Working From Home: Episode 11 – How to stay creative when working from home – with Ralph Jones
Nelson connects with author and comedian Ralph Jones. Ralph has written for publications such as The New Yorker, The Guardian, GQ, Vice, The Observer, The Telegraph, New Statesman, Jezebel, and Esquire.
Topics include: how to make your own luck, framing stories when pitching to publishers, Ralph’s writings on Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, differences in writing feedback for different mediums, thoughts on ego, and other topics.
[4:54] – Balancing different interests when working in diverse fields. Finding common threads.
[11:35] – The role of luck in achieving success. Maximizing your luck by producing a large volume of work.
[14:53] – Balancing the production of short-form and long-form content creation, and the value of both.
[19:53] – Avenues for comedians to receive quick feedback on content.
[24:27] – The difference between writing for an audience when someone else is presenting your content (e.g. copywrite for a website) and writing for an audience when your name is attached.
[29:55] – Being honest about what drives us. Recognizing the positives that can come from ego.
[32:14] – The importance of framing when pitching your stories to publishers.
[38:00] – Ralph’s interactions with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
[44:08] – Ralph’s book How to Skim a Stone.
[57:28] – Closing remarks. How to connect with Ralph.
Nelson: Hello, and welcome to the ‘Working From Home’ podcast with your host me Nelson Jordan. Today, I’m absolutely thrilled to be speaking to an old friend, Ralph Jones, who is a journalist, writer, comedian. He once owned a Game of Thrones replica throne made out of dildos, it’s got a very, very high-profile friendship with Dwayne The Rock Johnson, has performed at ‘The Fringe’. And he’s written a book called ‘How to skin a stone’. Ralph, thank you for joining us.
Ralph: Hello, hello, thank you very much for having me. What a treat.
Nelson: No, no, no, no, the treats is all mine, sir. So, you have been kind of in the position where I’d like to call you that ‘annoying friend’. I think everybody has somebody that’s the same age as them, you know, that they grew up with, and then you see what they’re doing from time to time, and they seem ridiculously successful. They seem like they’re doing all of these cool, slightly bizarre things. And you kind of wonder, how did things get to this point? So, I don’t really know where to start with you, in terms of all the bizarre things that that you’ve done? I’m not sure whether they seem normal to you or not. But maybe we can maybe we can talk about journalism first.
Ralph: Well, I think just on that point, I think everyone is completely a victim to that feeling. Because I was just feeling it for about two minutes before we talked about some guy who writes comedy and, you know, got accepted onto some programme and has an agent and blah, blah, blah. And I was feeling it, you know, literally, just before we spoke. I think everyone is, is going to feel that way about someone and about anyone who’s in a vaguely similar field to their own. It’s easy to be very happy for Olympic gymnasts, or, you know, if you’re a writer, and you know that you’re never going to be a fireman. It’s very easy to admire other people in unrelated fields. And as soon as those fields start to encroach on your own, then you do (or you do if you’re like me, anyway), start to feel a bit bitter and twisted about other people’s success. I feel that all the time. And I think it’s very natural. And I’m mainly spurred on by envy and spite, really. Those are my two driving emotions; just competing with other people; trying to prove a point. So, my point is, I think everyone feels that way about someone or other or a collection of people, that are doing seemingly sexy and interesting things. So yeah, it’s a lot less sexy. The reality is a lot less sexy; I promise you.
Nelson: Oh, it always is, I’ve got a bucket full of people like you, where I’m kind of happy for you. But at the same time, very envious and very jealous, at the same time, you know, I want the best for you, but I’d also want to steal everything you own.
Ralph: Well, you know, you know all about the incredible success of our school friends, Tom Bateman, who is now a movie star.
Nelson: He’s in that bucket as well. So…
Ralph: Yeah, exactly. So that bucket includes him. And certainly for me, it does as well. People who, you know, as you say, same age and blah, blah, blah. So, yeah, I think there’s a natural feeling. And I think the big challenge, and certainly for me is to work out how you how you cope with those feelings. And try not to let them stop you making whatever you want to make, and not feel driven to start making things that you don’t want to make, in order to compete in a field that you were never interested in and actually don’t care too much about. Luckily, I’m not being called up to star in many major motion pictures, so that problem is not a pressing one at the moment.
Nelson: Well, once people have seen you on this podcast, Ralph, the calls will be rolling in. I promise you.
Ralph: That’s why that’s why I’m doing.
Nelson: Literally the only reason. Given that you, you kind of operate across so many fields, I know that they all have similarities. But you’re a journalist, you’re a writer, you’re an author now, congratulations. And you’re a comedian as well, I believe you’ve taken the show to The Fringe. How do you kind of balance so many seemingly disparate industries or topics or outlets? How does that work?
