex abuse rather than relying mainly on interviews with self-justifying sex offenders.  What makes him successful – his air of bemusement – is a weakness when he is confronted with serious wickedness.

The entry that really summed up the tendency to superficiality in Ronson’s writing though was the article on delving into Stanley Kubrick’s vast archive.  He was invited after Kubrick’s death to visit his home in Hertfordshire and go through the many boxes of material Kubrick had obsessively collected.  Ronson visited the house repeatedly, until the material was donated to something called the University of the Arts London, opening boxes at random and chatting to the people in the house, including Mrs Kubrick.  We do not learn that he made a documentary in 2008, Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes, and as far as the article is concerned the reader, while aware of Ronson’s enthusiasm, merely receives an impressionistic account of Kubrick’s working methods and home life.  The result feels lazy.

You particularly sense he does the minimum to get his story in an article on the Alpha Course, an introduction to Evangelical Christianity, when he is happy to miss ‘the last few weeks’ because he is on an assignment elsewhere.  He misses a session too when he attends a Neurolinguistic Programming course run by Richard Bandler, the inventor of NLP, and TV hypnotist Paul McKenna.  Typically he is more interested in the personalities, in this case the charismatic Bandler, than he is about wider debates on the legitimacy of NLP as a technique.  Being content to dip in and out, have a few conversations with interested parties, and generally rely on his intuition, rather than give himself whole-heartedly to a project and do deep research, undermines the reader’s confidence in the validity of his conclusions.    Overall, Ronson has a great eye for finding unusual subjects, but then does not manage to make the most of the opportunity.  Financially though it has done him no harm.

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