Out of the Ordinary: True Tales of Everyday Craziness, by Jon Ronson

Out of the Ordinary cvr

Jon Ronson certainly has a knack for recycling his material.  Having read bits by him in the Guardian over the years, I found myself initially thinking I must have read versions of pieces in his 2006 collection Out of the Ordinary: True Tales of Everyday Craziness in the newspaper, before realising I had read them in his 2013 collection Lost at Sea, and indeed there is a note in the later volume stating that portions, in slightly different form, had already appeared in Out of the Ordinary and What I Do: More True Tales of Everyday Craziness (2007), which follows the same format – there is even less in that one not cannibalised in Lost at Sea.  At least half, and the better half, of Out of the Ordinary I had read elsewhere, sometimes more than once.

In the first part, much of it cobbled together from his diary-format newspaper column, his family looms large, particularly his relationship with his irritating small son Joel and, as written, passive-aggressive wife Elaine.  Jon is ostensibly trying to give the former a ‘magical’ childhood but also wanting to bask in the glow cast as creator of the magic, to the bemusement and often irritation of the latter.  The overarching theme is the ‘domestic craziness’ bubble within which Ronson lives in Islington (of course), but frankly it’s a dull kind of craziness, and cannot be made authentically crazy by the frequent use of exaggerations such as ‘yell’ ‘shout’ and ‘shriek’ when recounting conversations.

A trip to meet Santa in Lapland in ‘A fantastic life’ is of greater interest to the Ronsons than to anyone else.  Much better is ‘The family portrait’, the tale of his eccentric hotel-owning parents commissioning a portrait in which the Ronson clan will appear among depictions of celebrities.  If the idea is terrible, the painting’s execution is even worse.  The account of it all though is hilarious, and one suspects that Ronson is settling familial scores.  In ‘Messages from God’ (‘A message from God’ in Lost at Sea) he attends an Alpha course run at Holy Trinity Brompton.  ‘The Frank Sidebottom years’ describes his stint as keyboard player in the Oh Blimey Big Band, a story which evolved into Frank: The True Story that Inspired the Movie (2014).

In the second half, all appearing in Lost at Sea as well, ‘Phoning a friend’ is the sad story of Charles Ingram, the ‘coughing major’ who won a million on the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Game show and ended up in court, his career in ruins.  The poor man would be largely forgotten if he didn’t keep turning up in Ronson’s books, surely constituting a form of cruel and unusual punishment.

‘The fall of a pop impresario’ is about the trial of sleazy Jonathan King for having sex with underage boys.  Ronson is incredulous at King’s self-justifications, particularly the comparison of his plight with Oscar Wilde’s, though Ronson concedes that heterosexual celebrities got away with things gay ones didn’t.  Now we know that showbiz paedophilia extended much further than King’s stamping ground, the Walton Hop, but the portrait of an unrepentant King and various cronies with whom he associated is no less distasteful.  But then the Paedophile Information Exchange (1974-84) was legal, saying much about the values of the period in which such practices thrived.

‘Blood sacrifice’ concerns the Jesus Christians cult’s efforts to donate kidneys to strangers as an expression of their faith, and it deserves to be longer.  The chapter concludes with an account of the Ronsons’ difficulties with their son’s private primary school and the manipulative behaviour of the head teacher in enforcing conformity among the parents, expulsion (Ronson’s word) the ultimate sanction. Ronson likens it to the kind of influence cult leaders wield, finding parallels with the Jesus Christians.  His conclusion: you can find this control in everyday life; you don’t have to be a fully paid-up cult member.  In the version in Lost at Sea the school section has been omitted, perhaps for legal reasons.

The book concludes with ‘Citizen Kubrick’, Ronson delving into the vast archive of Stanley Kubrick, who had died not long before, ostensibly in search of Kubrick’s ‘Rosebud’ to give the article some structure (hence the nod in the title to Citizen Kane).  It’s a random and unilluminating investigation that would have worked better, and certainly been more informative, had a film historian been the one to open the boxes and make the inevitable documentary (the Lost at Sea version has been expanded and much improved, and should be read rather than the one in Out of the Ordinary).

The amount of material in this book that has been recycled is frankly a liberty.  Surely Ronson cannot be so hard-pressed he needs to keep repackaging the same stuff with slight tweaks.  He is an uneven writer, but it would help if he left out the smug domestic details and concentrated on investigations.  One telling piece of autobiographical information is the fact that when he was at school in Cardiff he was thrown in a lake for being an ‘arse’.  At a school reunion he is told he still is an arse, just not a pubescent one.  It’s easy to see how the lake incident happened.

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