Ralph: Hmm, um, they are probably a lot less disparate than they seem because really, you know, journalist, writer and author are all really just three words for the same thing; which is writer. In my journalism, I try to wherever I can, I try to inject some humour and some comedy. So clearly, there’s that big overlap there. I’m interested, both journalistically, and comedically in stories that are very engaging and larger than life. So, stories about eccentric characters, or bank heists, or incredible, unbelievable stories. Which actually, you can either treat journalistically and investigate in that way or you could, if you wanted to, use them as a basis for us for a comedy script. So there’s that freedom, I suppose, if you if you’re in both those worlds that you can use the world in whichever way you like. You can choose to write about something for an article or you can say, that’s a really nice premise for a sitcom, for example. And in terms of balancing, I think it’s a product of just being very restless and feeling as though I want as many of my fingers in as many different pies as possible. So, with comedy writing, practically, it’s very hard to make a living from it, I think. You have to be very good, really, really good, and I think I’m not there yet. So if you want to be a writer, and you write comedy, you either pay the bills by having a totally unrelated job, or you do what I did, which is train as a journalist, a magazine journalism. Which is what I did at City University, seven years ago now, which is a long, long time. I think it’s a really good industry for budding comedy writers. And I noticed that there’s a bit of overlap there, either comedy writers becoming journalists, or vice versa. And the reason I say magazine is because I’m rubbish at newspaper journalism, which is proper breaking news, proper important, sort of public interest journalism. I think a lot of magazine journalists are basically writers who wants to tell stories. And if you’re able to write for either a very prestigious publication that will pay you to be a staff writer, or a variety of publications that you have lots of balls in the air, then you can just tell these weird stories and get paid to do that in a way that makes use of your writing skills. And I think, maybe some comedy writers don’t like the idea of going into journalism, because it might feel like a bit of a compromise or a betrayal in some way. But to be honest, the more I’ve done journalism, the more I’ve felt comfortable with writing in that style, and in a way, writing prose rather than writing dialogue is often easier, because it’s more how we were taught to tell stories growing up. You would write story, it would be once upon a time…and then you would clearly just let your imagination run wild. And actually, I think we’ve all got that training and we all write prose in various forms, all the time. So, if you just do it again and again, which you’re forced to on a magazine journalism course, you find that you’re actually getting better at it. And then you just have to be able to write vaguely entertainingly and without too many mistakes, and then you’ll find that people can pay you. So with comedy is nowhere near that simple, with comedy is nowhere near that obvious You do something that you hope someone will see, and then you hope that that person has something that you’re right for. And that might be not be for five year’s time. And in the meantime, you’ve got to write another idea, and that idea has just been done on TV. So, it’s completely useless for another decade, because they’re not going to do a show about vampires two years running. Not that that’s a personal example, obviously.
Nelson: There’s no need to lie, Ralph. If you want to write about vampires, you write about vampires.
Raplh: I have written about empires, there we go, I’ve said it, burn some a great, a great show on TV for ‘What we do in the shadows’. And I’ve been trying to send this vampire comedy script around. And obviously, I knew about ‘What we do in the shadows’, but what you find is, it’s just got the word vampires and people shy away from it, because they say, ‘We’ve just had a vampire show, no one needs to vampire shows in in the space of like, three years or whatever’. So then, you know, you have to go back to the drawing board. So I think anyone who makes a living from writing comedy, and there are very few people really who do only that, is a wizard or a genius, or, you know, never sleeps or a combination of the three. Because it’s just very hard, yeah, very hard to make it. Certainly if you’re self-employed, and you don’t have another job, and very hard to put a roof over your head with it.
Nelson: So I think there’s so there’s probably some semblance of luck in there as well. In the statement you said before about just putting stuff out hope that certain people see it, who are looking at that time, or probably it happens that they remember a name, they dig something out of their brain. And they think, ‘Oh, yeah, maybe I, I seem to recall, somebody sent something across my desk, like two or three years ago’, and that pops up. There are these things where somebody gets noticed and then they kind of get discovered, and the work rolls in. But I think for the most people, you maximise your luck by putting a certain volume of work out. You know, if you just write one thing and nobody sees it, you’re going to be struggling, whereas if you’ve put out 50, then providing your work is of the same quality, you’ve effectively increased your chances massively.
Ralph: Which is very true. And the theory behind The Edinburgh Fringe really, in the sense that you perform the same show about 28 days running. And clearly, there’s a bigger hope, bigger probability that producers, etc, etc, will come to the show, just because that’s where the whole world is, you’re doing the show 28 times, people have so many more bites of the cherry, they can actually come along and see. In London, that would be hard to do would be unsustainable to do that, unless you were a big name. That is certainly that that theory in practice. But yeah, absolutely. And then in terms of producing loads and loads of work, you just have to make sure that you work out how to solve the conundrum of lots and lots of stuff going out there. But also, that it is the same quality that you want it to be. So that’s, that’s the thing that I struggle with. Certainly, I think with comedy, more than anything else is just how on earth you do it enough, and make it good enough, that people see it. And that when they see it, they don’t think, ‘Yeah, that was right, but you know, not that special’. So clearly, you can neither produce something good every day, nor can you hope to do something once every 15 years. And so, you know, it’s all about managing what’s the middle ground between those two? And I think the problem I have is basically that magazine journalism is so addictive, and you see yourself published so quickly, that I genuinely find it very difficult to turn the speed down, the sort of momentum down. I try and write a script and then write it in the knowledge that it might never get made, or it might never get read, etc, etc.
