Robin Ince, comedian, writer, broadcaster, presenter and Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association was recently at the Edinburgh International Science Festival, presenting Funny Way to Make a Living, and was kind enough to spare a few minutes to talk to GeekChocolate about good books, bad books, the sceptical movement, and his upcoming tour with Professor Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh, the Uncaged Monkeys.
Geek Chocolate – You like books about giant crabs. When do you think rampaging mutant animals will once again light up the silver screen?
Robin Ince – Well, there is the possibility that the giant rampaging mutating creature will return now, because it wouldn’t surprise me if what happened in Japan will now mean there’s going to be some spill. In fact Godzilla is about to be remade by Gareth Edwards. We’ve had Megashark and all those kinds of things, but I think it’s time to get them out of the sea and back on land.
GC – Surely not all the science fiction and horror books you read as a child were wretched tales of mutated crustaceans rampaging through the home counties?
RI – The odd thing is, apart from James Herbert, I read very few books when I was a child. I was surrounded by books, but I didn’t like them until I could read grown up books. I would read Douglas Adams over and over again, and then I read James Herbert’s The Spear, which was about some Nazis, I think. I do remember it was particularly blood-curdling. I think there is always a selection of youths who go into the woods and imagine the most unpleasant things happening, gory things, and buy Fangoria. And then normally grow into the most timid vegetarians.
GC – With all the time you dedicate to scouring charity shops, do you get to read any modern books – preferably good, although if there is anything spectacularly bad you need to draw our attention to…
RI – I actually haven’t read a contemporary bad book for some considerable amount of time, apart from Ann Coulter’s Godless: The Church of Liberalism, but I knew what I was walking into there. Most of my time I’m researching. I’ve just read Superstition by Robert L Park, who wrote Voodoo Science, which is absolutely great, a very enjoyable read. I had a few weeks where I would read as many books by one person as I could in a week, so I did Jacob Bronowski, Ascent of Man, then collections of his lectures, I did Steve Jones, Almost Like a Whale, Language of the Genes, then got distracted and that had to end. I was reading Tim Flannery, Here on Earth, a very interesting explorer and scientist, which has just come out. He wrote a very interesting book about climate change, and he’s now working with the Australian government on that. He’s travelled the world and clearly has that great eye for detail and imagination that inspires you to read about science.
GC – Did you have to get approval from all the authors included in Bad Books prior to their inclusion, and how did you persuade them to agree?
RI – Well that’s interesting, because I’m not entirely sure how that worked. The quotes had to be short, because then you can get around stuff. The strangest one was probably getting the drawing of the rabbit being held by a strange hand, from The Book of the Netherland Dwarf. The wonky hand, the strange scared rabbit, and a military sleeve, and I think that was probably the strangest request to a publisher, because the Netherland Dwarf book has some very bad illustrations, and I don’t think the publisher had ever been asked before, “Could I print this in something?” Why would you want this? There were a couple of times when they had to be tender in their requests.
GC – You said earlier that you would have liked to have done more with the book, had you the time.
RI –I’d liked to have analysed how very cheap literature really gives you a sense of an age more than great literature, which is often dealing with philosophical ideas, which will go on forever, whereas something like Suedehead or The Devil’s Rider and other thrill-seeking novels of skinheads and Hell’s Angels and even giant killer crabs novels, they give you a certain idea of what were the opinions of the day. There’s not a deliberate idea to encapsulate what maybe bigots of 1975 thought were the general day to day opinions of people, but I think by chance they happen to give you that, and I wish I’d dealt more with that. I wish I’d done less about my bugbears. I’d just read too many newspapers, too many bigoted columnists. I was writing a stand-up show at the same time, and some of those ideas work perfectly well in spoken word, but I’m not sure if they work so well as furious sentences.
GC – You’ve been a champion of the Peter Buckley Hall’s Free Fringe in Edinburgh the last two years. In these times of cuts to the arts, do you think it’s important that access to live entertainment is thrown open to all?
RI – I think it’s very important. I’m doing three shows this year on the Edinburgh Fringe, PBH’s Free Fringe, two at Canon’s Gait, and one at The Order of Wild Buffalo, some gentleman’s club with a room surrounded by bits of buffalo, sounds very strange. I think the Fringe is meant to be about experimentation. If someone is paying £14 to come and see me, I feel under a lot of pressure to make sure the show is worth £14, and sometimes that pressure can lead to a mediocre show, but if there’s just a bucket at the end, I can experiment as much as I want, in fact I think the shows get better. If every member of the audience popped £3 in the bucket, the performers would be doing perfectly well out of that, and it means they’re having a much more enjoyable time artistically. That was what the Fringe used to be about when I came up to Edinburgh as a teenager, I would be able to see two or three things for a few quid. Now people can only go see maybe two or three shows a day maximum, and that’s going to cost them £50, so I think for creativity, and the happiness of an audience, it’s a very good idea.
GC – You’re currently on tour with Professor Brian Cox, Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre, the Uncaged Monkeys.
RI – It is basically seeing lots of entertaining lectures thrown together, like channel hopping, if TV only had on science and education, but it’s certainly accessible. It’s meant to inspire people to get even more interested in science, and hopefully leave with a few ideas that they didn’t have before. Everyone leaves and gets on the internet and goes “I didn’t know anything about this.” Certainly Brian’s shows and Simon’s and Ben’s books, all of them are for the interested reader. Someone asked me the other day, will people who aren’t into science not like it? I said, as long as people are interested, not even in science, just interested, that’s all that matters, you should enjoy it.
GC – Many people are resistant to science, as though it was somehow separate from their mobile phones, games consoles and digital cameras. How important is it that a general audience becomes engaged with science rather than threatened by it?
RI – We often hear scientists need to communicate more. I actually think that’s not the major problem. I think the problem is people need to go “I need to know this, I should know about this.” Quite a lot of sceptic movement was about monsters and psychics, and now they’ve readdressed themselves slightly. Once it gets to things like homeopathic cures and various quack remedies, the good thing is, people actually feel that is part of their life, they might be getting ripped off, and once you get involved, you realise more things.
Climate change is such an important one, because whether you believe we are close to the end of human civilisation, or whether you think maybe there’s only a possibility it’s going to happen, the moment you’re entering that debate you need to have some understanding of how science works. We have some of the cheerleaders against the idea of man made climate change openly admitting they don’t read the science, they think science is just about opinion. I think it’s very important to have a little bit of grounding, or at least understand who you can trust, in anything that is going to interfere with your life. That’s one of the hardest things. You might not have got the science right, but know who you should trust, and that’s not down to their personality, or some Victorian physiognomy thing about the size of their nose. Don’t trust them just because they’re “an expert,” you still have to read around.
Carl Sagan mentioned it in The Demon Haunted World. We have become very lazy, believing things we shouldn’t, because our lives are so comfortable in this particular part of the West that it’s allowed us to not notice science. When you could first have clean water from a tap, that changed people’s lives, and they would have noticed the change, and we don’t notice because we’ve got clean water, we’ve got access to electricity, we have airing cupboards and dry towels. It’s an amazing world.