The promotional material stated that on the night of 15 October 2002, author and journalist Jon Ronson would give a reading at Belfast’s Linen Hall Library. What actually took place was nearly two-hours of free association, ping-ponging between whether David Icke really believes that the world is run by 12-foot reptiles disguised as human beings (apparently yes) or whether Ian Paisley might ever change his tune (apparently no). Ronson would periodically interrupt his riffs on bizarre cults and conspiracy theorists to peer out at the audience and ask, “Is this OK?” Yes, indeed it was.
Except for the naggin of whiskey that stood beside the speaker’s standard-issue bottle of mineral water, the proceedings started off conventionally enough, with the appealingly nebbishy-looking Ronson reading a bit from his book Them: Adventures with Extremists. The chosen section detailed how the tables had been turned on him during his investigation into the shadowy and supposedly world-dominating Bilderberg Group, a cabal reputed to include Prince Charles, Bill Clinton and Ireland’s own Tony O’Reilly. In Portugal to pursue a tip that the Bilderbergs were meeting at a golf resort in Sintra, Ronson was followed by a menacing vehicle. After a few hours of this, the pursuing journalist started to feel like prey. Thoroughly unnerved, Ronson phoned the British Embassy and stammered, “I am a humorous journalist out of my depth.” Although he didn’t admit it in his book, he confessed to the Linen Hall audience that when the embassy official taking the call said she’d never heard of him, he explained he was “a bit like Louis Theroux.” Ah, the shame.
When Ronson polled the audience and discovered that most of the capacity crowd had already read Them, he stopped reading in favour of taking questions, which he answered with candour and humour—not to mention judicious swigs of neat whiskey. After about a half-hour of this, he asked if he might smoke, explaining that he was still in withdrawal from the plane ride from England. Enthralled by his tales of weirdness and won over by his self-deprecating wit, the audience would have granted him anything.
Despite—or perhaps because of—the location of the reading, Ronson didn’t spend much time on local boy Ian Paisley. Though he did report with some pride that after his encounter with Ronson, Paisley, whose nickname for Ronson was “the Jew,” would try to silence especially persistent reporters by asking, “Who do you think you are, the Jew?”
After nearly ninety minutes of questions and answers, Ronson finished by reading an account he’d published in The Guardian about a bizarre mural commissioned by his parents for the hotel they own in Wales. The concept started off as a family portrait to grace the hotel’s dining room, but thanks to the artist’s penchant for painting celebrities and his parents’ hubris (his mother had hoped to be depicted offering advice to Mahatma Gandhi and Einstein), it turned into something else entirely.
Ronson’s sane, teasing take on truly bizarre individuals and situations was somewhat comforting in this increasingly uncertain post-September 11 world. Perhaps that’s why audience members asked him to speculate on some topics bedevilling us at the moment, such as the likelihood of war with Iraq (he’s guardedly hopeful that Bush and Blair are just sabre-rattling). By the end of the evening, Ronson had polished off his bottle of whiskey (without any obvious ill effects), smoked a half-dozen cigarettes, and doled out a bracing dose of insight about extremists and their motivations, all laced with astringent humour. And although we hadn’t imbibed with him, the audience went home with a warm glow—and a bit of perspective that might help us make sense of the puzzling world we were re-entering.
Jon Ronson’s website: http://www.jonronson.com/
MARIA BEHAN is a fiction writer and journalist. Her work has been published in The Irish Times, The New Writer and The Stinging Fly and has been broadcast on RTE Radio 1. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in creative writing at Queen’s University, Belfast.