Nelson: Is that a question of that kind of feedback loop? That dopamine rush that you get, it’s very much a short term, you can you can produce an article, and then the next month either see it in print or, a week later see it online, versus comedy, as you said, you might produce something that literally never sees the light of day in terms of what you’ve actually envisioned for it. Do you try and do it with a certain balance of work? So for every x amount of pieces that you that you do for magazine journalism, you’re right, one comedy, or is it much less structured than that?
Ralph: It should be more structured. Now, if I was a serious professional, I think I would structure it a bit more sensibly. But it is that way, but just not in a formalised structure. So, I will feel that I’ve done too much journalism one week, and then think, ‘okay, really got to do it some time to comedy’. And, you know, that’s a lovely problem to have clearly to be able to dip into those two worlds. But yeah, I think the problem is that, yes, it is the whole feedback loop, it is the idea that really the only comparison with getting published as a journalist, or as anyone writing online, is live comedy. And that means that you’re getting your feedback on stage immediately, and you’re getting it in the same consistent way. So unlike drama, where you might do a whole play, not really get any audible feedback until the very end, comedy is clearly a very visceral form. And if you’re not performing live, it’s really tough to remember that your stuff is funny. That’s why we were lonely and difficult, writing comedy. That’s why so many people do write in double act rather than writing alone. And the flip side, is that if you decide to publish online, and you decide to publish, whatever you want to call it, journalism or, you know, content in inverted commas, you know immediately and very regularly, whether your stuff is working, and I think, you know, everyone is addicted to that fixe. Clearly, we’re all addicted to the feeling that we’re having our things approved by whoever’s out there. I think with comedy, you do have to have an immense amount of willpower just to keep going. And I think stand ups are addicted to the live feedback that they get from an audience. And then it will be very different if they’re working on a script, for example, for months on end. I read articles, interviews with people where they’ve just said, they have no idea whether what they were writing was funny, because they normally have this barometer on stage. And so you have to have a very good self, you know, self-critical system in which you sort of have enough faith in yourself, I guess. But yeah, it’s a good problem to have, certainly. But it does come with really a tonne of really irritating little things.
Nelson: I read that Chris Rock, I think it was, when he’s doing his big tours, he schedules 60 or 70 gigs in really, really small places that you’ve never heard of. And he’ll literally go on stage with a notebook and kind of read out his jokes. And then depending on how the crowd responds, he’ll just cross that one out, or he’ll put like a tick next to it or like circle a particular word that he needs to emphasise more next time, and stuff like that. So it is that instant loop. And because it’s Chris Rock, and he’s at this stage of the career, then people kind of forgive him that because they know it’s kind of more of a DIY show; it’s not going to be fully polished. And they just think, ‘Oh, hang on, I can go see Chris Rock at like my local, like comedy venue, which is fantastic. So those that that trade off there, and by the end, he is able to produce on the 50th-60th show, when he finally hits those 10,000 person arenas, he’s got a very finely polished show that he can roll out. He knows this joke is funny. He knows this one. Is there any way for the comedy writer who isn’t at that stage of the career, obviously, you mentioned writing in judo just is, is a good way. But is there any other way that you can think of that, that they can kind of replicate these feedback loops in some way?
Ralph: That’s a very good question. I think that you, you can do it publicly by testing material online, for example. And that’s a very comparatively, well, I suppose it’s not comparatively high risk in the sense that the live shows that Chris Rock does, will be seen by a large number of people and maybe the same number of people that we’re talking about seeing my work online, (in other words, 100, or whatever). So you can do that, that’s very high risk, you have to be willing to learn in public. Oh, that was a lovely quote from Milton Jones, who’s a comedian, very, very good one liner comedian.
Nelson: I love him; my wife hates him. She absolutely hate him.
