Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries (Anglais) Relié – 11 octobre 2012
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(This story was published in the Guardian on July 16, 2005, two years before the global financial crash that began with the subprime mortgage crisis of July 2007.)
It is a wet February day in a very smoky room in a terraced cottage in Trowbridge, Wiltshire. A portable TV in an alcove plays the news. Everything in here is quite old. No spending spree has taken place in this house. There are wedding and baby and school photographs scattered around. Six children, now all grown up, were raised here. There’s a framed child’s painting in the toilet, a picture of Wendy Cullen. It reads “Supergran.” When I phoned Wendy a week ago she said I was welcome to visit, “Just as long as you don’t mind cigarette smoke. I’m smoking myself to death here.”
The “Congratulations! You have been pre-approved for a loan”– type junk mail is still pouring through their letterbox. Wendy has just thrown another batch in the bin.
“You know what the post is like,” she says.
“I don’t get all that much credit-card junk mail,” I say. “I get some, I suppose, but not nearly as much as you do.”
“Really?” says Wendy. “I assumed everyone was constantly bombarded.”
“Not me,” I say.
We both shrug as if to say, “That’s a mystery.”
IT WAS A month ago today that Wendy’s husband, Richard, committed suicide. It was the end of what had been an ordinary twenty-five-year marriage. They met when Wendy owned a B and B on the other side of Trowbridge. He turned up one day and rented a room. Richard had trained to be an electrical engineer but he ended up as a mechanic.
“He loved repairing people’s cars,” Wendy says. Then she narrows her eyes at my line of questioning and makes me promise that I am not here to write “a slushy horrible mawky love story.”
“I’m really not,” I say. So Wendy continues. Everything was normal until six years ago, when she needed an operation. “I couldn’t face the Royal United Hospital in Bath,” she says, “so I went private. I took out a four-thousand-pound loan.”
She says she remembers a time when it was hard for people like them to get loans, but this was easy. Companies were practically throwing money at them.
“Richard handled all the finances. He said, ‘I can get you one with nought percent interest and after six months we’ll switch you to another one.’ ”
But then, a few months after the first operation, Wendy was diagnosed with breast cancer and Richard had to take six weeks off to drive her to radiotherapy. The bills needed paying and so, once again, he did that peculiarly modern British thing. He began signing up for credit cards, behaving like a company, thinking he could beat the lenders at their own game by cleverly rolling the debts over from account to account.
There are currently eight million more credit cards in circulation in Britain than there are people: sixty-seven million credit cards, fifty-nine million people.
He signed up with Mint: “Apply for your Mint Card. You’d need a seriously good reason not to. What’s stopping you?”
And Frizzell: “A name you can trust.”
And Barclaycard: “Wake up to a fresh start.”
And Morgan Stanley: “Choose from our Flags of Great Britain range of card designs.”
And American Express: “Go on, treat yourself.”
And so on.
Right now nobody knows how Richard Cullen’s shrewd acumen fell apart.
“He wasn’t a man that talked a great deal,” says Wendy, “and he never, ever discussed finances with me.” But somehow it all spiraled out of control.
Wendy first got the inkling that something was wrong just before Christmas 2004, when the debt-collection departments of various credit-card companies began phoning. He called them back out of his wife’s hearing.
“You know how men will walk around with their mobiles,” says Wendy. “He used to go out into the garden.”
She looks over to the garden behind the conservatory extension and says, “He was a very proud man. He must have been going through hell. They were very, very persistent. I don’t think he was even phoning them back in the end.”
Finally, he admitted it to his wife. He said he didn’t seek out all of the twenty-two credit cards he had somehow ended up acquiring between 1998 and 2004. On many occasions they just arrived through the letterbox in the form of “Congratulations! You have been pre-approved . . .” junk. He said he thought he owed about £30,000. There had been no spending spree, he said, no secret vices. He had just tied himself up in knots, using each card to pay off the interest and the charges on the others. The fog of late-payment fees and so on had somehow crept up and engulfed him. He got a pair of scissors from the kitchen and cut up ten credit cards in front of her.
On January 10, 2005, Richard visited his ex-wife, Jennifer, who later told the police that he seemed “very quiet, like he’d retreated into himself, like his mind was gone.”
She asked him how his weekend was. He replied, “Not very good.”
Then he went missing for two days.
“Nobody knows where he went,” says Wendy.
On the morning of January 12, Wendy’s son Christopher looked in the garage. It was padlocked, so he broke in with a screwdriver. There was an old Vauxhall Nova covered with a sheet.
“I don’t know why,” Christopher later told the police, “but I decided to look under the sheet.”
Richard Cullen had gassed himself in his car. He left his wife a note: “I just can’t take this any more and you’ll be better off without me.”
WHO KILLED RICHARD CULLEN?
For instance: Why did so many credit-card companies choose to swamp the Cullens with junk when they don’t swamp me?
How did they even get their address? How can I even begin to find something complicated like that out?
