Making Waves is The Frame Loop’s column on radio. Jon Ronson on… returns to BBC Radio 4 tonight: join us for a look back at the past six series of stories exploring the light and shade of human nature…
Jon Ronson is lying awake at night, obsessing over a moment in his childhood that has for plagued him for the last two decades. Before he became an investigative journalist and the author of The Men Who Stare at Goats, he was thrown into a Cardiff lake by a group of friend at the age of 16. Unable to shift the embarrassing memories, he turns on the computer, finds one of the aggressors on Friends Reunited, and emails to let them know he’s now a successful author, and probably makes more money than they do.
Retiring back to bed, he finds himself conspiring to attend his upcoming high school reunion with a package for the raffle that he intends to represent his ‘fantastic life’; copies of his bestselling books, a handwritten note from Nick Hornby, and a photograph of himself with Zoe Ball. The next morning, he realises how obsessive he’s been, and speculates whether he’d fabricated the cruel nature of the fateful lake incident. Over the next half an hour, via a visit to the reunion itself, we find out that he, in fact, hadn’t.
Jon Ronson On... began on Radio 4 back in 2004 as a platform for the journalist to explore one aspect of human nature a week . Ronson would mine his own neurosis as a starting point, and his tendency towards self-deprecation and willingness to share elicited honest and forthcoming storytelling from a wide array of interviewees. Running to six series, the programme stood alone on the air waves due to Ronson’s endearing presence as host, which fell somewhere between layman and philosopher, but also because of the enthralling presented by his guests, who ranged from Ronson’s media peers to members of public who had experienced something extraordinary.
The stories Ronson uncovered were unpredictable and frequently shocking in their striking, unformulaic nature. A fine example arrives in the opening series’ episode ‘Comfort of Strangers’, in which Abdullah Redpath recounts his experience interrailing in Spain as a youth. He and many of his fellow passengers had just finished their A-Levels, and a palpable sense of optimism pervaded the language barrier. He got talking to a native fellow-student, Christiana, as well as a group of German adolescents, who, buoyed by post-exam excitement and alcohol, began leaning out of the carriage’s open doors.
Their game didn’t end well, and Redpath’ s voice grows graver as he describes a startling turn of events. The events drew he and Christiana closer, and as they moved onto different towns, they exchanged addresses. While in Granada, Redpath had all of his possessions stolen. Once he got home, a host of letters of letters were awaiting him: only, without a return address. Had no way to reply to her correspondence, which began enthusiastic and emphatic, yet became less so after months without a response. He was devastated, and never forgot about her. Years later, Redpath thought he recognised someone in a crowd at a sporting event in Scotland. He realised, once he’d left, that it was Christiana’s travelling companion he’d met on the train. ‘So there’s no happy, redemptive ending to this story?’, Ronson asks, his optimism all but dying.
Poet and broadcaster John Osborne plays this episode when tutoring on the storytelling potential of radio, one of his students claiming, aghast, ‘that’s not the way stories are meant to end!’. But it’s typical of the highly memorable narratives Ronson elicits from his subjects. Missed opportunities which fester as regrets form a recurring motif across the programme’s six series, but not every instance is like Redpath’s; Ronson is always keen to hear how people have learnt from the past, or at least to live with their shortcomings.
‘Voices in the Head’ features Eleanor Longden’s testimonial of her mental health difficulties during her first year at university. She began to hear a voice which commentated on her actions, at first infrequently, but soon became more prominent and accompanied by an image of an ‘immensely tall’ man, who appeared ‘swathed in black’ with a hook for a hand. He began to dictate increasingly bizarre commands to her, such as to dress all in black, or pour a glass of water over her tutor’s head, mid-lecture (she complied to both).
Soon enough the commands became more violent in nature, and it got so bad that she tried to take an electric drill to her head to rid herself of the voice. Longden was committed to an institution, but after a short while her grew condition grew worse and she came to hear as many as twelve voices.
Longden eventually learnt how to overcome her problems, with the help of counselling and psychotherapy, and even learnt to harness them to her advantage; once she was able to return to university, she sat an exam where the voice in her head dictated her essay answers. She eventually graduated with the highest degree University of Leeds had awarded a Psychology student.
Graham Linehan and Ronson at TAM London, 2010
Elsewhere, many of the programme’s finest moments arrive courtesy of Graham Linehan. The comedy writer’s youth was blighted by a French exchange pupil, Christoph, who bullied the young Linehan throughout his two week stay in France. Upon his return to Ireland, he spent countless afternoons plotting his elaborate own back he tells us. However, Christoph immediately fit in with the coolest kids at school, beat Linehan up in a swimming pool, and even turned his own friends against him.
The writer tells us; ‘ my sense of injustice was so keen, I just couldn’t sleep sometimes’. Linehan launched into planning ‘the perfect murder’ – he’d travel to France, ring Christoph’s doorbell, stab him through the heart, jump into his waiting taxi and hop on the plane home, leaving without a trace and no discernible motive. He fantasised over this throughout his boyhood years to an obsessive degree.
Eventually, he found that ‘as soon as Father Ted took off, I kind of dropped it’. He concludes that reminiscing about how much he cared what people thought about him as a youth, and all his time wasted worrying about not being ‘cool’, made him appreciate his current situation all the more.
Linehan’s story is just one of the countless instances in which Jon Ronson On… proves that sharing our regrets, fears and deep-seated afflictions can be rewarding, and that radio can be enriching, and a hell of a lot of fun at the same time. It’s a programme full of normal people telling their compelling stories, all pulled together by a host who knows how to get the most from them – and it’s worthy of your time.
Listen to past series at Jon Ronson’s website