Ralph: I can kind of see why. He’s the sort of, you’d imagine is quite controversial, because he doesn’t talk about his personal life or anything like that. But stylistically, he’s very distinctive. He’s got these Hawaiian t shirts, gelled up hair. He’s basically an oiled-up hedgehog on stage. I spoke to him after a show that he did once and when I was very young, so really just sort of as a fan. I went up to him and I think I must have asked him for some advice in that really lame way that I was doing when I was about 20. And he just described comedy as learning how to play a musical instrument in public, which is a really lovely phrase because when you learn to play a musical instrument, obviously, you don’t go and perform your awful violin solos in front of a paying crowd. You just know whether or not you can play the violin, because you hear it’s out of tune, or it’s not. There’s no way of doing that was comedy, there’s no way of knowing whether it’s funny or not. And clearly, people like Chris Rock, and Jerry Seinfeld, and Ricky Gervais, they don’t know, they can’t just book a 2000-seater venue, and then just trust their comedy instinct is strong enough. And they have to do these small shows, as you say. So, in terms of comparisons, I can only say that, as a sketch act, for example, we do those small shows as much as we can, or we did when we were performing before the world went mad. And that was what you did. Basically, you treated every gig as a kind of learning experience. Some of them are absolutely abysmal because your material might be absolutely abysmal. Some of them might be abysmal because the audience is just different to the audience the previous night. Which is why clearly, you’ve got to just keep on doing it, doing it and doing and doing it. And that’s why as a comedian, you just become extremely either delusional or thick-skinned, because you have to keep thinking that your stuff is worth a public platform. And I suppose often it’s not, and you learn the hard way. And then the people that really want to succeed, and the people that are really good, that Michael McIntyre’s and Ricky Gervais’, well Ricky Gervais is a bad example, but the live performers that just keep going, and are the ones that just want it more, and that have that combination of desire and talent. I think that drive is very enviable. Actually, that drive is something a lot of people don’t have, they get comfortable. And then they stop wanting to perform. But I think Michael McIntyre had, I think the famous thing in his autobiography is that he had like an average of three people per show, in his Edinburgh run. You know, we’re talking like 20 years ago, probably. But you know, that is where most people are at some point in their career. And, yeah, do you roll over? Or do you kind of say, I think I’m good enough to carry on going? Tricky, very tricky.
Nelson: I think for anything that kind of involves the risk of learning in public. And when I say risk, very often I’m talking about the risk to your ego, and your self-belief. I’m not really talking about financial risk or health risk, because unless you say something particularly incendiary on stage, your health is probably going to be all right. Like, there are certain comedy clubs in sketchier parts of town that you might get a bottle thrown at you, in which case, there are kind of health risks. But most of the time, the way I kind of see it is, and it’s the same for me, obviously, we’ve got I suppose, tangential careers, and that these days now, most of my income comes from writing. But my income comes from writing in a completely different way to yours. You get paid to write for online publications, whereas I get paid to write for particular businesses. So, I rewrite website copy, email copy, whatever they need really, but within that kind of digital. So a lot of my writing, when I’m not writing for myself is de-risked, because it’s for somebody else, my name is not on any of these websites. You look at b2b, or SAS websites or consumer websites, you won’t see my name anywhere, so there’s that sense of anonymity. Obviously, the clients know that I’ve written it, and I have to face up to how do I create a decent process that means that for every single piece of work I do, it’s the highest quality work that I’m capable of. Because there’s that difference there in the comedy, you’re almost expected to bomb several times before you find like a winning joke, or a winning routine, and that’s kind of weighed up by the fact that the risk is entirely yours. You know, it’s, it’s your face out there, it’s your name attached to these, whereas with my industry, it’s, you won’t be forgiven for that lack of consistency but that’s because you have to perform every single time because the clients are paying you to perform every single time. But your name isn’t attached to it for other people to see. So, I thought I found it’s quite like interesting parallels there.
Ralph: Yeah, I think in order to do comedy, or journalism, where you are front and center, you have to have something, (I don’t want to say, it would be unfair to say something wrong with you), but clearly, you have to have something that’s driving you to potentially suffer this humiliation. And online, clearly, it’s a really dangerous game. If you write something that might be controversial, or you write something that’s just a bit personal, you do open you do open yourself up to potential criticism, trolling, whatever you want to call it. And the desire to be published, despite all of that, has to be really great. And therefore, it’s why I could never be an editor even though I like the journalism industry, my ego is just far too large to not have my name at the top of the piece. Because, in a way, that’s my motivation, because I guess the way that I tell the story, I think is central to the story. And as I say, it’s why I couldn’t be a journalist who actually breaks news, because unless you are a handful of people, you’re never going to be the person who’s in the spotlight, it’s just going to be the story. No one cares about you. Let’s say a big news story, JFK is assassinated or landed on the moon, whatever. It’s a huge story. It’s breaking news. We can’t remember the names, the journalists that wrote about or broke those stories. Clearly, there are exceptions like Watergate, etc. But even in amazingly massive stories, it’s hard to name the journalists. Which is why I do prefer comedy, in terms of, if I was able to make a living doing only one thing, it would be comedy. Partly because it just brings me more joy, but also because the credit is far more directed at you. And that’s I think that’s something that comedians have to be honest about. All writers have to be honest that they do want to be praised for what they do, and that’s why some people couldn’t do it or wouldn’t want to do it. Just because it favours people with very large egos, that need to be massaged all the time.
Nelson: I think you’re doing yourself a slight disservice there. But it is also good to be honest about what drives us. I definitely feel like there’s a part of me that wishes that ego was reframed in a way, and was talked about the positives that come from ego as well as the negative.
