The acclaimed author and 'chronicler of the human condition' waxes lyrical in Derry~Londonderry
I should probably start with a confession. After all, that’s probably what writer, filmmaker and chronicler of the margins of the human condition, John Ronson, would do himself. The personal perspective is at the heart of all of his work – the observer playing as big a role as the observed.
So in this spirit, let me state that I am a fan. Hopefully not a one-eyed, slavish devotee of all things Ronsonian but, like most of the 150 or so people gathered in Sandino’s bar in Derry~Londonderry on a wet Wednesday night to hear Ronson talk and read, I have enjoyed all of the books.
Ronson is joined on the bill by a local legend, Undertone Mickey Bradley, ostensibly as interviewer but really adopting the kind of role that Ronson himself usually adopts – Bradley inserts an occasional prompt, but is more than happy to sit back and let the subject speak for himself.
Bradley’s relaxed demeanour (he’s probably the most laid-back person in the city, never mind the room) plays well against Ronson’s comic persona as a (self diagnosed) anxiety zone.
A further confession. I have never been to an ‘in conversation’ or a reading with a writer before, so I don’t quite know what to expect. Regardless, the pub surroundings, and refreshments, create an intimate vibe, and the room is in good form.
We kick off with a reading not from one of Ronson’s books, but from his Guardian column from a few years back – the one about his son and the worst swearword ever – which eases us laughingly into the night. This isn’t really a ‘literary’ event, as it turns out, more the writer as stand-up comedian.
The evening is split into two sections. Initially Ronson takes to the podium for a tour through some of his earlier work, before moving onto the couch with Bradley to talk us through his latest collection of stories, Lost At Sea.
In this first part, we get to appreciate the added value of hearing, rather than reading, the stories. Ronson choses the highlights of The Psychopath Test, but with lots of extra colour and anecdote around the published word, adding both to the humour and the insight into his distinctive, immersed and embedded reportage.
Ronson’s self-deprecating but simultaneously self-referencing schtick comes across as well in the room as it does on the page, and there is a real sense of the empathy and sometimes affection for the subjects of his work that shines through in his delivery.
For me, this is what sets Ronson apart as a writer. As he is guided through Lost At Sea by Bradley, we learn about the challenges of discovering that Jonathan King is actually quite a likeable man, despite being a convicted paedophile who is in denial of the impacts of his crimes. Beneath the humor, this is challenging stuff for a writer to get to grips with.
The King anecdote is brilliantly augmented by Bradley’s recollections of meeting King, resplendent in a supersized and multicoloured Afro wig at the Undertones' first appearance on Top of the Pops, and getting some sage advice from the empressario – you need a gimmick of you are going to make it in this business…
As the evening progresses, it comes across that Ronson really does care about his subjects and the strange worlds and even stranger beliefs that they may have. But in person, as in print, this compassion is always undercut with an acknowledgement of the absurdity of a lot of what he sees, and the humour that it generates.
By the end of the night, we have spent time vicariously in the company of Ian Paisley, David Icke, Noel Edmonds, Robbie Williams and a cast of psycopaths, but it is perhaps the story of an ordinary person that really stays with the audience – Richard Cullen, who took his own life, drowning in a sea of credit card debt.
Ronson’s genius is his ability to connect these diverse strands of humanity with humanity, and his night in Derry does not disappoint. My fellow fanboys in the audience leave happy, as do more than a new disciples who queue long after the event for a signing with the man himself.
Nights like this have become a regular occurrence in the City of Culture – decent crowds coming out midweek to hear a writer speak are the norm in Derry at the moment, but Ronson and Bradley bring something new to the table – books, booze and banter, but shot through with some tougher questions for an audience to ponder long after the night is over.