The Humber Mouth
Hull Literature
Festival 2002

Hull Literature Festival 2002 
 the humber mouth  14th - 24th November 2002

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Tariq Ali

An Evening with Jon Ronson

Weird Sisters Get Around

The Man with the Flower in his Mouth

Reality TV-How Real is Real?

Pete McCarthy

The Vagina Monologues

Reading the Metre

Canongate Crime

Robert Edric

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{ Critical Eye on-line critic }
Diane Dubois

An Evening with Jon Ronson
Hull Truck, 22 November

I fear for Jon Ronson's safety. I really do. He seems like such an innocuous bloke, an innocent abroad, quite often in La-La Land. He makes his living hanging around with scary people who speak in hushed tones of shadowy cabals who rule the world from five star hotels with golf courses attached. He guilelessly asks them the most unaskable of questions, then records and goes public with their responses. He himself admits to being "a humorous journalist out of my depth." Isn't he just the most loveable, sweet little counter-espionage undercover poppet you ever saw? He comes across as all soft voice, floppy clothes and with absolutely no airs or graces, and talks about scary apocalyptic cults.

He opens by reading from his book, with its wickedly portentous title, Them. He relates an encounter with the Ku Klux Klan that took place in a car park in Michigan. The Klan, it seems, are desirous of a makeover. They realise that we are turned off by their unfortunate association with burning crosses, lynchings and the N-word, so seek to jettison these and replace them with a series of social skills seminars, to be held in someone's basement. However, the Klan's leaders find themselves in something of a double bind, as it turns out their most recent converts only signed up because they wanted to hate people.

Immediately one sees similarities between Ronson and Louis Theroux. Finding himself on Richard and Judy with a bulimic, a pro-life campaigner and conjoined twins, Ronson looks at the twins and realises that they are like he and Theroux: "For one of us to grow stronger, the other must die." Like I say, I fear for Ronson.

Ronson seems to live in some sort of spoof spy novel full of cloak and dagger nonsense. Then, out of the audience, a disembodied voice says, "Tell us some more about the Bildeburg Group, if you want . . . " Suddenly, Ronson's lifestyle does not seem so nonsensical. He speaks of mysterious gatherings of world leaders-real famous ones, folks; be afraid. Robed and cackling in a secret forest clearing, they come together once a year to burn a human effigy in a huge, owl-shaped furnace. As you do. They call this the 'Cremation of Care', where they symbolically purge all the troubles of the market economy before jetting away on holiday. OK, sounds innocent enough, I suppose . . . but why the cackling?

Another question comes in from the audience, who, incidentally, all seem alarmingly knowledgeable about 'what really goes on in the world'. Given that official knowledge surrounds us all the time, the audience member asks where we can go to find the truth. Ronson has some advice for would-be investigators: dress preppy, and give the guard an 'I rule the world' wave, and you can waltz into just about anywhere. Another audience member helpfully shouts out the address of a website, which I am reluctant to reproduce here, in case it activates some sort of freaky Internet link, and I get, well, you know, like, disappeared.

Conspiracy theories, I always thought, were a little bit like religions-grand narratives that function to create a sense that everything that happens in the world, and everything that has ever happened, does so for a reason. Certainly many conspiracy theorists approach you with at least as much missionary zeal and conviction as even the most ardent Jehovah's Witness. For some, God provides the answers. Others have the Illuminati, the Skull and Bones Club, or, if you are David Icke, giant bloodsucking paedophile lizards. People are drawn to these and other crazy-sounding interpretations of the world and its history partly through the forceful persuasiveness of their spokespeople and partly because they seem to have all the answers, seem to have it all worked out. If that sort of reassurance is what you are looking for, then it is not hard to find amongst the dozens of competing factions of fascists, fundamentalists and other peddlers of 'truth'.

Amidst all this talk of 'we' and 'them'-and I must confess to being a little confused sometimes as to which 'we' we are talking about-Ronson warns that many of the people we should fear may well be on 'our' side of the fence. Ronson sees our post-September 11 world as one of a "burgeoning Cold War of paranoia." He is alarmed to see seemingly sensible people asking exactly who or what Icke refers to when he speaks of twelve foot bloodsucking paedophile lizards. "Do you mean Jews?" they ask. "No, I mean lizards," he replies. "No you don't. You mean Jews," they persist. So who is it again who is crazy, please? I'm lost. Ronson, himself Jewish, sees one of the effects of the attack on the World Trade Centre as a world-wide increase in anti-Semitism, and one wonders whether some paranoias are worth hanging on to, just in case.

For it is without doubt that Ronson is Captain Paranoia. Several times during his show, he stops, mid-flow, to ask his audience whether his show is going all right. This rather disrupts the evening, as it results in Ronson losing his thread, forcing him to ramble about in a meandering and unstructured manner until he finds it again. This rambling he attributes to a desperate craving for a cigarette. He lights one on stage, and is only halfway through it when a shadowy figure emerges from front of house and insists he extinguish it immediately. How did she know? See? They are after him.

Despite much flippancy, Ronson is seriously aware of his responsibility as a writer. He sees it as his duty never to simply go in and reinforce anyone's strong sense of superiority at belonging to the sensible, liberal mainstream. He looks for the humanity in even the most unpromising of places, and always tries to find some sort of common ground. We may speak of delusional people, frightening media manipulators, or even a conspiracy of giant lizards, but we should remember that, for every 'we', there is a shadowy, implied 'them'. What is more, as far as they are concerned, maybe 'we' are 'them'.