Ralph: Yeah, yeah.
Nelson: You know, I think there are both and too often, the word ego itself has negative connotations, doesn’t it? Whereas actually, ego has been, in my mind, responsible for a lot of great technological and societal progress. Over the centuries and probably thousands of years, it’s this innate drive that we want to be remembered for doing something great, whatever that that means to us. I thought it was very interesting what you said about the differences between editing, and actually having your name attached to a story. And I think part of it is due to the medium. I think it’s some of it is, if a story happens, within the traditional news based journalism, would that be like a fair way to find a way to call that or is there a better thing?
Ralph: To describe news journalism?
Nelson: Yeah. Is that just a catch all term? Okay, we’ll say that, then. You can tell I’m not a news journalism, can’t you? The way I’ve understood at least and please correct me if I’m wrong, is that the writers themselves don’t necessarily get to make the final decision on the way that that story is framed. It’s very much they’re told kind of what the story is and it’s their job to kind of piece those together. But ultimately, it’s the publication that they’re actually published in, that decides how that story is framed, or whether that story is even told in the first place. Whereas what I take from a lot of what you do, is that you are the one who decides whether that story is told full stop. You are the one who decides how that story is framed. Because quite a lot of the time, am I right to think that you’re the one pitching these stories in the first place?
Ralph: Yes, I think that’s accurate. Yeah, I think you have to be very good as a freelancer for your ratio, to not be heavily weighted towards yourself pitching to publications. In other words, I might get 10% of my income from being approached by website editors. So yes, it’s largely me putting things out there. And therefore, the story is quite moulded by the way that I have framed it initially. So, it’s quite clear that I’ve put something front and center. And the editor might disagree. And therefore, generally, because I want to be paid, I will listen to what they’re saying and shape it to their advice. And what you’ll find is, the more serious and the more respected the publication, the more likely it is that the editor is going to be really involved and really savvy about how to frame a story. So, The Guardian, for example, is more likely to have a good eye for a story than any number of websites that I won’t name personally. In other words, to be an editor, to be a good editor, you have to recognise what the story is, and how to frame it. So, you’re working with the writer along those along those lines. An inferior website would publish the story, maybe pretty much as the writer pitched it, and the writer might have got it wrong, the writer might have made a really fundamental mistake about what’s most interesting in that story. And the editor hasn’t gone back and said, ‘Can you interview someone else about this, because this bit is actually the most interesting thing. And I think we need to get rid of the stuff, you know, where you talk about these, you know, horses or whatever. And let’s get rid of that. And let’s focus on x’. So, yes, you’re definitely right. In terms of big news stories, the major job of a reporter is actually just finding the information in the first place, and then accurately setting it down. But in terms of how it appears on the page, my understanding is that’s largely the editor’s job, and there will be consultation with the writer, but it’s not a work of art in the same way that a pretentious magazine writer like me would say that that magazine feature of 2000 words it’s a more creative project. A more creative project where the story, and I was reading a piece about this just today, and the story can go in so many infinite directions, that it’s really about, you know, it is a bit like sculpting, you know, you have to edit out all of the things that shouldn’t be in there to create this finished product. And, therefore, is a piece of creative writing, I think. And that’s why it appeals to me. And yeah, news journalism is clearly, the way they teach you news journalism is really that, you have to say, immediately what the story is in the first paragraph. Otherwise, why is the reader listening to you describing the scene in London today, as the sky full of clouds began to adopt a darker hue, and the rain began to fall as COVID restrictions tighten in the capital of the United Kingdom. You clearly want the last bit that I just said, at the very top, and then if anyone is bothered about what the weather was like, then they can read about it later. The very opposite is the case with feature writing, where you’re going to begin by grabbing someone’s attention with a piece of colour, or a piece of dialogue, or just something that’s unusual. You don’t put all your cards on the table to begin with, you’re looking to hook someone for 2000 words, 3000 words or whatever. So, you basically reel them in and say, ‘This is why you should be reading me telling the story, and later on, this is why you should carry on reading’, and you’ve got to put in enough of those little hooks. And it’s the same obviously, as writing anything like writing a novel, or writing a comedy film, anything. The first scene is very important. And it’s likely that your first scene is going to be in a way your most important, although I find ending pieces much, much harder than starting them. I think starting it was quite easy, in a way, comparatively, the ending is ending as a bitch, it’s really hard to ending things.
