Jon Ronson is one of those writers - like David Sedaris - whose voice you hear as you read his words; the soft, slightly effete, often uncert4.5 stars
Jon Ronson is one of those writers - like David Sedaris - whose voice you hear as you read his words; the soft, slightly effete, often uncertain lilt of his sounding in the reader's inner ear. This is one of the things that makes him such an engaging writer, along with his style of placing himself (and his neuroses, which are particularly apposite in this context) directly in view, a method which rather than obscuring his subjects illuminates them, by giving us such an upfront view. The very subjectivity of Ronson's journalistic style allows us to see the complexity of the tale with clarity.
In this book Ronson stitches together, as usual, stories that illuminate a single theme - initially tied loosely but bound tighter and tighter as the book progresses. The chapters each involve a way in which we view madness, starting with his own rather off-hand description of an interviewee as a "psychopath" and his involvement in an entirely unrelated mystery (which is ultimately used to bookend the volume) which then spirals off from his increasing fascination with the diagnosis of mental disorders following delving into the DSM-IV (and subsequent self diagnosis of a dozen disorders). We meet a patient at Broadmoor high security psychiatric hospital, committed following an insanity plea when on trial for GBH and a subsequent diagnosis as a psychopath, a history of that disorder and its diagnosis and treatment, and then on to a gallery of cases involving both people Ronson has interviewed (psychologists, psychiatrists, a former Haitian paramilitary leader, a corporate CEO famous for his glee in downsizing for fun and profit, former MI5 agent David Shayler) and others whose lives have been changed by direct or indirect contact either those who may have psychiatric disorders or with the madness industry tat has grown around them.
The connecting thread is this; that over recent decades we have become increasingly fond of defining behaviours that lay on the spectrum of human personality as 'disorders', using methods which may or may not be scientific and may or may not be accurate. There is plenty of questioning of those methods in this book, but the criticism is largely leveled at those people and organisations that are too ready to use these blunt tools for their own ends - whether it is the pharmaceutical industry and their ever increasing push to medicate human difference or the Metropolitan Police entrapping a neat suspect in a murder case despite a complete lack of evidence, while possibly allowing the actual killer the freedom to kill again.
Ronson is sometimes described as a humorist (as does Will Self in his Guardian review quoted on the blurb) but I think this is entirely misleading. Ronson is and always has been a journalist, albeit one who uses his wit and humour to allow us insights to the things about which he writes, a technique which is also effective when he drops it to highlight the sad or horrific - the town of Shubuta, Mississippi, devastated when the local toaster factory was closed to increase the manufacturing company's share price, the murders committed by actual violent psychopaths, the deaths and harm caused by the 'reality' TV industry when they have focused on a distorted view of what is not 'normal'. And, unlike much journalism, this does not attempt to give definite answers; the threads Ronson has drawn together are tied neatly enough to make sense but with enough frayed, trailing lines to leave the reader pondering long after closing the book....more
While I've read most of Orwell's novels I have somehow never got around to his non-fiction. As I was a journalism student, this is close to criminal.While I've read most of Orwell's novels I have somehow never got around to his non-fiction. As I was a journalism student, this is close to criminal. In happy remedy to this, BBC radio is currently having an Orwell season, all the programmes (readings, adaptations and documentaries) archived for posterity at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01pyz0z so please pay it a visit.
Down and Out in Paris and London is, along with The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia, considered one of the great pieces of reportage of the 20th century. Orwell's description of his time living on (and below) the breadline in these two capitals is breathtaking. He manages to combine a journalistic distance with a visceral understanding and explanation of what it means to be truly broke, to a level which is almost inconceivable in the same societies scant decades later. His descriptions of hardship never come across as unfair or whining, partly because the level of poverty is so extreme but mostly due to the fact that he so often compares his own plight with others he meets who are even worse off than himself; Orwell has the expectation that his privation is temporary (and we know this to be the case, in retrospect) many of the people he meets are sinking to depths he assumes he will never reach, habituated to their lot, or otherwise hopeless cases. Yet Orwell's writing is infused with compassion and a sense of social justice that he is never condescending to or belittling of their situations; without preaching he draws attention to the social inequalities that not only allow but require people to beg or starve, that marginalise a large section of society to the impoverishment of everyone due to the moral damage and human waste this engenders. Such ire as Orwell expresses (and there is not much; this is a book of compassion rather than anger) is reserved for those who perpetuate the status quo - whether they are those who use their power over anyone worse off than themselves, the religious charities who exploit the need of the poor to spread their message or those vagrants who still somehow buy into the injustice.
This is, perhaps, the definitive example of journalism as social activism, and serves not only as a reminder of how things once were but as a warning in a time when social safety nets are being dismantled in the name of austerity of the very real social and human dangers of a society that is happy to regard those who have fallen on hard times as surplus to requirements....more