At first glance Jon Ronson might seem an odd choice of speaker for the Occulture Festival which returns to Brighton next week.
After all, the festival attracts esoterics. The audiences are likely to include many people who believe in something. And Ronson seems to specialise in not believing in anything.
He questions the orthodox and unorthodox alike.
His innocent approach has rather amusingly snared some subjects but also engendered sympathy towards some unlikely people.
Ronson, 45, said that he took part in Occulture in Brighton a few years ago – 2003 – and it went well. He also spoke during the Brighton Festival last year.
He seemed modestly unsure as to why he was picked to give his impending talk and said: “I’ve always felt that the name implies that they’re interested in the occult.
“I see my audience as a broad church. I’m a hardcore sceptic. I believe in trying to take a scientific approach.
“I completely realise that some sceptics are quite pig-headed and dogmatic about people who believe in things.
“I’m a humanist. I like people. I believe in tolerance. I may not necessarily agree with people who believe in the paranormal but I respect their right to believe in things.”
Although he advocates a scientific approach, those in his audience who favour folk wisdom may well approve of the way that his last book seemed to debunk one branch of medical science.
The Psychopath Test – A Journey Through the Madness Industry made psychiatry look more like voodoo than a rigorous and impartial scientific framework.
He confronted Robert Spitzer, the editor of psychiatry’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
Under Spitzer, the DSM ballooned in size – although he decided that being gay was no longer a mental illness.
But being a bored or boisterous child can be. And those medicalised conditions are proving highly profitable for the pharmaceutical sector.
Ronson asked Spitzer whether he had “inadvertently created a world in which some ordinary behaviours were being labelled mental disorders”. Spitzer said: “I don’t know.”
Ronson also interviewed the eminent Robert Hare. The gentle mockery of Hare’s widely used Psychopathy Checklist, Revised (PCL-R) cast doubt on the balance between inconsistent value judgments versus scientific measure.
And he suggested that business and politics may attract a worryingly high proportion of psychopaths or psychopathic types.
He said: “I can see all the ambiguities. It’s very easy to see psychopaths. We’re all people. We’re complicated and there are grey areas. There are a lot of semi-psychopaths.”
An earlier Ronson book – The Men Who Stare at Goats – has been turned into a Hollywood film starring George Clooney.
“It was adapted in Brighton,” Ronson said. “The screenplay was written by Peter Straughan.”
Ronson sometimes comes to stay with Straughan, who lives in Hove, and who, with his late wife, was also the screenwriter for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Of the screen adaptation of his book, Ronson said: “It had a very warm heart to it. I just enjoyed the whole experience of it, having George Clooney muscling into your life.
“I visited the set for a couple of days. It’s a lot more boring sitting on a film set than you’d imagine. Some people are working harder than you could possibly imagine and other people are just sitting there for hours and hours. I found it fascinating.”
Ronson, who has presented six series of Jon Ronson On for Radio 4, is writing a film script himself. It’s a comedy about a band and, for now at least, the film’s called Frank after one of the characters.
He also has a book out for Christmas – a collection of his writing called Lost at Sea. He said: “All my stories are about people who are lost at sea.”
Jon Ronson is speaking at Occulture at the Friends Meeting House from 7.30pm on Thursday 5 July. Tickets cost £8.
Occulture runs from Monday 2 July to Friday 6 July. Most of the events are at the Proud Ballroom (formerly the Hanbury Arms) in Kemp Town and most tickets cost £5. They are available from http://occulture.tv/
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