Nelson: To tie it all up in a kind of meaningful way. Yeah, I think there’s a difference in objective. You know, one is trying to give you the news as quickly as possible and as succinctly as possible, the other one is almost a story unto itself. So it’s, it’s in part, what you’re talking about, but the form of it is just as important, a lot of the time. And so it’s really interesting. I want to go in and talk about some of your stories now, just so people can kind of get a feel. And I think the one that jumps out for me, just because people will know the name is your interactions with Dwayne, The Rock, Johnson. Yeah. Well, that began with an editor at Shortlist, which is the publication I used to write for three years, which is a men’s lifestyle magazine. But it was the editor of the website, not magazine who said, Why don’t we do something where you write about The Rock every single week, for a year. And we just basically hold it up as a role model for men, and someone that we can learn important life lessons from. And that struck me is a really nice framework. I can’t remember why I was chosen but I was someone that wanted to write as much as possible.
Nelson: I think you were probably chosen for your physical similarities, I’d imagine.
Ralph: Yes, yes. We are very similar in shape and size, Dwayne and I. I think he’s just a little bit bigger than me, but I’m not 100%.
Nelson: Tiny bit.
Ralph: Yeah, so then it began. I started, I think it was the calendar year, although I can’t remember off the top my head whether it was starting at January 1st or not, but either way, I essentially just, you know, researched him and checked out what he was doing on Instagram and Twitter, etc, etc. looked out for news headlines about him every single week and wrote 52 things about him. But in the middle of that, and in the midst of creating this juggernaut, he picked up on it because obviously we tagged him when whenever we were tweeting about it, he picked up on it, and essentially supported the whole project with incredible enthusiasm. And tagged me personally, extremely mad things like that, he would say, ‘Oh, the latest column -it was called The Rock Report – so the latest Rock Report, Ralph Jones is not happy with these guys scamming people online pretending to be me’. So that he would pick up on stories like that. There was a story I did on people pretending to be a The Rock and trying to get money from fans. So that went on and on. And then at some point, I can’t remember which month it was, maybe about March or something, he was promoting this mad film called Rampage, where he actually saves the world from mutant gorillas and crocodiles.
Nelson: I think you’ll find that actually, Ralph, he has a friendship with a gorilla called George. So, get your facts right.
Ralph: So I’m glad you’ve done your research. And he was in town promoting that. So, I got a spot on the red carpet, interview him and essentially for 60 seconds. And they said, ‘You’ve got three questions initially’. And then as he approached on the red carpet, they came over to me, his people, and were like, ‘Okay, you’ve got one question’. So, it got tighter and tighter and tighter. And we were filming this thing so the stakes were relatively high. And I essentially ignored them and asked him a couple of questions. But I also said, as soon as he arrived, and it’s me, it’s your stalker is the guy that’s been writing about you for the last – I think it was 14 weeks by that point. He basically lit up, I’ve got film evidence of this, it’s not just my word, he kind of lights up. And he’s like, ‘Oh, it’s you. You’ve been following me around, you’ve been the one’, (and invited security over and took me away). No, so anyway, so he was very happy and we spoke for a bit about the whole project, and he gave it his blessing on camera. So that was amazing. And then I interviewed him again the following morning, again for the same film, and we did a little on camera quiz about his life to answer questions about his life and career. That was really fun. But the red carpet thing was the coolest thing because it was kind of much more high stakes, I guess. There was a big audience of fans and it was the first thing, my introduction to him. And so, over the following months, you know, he would just occasionally chime in and say, ‘Oh, it’s the last ever Rock Report. You know, this guy’s been writing about me for 52 weeks, and now it’s coming to an end’. And so that was that was really lovely, actually, since then, haven’t heard from him at all.
Nelson: The restraining order makes that quite difficult, though, doesn’t it, to be fair.
Ralph: The restraining orders are famously restricted. I can’t talk to him, and I can’t tweet him.
Nelson: So he has his own restraining order out on you? And I figured you were just you were just sick of The Rock following you around all the time, turning up the house.
Ralph: I was I was sick of it. He popped over a few times, for maybe some banana bread. And I was like, this is this is getting too much. And then basically, I think he felt just for the, I think just for the sake of his career, he needed to take out a restraining order. So, he could just get back to work. You know, he wanted to make more films. And we just got to into deep, he and I, after a while. We were staying over each other’s houses and stuff. And it got, you know, it just got too intense, I think. We couldn’t really live without each other for a little while. So, I can’t see him now. I can’t talk to him. Can’t tweet him, which is a shame. But a great friendship. A brief but lovely friendship,
Nelson: It just at a burn bright, as they say.
Nelson: So, so once it wants to change gears a little bit, and you’re also an author of a book, I have read said book. It is very lovely. is it’s very kind of poetically written. And a very sweet little book. So could you tell us a little bit about that?