And then I have a brainwave. I’ll devise an experiment. I’ll create a number of personas. Their surnames will all be Ronson, and they’ll all live at my address, but they’ll have different first names. Each Ronson will be poles apart, personality wise. Each will have a unique set of hopes, desires, predilections, vices, and spending habits, reflected in the various mailing lists they’ll sign up to—from Porsche down to hard-core pornography. The one thing that’ll unite them is that they won’t be at all interested in credit cards. They will not seek loans nor any financial services as they wander around, filling out lifestyle surveys and entering competitions and purchasing things by mail order. Whenever they’re invited to tick a box forbidding whichever company from passing their details to other companies, they’ll neglect to tick the box.
Which, if any, of my personas will end up getting sent credit-card junk mail? Which personality type will be most attractive to the credit-card companies?
I name my personas John, Paul, George, Ringo, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick, Titch, Willy, Biff, Happy and Bernard. And I begin. --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Broché .
Revue de presse
Ronson is a tenacious, often courageous reporter, whose keen sense of humour never detracts from the integrity of his journalism Sunday Times
Simultaneously frightening and hilarious --The Times
"Will Self pretty well nailed it when he dubbed Jon Ronson as one of the finest comic writers working today ... Ronson is highly adept at knowing when to take his foot off the comedy pedal, a skill which gives a collection such as Lost at Sea a solidity and pace" --The List
"Jon Ronson is a man of many talents... As in all of the author's full-length works, the driving force behind each of the 24 pieces here is his fascination with strange behaviour, the human mind and alternative thinking. The accounts are all composed with Ronson's legendary flair" --Nottingham Post
"Funny and thought-provoking... Ronson has an eye for the quirky, and Lost at Sea amply demonstrates the winning combination of wry curiosity and self-deprecation he brings to these encounters"
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The stories are loosely tied together as "strange things we are willing to believe", and almost all of the stories fit into this rubric. Of the one's that don't, I am glad they were included anyways. The only one that feels really out of place is "The Name's Ronson, Jon Ronson", his story about reliving the drive from the Goldfinger movie.
Here are my favorite chapters:
* Insane Clown Posse - This chapter starts off the book, and it is fascinating. I have never listened to an ICP song, and don't plan to, but their now-professed Christianity, or at least spiritualism, is worth reading about. As soon as I read this chapter, I knew I would love the book.
* Robot Interviews - Ronson interviews the most advanced Artificial Intelligence robots that we have today - really interviews them - and collects his findings here.
* Indigo Children - How did I miss this? A huge group of parents/families deciding that their (maybe) ADHD children are actually the next evolution and saviors of the world . . .
* Alpha Course - As a Christian who has always been very involved in church, and now serve as an elder, I was interested to hear Ronson's take here. He gives an honest account of what he thinks and I found it moving and insightful, as well as extremely fair. I have not participated in Alpha Course, but know many who have. Also, speaking in tongues like described . . . unbiblical and I would find it just as weird.
* SETI and Paul Davies - Great interview with Paul Davies about aliens and SETI.
* Stanley Kubrick's Boxes - Ronson somehow gets invited to sift through all of Kubrick's personal belonging after he dies, for days and days. Fascinating insight to a great movie director and the real work behind genius.
* Phoning A Friend - The story of a family cheating the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire show. Hilarious and sad at the same time.
* Richard Bandler - The inventor of NLP, some of his background, and an interview. Scary and fascinating at the same time.
I could keep listing them, but I'll leave some to your imagination. Great read, extremely entertaining and insightful. You will learn while you read, and enjoy yourself while you do it. Highly Recommended.
In several pieces, Ronson employs rather original ways of handling the subject. In "Who Killed Richard Cullen," which looks at a man who committed suicide after running up credit card debt, he adopts multiple personas to see which gets the most credit card junk mail solicitations. In "Amber Waves of Green," he includes himself in examining the lifestyles of people in "six degrees of economic separation." Once content with his own lot, he becomes envious when interviewing a woman several rungs above him. "A very small amount of money," the woman explains when asked how much she pays her business manager. "A hundred thousand dollars a year....The trick is not to be too rich."
Real heroes emerge, as well, such as the two men who donate a kidney to strangers in "Blood Sacrifice." Ronson's usual skepticism is even overcome a few times, in his travels, too. Some of the subjects will amuse you, others baffle you, while others will likely make your skin crawl. While some ramble on and display a lack of empathy, others are more tuned in and even have a sense of humor. Fans of Ronson's books will definitely enjoy "Lost at Sea."
This is my first experience with anything Jon Ronson has written (although I've seen the movie based on his book The Men Who Stare at Goats). I found him to be very adept at getting into a subject, participating (as a journalist) in the story without overwhelming it.
Lost at Sea is a collection of essays, some written so recently they seem almost presciently timely while others were obviously from some years ago and, as a result, seem quite dated and don't have anywhere near the impact they must have had originally. The book is divided into five parts which consist of a mix of essays that fall (in my opinion) into a handful of categories ranging from compelling and thought provoking to human interest stories that aren't all that interesting (what basically amounts to filler).