Ralph: Thank you. Yes, I certainly could. So it’s called ‘How to skim a stone’ and it’s does what it says on the tin. It’s a very short book about how to skim a stone, off the back of my favourite freelance pieces I’ve ever done. It was a real joy to do for The Guardian, who commissioned me to go to the world stone skimming championships on this tiny island of about 60 people in Scotland. I think it’s on the west coast of Scotland, a little island called Easdale which used to be the hearts or one of the hubs of the slate industry in the UK. And clearly, it’s a natural slate producer, and it’s actually completely beautiful there. Really beautiful place. And it was no longer the state producer that it once was. When there was an enormous flood, which essentially put a lot of the island underwater, I believe, and maybe getting that slightly wrong, but it was in the 19th century, and it kind of ruined the production of slate. So that’s the history of the island. But clearly, slate makes for good stones skimming. So that’s why it’s the home of the world stones championships. And because they have these lovely natural stones. So I went up, took the pilgrimage up there, and just discovered an insane world of very competitive stone skimmers. One of whom, you know, I would gladly kind of write a whole other book about, a guy called Ron Long, who is just too good for words. This Welsh man with a big bushy moustache, who has won the ‘Old Tosser’ category at the stones coming championships, kind of like seven years running or whatever.
Nelson: I think that’s my favourite name, ever, for an award, by the way. Old Tosser.
Ralph: Yeah, yeah. So they have great fun with that. And he is he takes it so seriously. And he’s, he’s really good on really good on camera, he’s really good to interview. And he’s got this whole story, which I haven’t got time to go into but he takes it very seriously. There’s another guy who takes it very seriously, who’s 21, Alex Lewis. Who I spoke to in a pub the night before the tournament. And as we finished talking, he handed me a business card, which said Alex Lewis: International Stone Skimmer. So, you had all these ready-made characters for this lovely story, which I obviously told to the magazine. And I entered the tournament as well; the less said about that, the better. And they publish it and it was it was a lovely little feature. And I thought nothing more of it. And then an editor got in touch from a publisher called Quercus. And he said, ‘I noticed that when you tweeted about the story, you said that you would gladly have written 50,000 words about it. Would you want to write a book about this in some way?’. So, I wanted to write a 50,000 word book about it, which unfortunately, got trimmed down to 6000. It’s because it’s part of a series that they do, which is called ‘How to…’ and they do ‘How to play the piano’, there’s the one called ‘How to climb Mount Everest’. All written by genuine experts in their field, I’m the only person who has absolutely no expertise in the relevant field, but I obviously interviews run long, and I interviewed lots of scientists, or mathematicians I should say, about the math of stone skimming.
Nelson: All the optimal angles.
Ralph: Exactly, yeah, exactly. Skim this angle, skim with this whip stone, really tried to get as detailed about it as possible. Because when else can you do that not in a book called ‘How to skim a stone’. So, it’s full of those little bits, full of information about the competitions that you can enter, and also it’s just a love letter to stone skinning basically. It’s reminding me, and reminding everyone else, why it’s such a lovely kind of – I don’t know whether democratic is the right word, actually, but kind of equalising thing. Whether you’re a little boy who’s doing it for the first time and can’t skim more than once, or you’re sort of adult in the prime of their life, you start skimming it for miles, or you’re an old age pensioner who’s remembering doing it in their childhood. It’s kind of really equalising like that, in a way that is not true of lots of sports. I think because you have to buy the equipment or you have to go to a stadium or tennis court or whatever it is, you know? With skimming, it’s very, very basic and a really sort of natural form of entertainment. And I think hopefully, you know, this does some good for the, the, you know, the PR of stones skimming and hopefully it’ll become an Olympic sport, which is one of the things that wants to I think some of it’s advocates want it to become. I would love to see that, that would be a real joy.
Nelson: Okay, well, now they’ve had things like skateboarding getting up the ranks that and that’s been enjoyable to watch. And that’s helped with things like the X Games and stuff. And yeah, I like that kind of understanding of it, and getting back to our roots, getting back to nature, just picking up a stone and being close to the water, is lovely as well. And it’s one of the reasons that I like, personally, I’m a runner, and when you said, I know, you said it wasn’t quite the right word, but yeah, the democratic feel of it, in terms of, all you need is some cheap trainers and then you go. You just head out your door, and then you’re doing it.
Nelson: There’s something to be said about that, that sort of primal, democratisation or whatever we’re going to call it, but that’s such a lovely book. So, I wholeheartedly recommend it. And I have read it, s that’s always good.
Ralph: It’s lovely to see it down at the tournament itself, there’s little kids who just enter into the kids tournament, and then clearly, there’s tourists, so they’re just doing it for fun. And it’s, obviously, it’s not like any other world championship, in the sense that it’s just a day out for lots of people. But what struck me as incredibly funny, and why I think the story did relatively well, was just the contrast between a six-year-old girl turning up and just throwing the stone in and then running away. And then these adult men taking it as seriously as they would take a football world cup or something like that. Because that’s the thing that they are best at. You know, that is the thing that they did better than anything else perhaps. And I love the intensity of it, just the different characters, and I still want to write a film or a sitcom about it. I just think it’s a very rich world. I love it.
Nelson: Sure, no, the story is really came to light. And that kind of rivalry between the old guards and the young guns with different methods. I mean, one part that you skipped over, if you pardon the pun, is didn’t one of them create, like their own lake or pond specifically for it?
Ralph: Yeah, so I discovered this when I did the World Championship story. Ron Long has built an entire pond, in his incredible garden in Wales. And, and he skims pretty much every day, in order to try and improve. And for the book, I was lucky enough to go and visit him and skim in his pond. And he has his own wooden platform, this kind of jetty, that he has built himself. Oh, no, maybe he didn’t build himself, but he’s very much a man who would be able to do some very, very good at manual labour. And he’s got a friend to make some stones specially designed for stones skimming as well. So, they are uniform in shape, and size. And there are three categories and three shapes. So, you’ve got all of the slight 50g stones, then you’ve got all of the 80g and then like all of the 120g, or whatever. And they’re in circular, or triangular or square shapes. And so you know what you’re going to get because they all behave the same, once you understand that they all weigh the same, let’s say. So, he is very much of the opinion that these should be used across all tournaments. And there’s this lovely divide in the World Association where other people say, ‘This just takes all of the joy out of it, because you’re supposed to comb the beach for stones finding this, you know, perfect stone that speaks to you and sort of sings out to be skimmed. And that’s why a lot of us do it, you know, that’s why you go down to the beach and why you skim in the first place, you’re looking for this perfect stone’. So again, I love that there’s this subplot here of the uniform stone enthusiasts, and then the kind of natural organic advocates who want nothing to do with the kind of modernization of the game. So it’s a bit like it’s a bit like VR in football, it’s like there is a new dawn arriving and you kind of wonder how long it’s going to take them to hold it back I guess. But I just love that and I got to skim with him and he was very insulting about my skimming and he’s a very direct, great direct, blunt man and he made for, he’s got some great quotes. He said it would be quicker to train a monkey, then train me how to skim. Lovely. So yeah, he’s great. And that was that was a real joy.
Nelson: Fantastic and I think you’re so you’re so right about those rivalries, like any anytime like it’s like political debate comes up, anytime there’s a sporting debate, you know you have some diehard fans. Obviously, that’s been going on in in the UK for years, that discussion, and people have had various sides. Then I saw something, I think it was last weekend or something with the French Open. Yeah, I think it was. Anyway, it’s the big tennis tournament in Paris anyway. And they had Hawkeye, which is kind of this technology that does something very similar that you can refer to, and then they had it, but for some reason weren’t using it. And that that caused some discussion in our household anyway.
Ralph: I’m just waiting for the Hawkeye equivalent to arrive in the world of stone skimming and then then there’ll be a whole other debate. But I do want it to become more popular as a sport, because then I guess more people will see these interesting discussions take place. But at the moment, it’s this eccentric minority sport. And clearly, that’s the incentive in the first place. That was incentive to write a story because what would be the point of writing the story if everyone knew about it already. So as a journalist, I think that is the holy grail really, you look for untold stories, and then try and find these human dramas in the centre of them. And I just couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome really. A lot of the time, you might go, let’s say to the equivalent event, and they’re just not enough characters and not enough of a plot, and you might write a story which gets forgotten about. So, the stars align every now and again, and you find a story like that. In all the time I’ve been freelance, that’s been my favourite job so far, definitely.
Nelson: Well, after reading the book, I’d say that you’ve done the world of stone skimming at a massive honour. And I was definitely left smiling at the end of it. So where can where can people find that book?
Ralph: Well, it’s published by Quercus but it’s also available on the Waterstones website. Or if you want to support the tax dodging giant of Amazon. It’s also available on Amazon, whichever you like.
Nelson: Perfect. And where can people find out about your adventures, whether that’s your writing, or your comedy writing?
Ralph: So, my website is a good place to start, that’s mrralphjones.co.uk. And then Twitter is very useful for, you know, stuff as it comes out. Also, comedy stuff goes up there as well. So, I am on twitter at ‘Oh, hi, Ralph Jones’, that’s my Twitter name.
Nelson: Well, all of those links will be in the show notes for the episode anyway. So if you’re interested in hearing more from Ralph Jones, his friendships with The Rock, the dildo throne, which we didn’t get enough time to discuss, but I’ll leave that on imprinted in your in your brain and youcan do the rest. But if you just want to get in touch with him or find out more about his stories, and then please go to the show notes. Ralph, thank you so much for joining us, I’ve had a great time talking with you.
Ralph: Thank you very much. It was an honour. Thank you.
Nelson: And that’s it for today. You’ve been listening to the working from home podcast with me, Nelson Jordan. We’ve been talking about the good, the bad, and the ugly side of remote work. Thanks so much for listening, and I really hope you’ve enjoyed the time you spent with us today. If you’d like to discuss the podcast, you want to make a new friend, or you’re interested in working with me on a copywriting or digital marketing project. Then visit nelson-jordan.com. That’s nelson-jordan.com where you can also sign up to my newsletter to hear about this podcast and other exciting projects. Until next week, goodbye.