Among the more compelling stories were ones that touched on one or more of the following subjects -- artificial intelligence, Indigo children, a game show cheater, good Samaritan organ donors, religious orders/cults, the seamier side of assisted suicide, an encounter with famous psychic Sylvia Browne, the possible homophobic discrepancies in prosecuting pedophiles, income disparity in the U.S., and the way in which cruise lines fail to cooperate when those on board disappear.
To be clear, these subjects are not necessarily the main focus of the individual essays, in some cases it's simply a byproduct of a larger issue or story that is being pursued while in others it is the primary story being investigated. In fact, in at least one instance -- the possibility of homophobic discrepancies in prosecuting pedophiles which was only lightly touched on in a bigger story about celebrities in the UK being investigated as child predators -- I found myself wishing the author would drop the main story and follow up on the side issue.
One of the better essays is the one which examines income disparity in the U.S., the author interviews five people in varying income brackets ranging from a dishwasher living below the poverty line to a billionaire who resents that his success has often led him to be portrayed as greedy or a bad guy.
I also found one in which the author immersed himself in a religious self-help style seminar group -- a series of motivational type meetings that claim to convert and convince atheists, agnostics and those in doubt of the existence of God -- to be quite interesting. Particularly the way he describes himself being drawn into the group think mentality.
One essay that I'm sure was particularly eye opening when it was first published in July 2005 deals with the unscrupulous ways of banks/money lenders and how a person's personal information can be collected, sorted and resold by companies that specialize in providing a target demographic to its corporate clients. Unfortunately, with all that's happened in the years since, most of what the essay deals with is old news at this point.
The book does shine a light on some of the more absurd and inane things people will believe in, while also counterbalancing nicely with stories of genuine seriousness and sorrow.
Overall it's a good book. I don't think anyone who enjoys reading about the modern human condition, told with a mix of humor and compassion, sorrow and silliness will be disappointed.
***I received this book as part of a free promotional giveaway contest.
I enjoyed learning about eccentrics (also referred to as collective craziness) all over the world.
Religion seems to be a big draw for kooks. From Rich Agnostics (only wealthy are invited) in London either finding the Holy Spirit or being brainwashed, (depending on how you look at it) to Jesus Christians giving one of their kidneys - Free - to fit in with their cult.
How Indigo Children are treated in England. I foolishly thought they were an American phenomenon.
An aging rock star - hiding from his fans but embracing aliens - not the ones from Earth.
There's a chapter on SETI - scientists trying to find aliens and what will happen if they do : - )
North Pole, Alaska teenage boys poorly "planning" murder and mayhem to a border town in Wales where well off men actually commit murder and mayhem.
A cruise with Sylvia Brown the queen of grumpy, phony psychics. That one really cracked me up. Jon was much kinder to Colette Baron-Reid who appears more sincere and capable.
A fascinating chapter on Stanley Kubrick!
Another fascinating chapter on the person who invented Sirius Radio. He/she also invented a lifesaving treatment for a lung disorder AND is working on a tryly life like robot.
A unique look at people's income and their lifestyle. 6 degrees of separation takes on a whole new meaning.
Jon also takes a stab at living like James Bond. His difficulty with the Aston Martin is endearing.
There are more interesting chapters. I like the way Jon approaches and develops each subject.
You don't have to read the book in order although it's broken up into 5 parts of similar topics.
I'd recommend LOST AT SEA .
That said, the collection is excellent. Most of the pieces originally appeared in the Guardian newspaper, and I had seen only a couple of them previously. Basically all of them share in common Ronson's fascination with people living in extremis. He doesn't just visit an odd place, he visits in order to talk with the odd people living there. He doesn't experiment with living like a poor person (as Barbara Ehrenreich might), he talks with poor people. Though these essays are all written in first person, and Ronson is a character in every one, he is never the main character and he seems legitimately fascinated with the people whom he discusses, torn at times by his sympathies for them individually but ultimately willing to judge them, if they have been foolish or evil.
The book is split into five sections, representing different sorts of subjects. Section Three, "Everyday Difficulties," is about people who had run out of money, or committed terrible crimes, or at least considered doing so, or had a loved one do so. Basically, seemingly(?) normal people for whom things have gone terribly wrong. This section was hard to read. Life isn't easy enough to take any sort of pleasure in reading about the misfortune of others, however sympathetically portrayed.
That said, the strengths of the other parts of the book outshined that section. The parents who think their kids have magic powers, the pop stars obsessed with UFOs, the billionaires convinced that society is out to get them. These pieces were all worth reading, and I think will remain so for many years. Even after the particular psychics, pederasts, religious cult leaders, and dotcom millionaires of whom Ronson writes fade from our memory, similar characters will surely arise. Ronson writes about particular people but his theme is always the human condition.