Robin Ince on The Importance of Being Interested

ROBIN INCE and I are blethering in a London coffee bar as if time’s just been called on Earth’s oxygen supply, and we’ve got to get our last words heard.

Off we go about cult movies (he offers a detailed synopsis of Philip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin) and the difficulty we have disposing of books. Death gets a nod, as does Ince’s thesis that pleasure and joy are almost unnoticed, because they’re everywhere. “We very quickly forget about the wonderful things we’ve got. People lose their excitement because there’s too much. Basically we’re experiencing nothing, because everything is available 
to us.”

Is any of this in your new show, I inquire around about the time my ribs start aching from laughing. With a shake of the head he says, “None of it. I wish it was.”

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Ince’s 2013 tour is called The Importance of Being Interested. “The show is mainly about maintaining interest. It’s about the fact that when we are children, we are allowed to be interested all the time. If we’re lucky we have friends or parents who encourage us to ask more and more questions. And then kind of near 15, 16, to ask a question is a bad thing.

“The journey starts with a Tell Me Why book I’ve got from the late 1960s, full of children’s questions: Why don’t women have beards? What is a Mormon? Do raccoons wash their food? We get embarrassed by the fact that you can’t answer certain questions in a couple of paragraphs. Do raccoons wash their food you can cover in a couple of paragraphs. Whereas ‘Is freedom an illusion? What is consciousness?’, these are the kinds of things we often back away from because it’s a constant reflection of our ignorance. I’m very aware of the fact that when I die, I will be hopefully slightly less ignorant than when I was born, but there will also be a huge area that I will never comprehend.

“The main battle is to make people realise that doubt is important. Doubt is good. The ‘don’t know’ answer sometimes is the box you should tick, and it’s about not being scared about that fact. Even the greatest minds don’t know everything.”

Never lacking in ambition, Ince will start his journey with Pliny the Elder and work his way to the present day from there. But the twin stars of his show are Charles Darwin and Richard Feynman. “I always ask scientists, ‘What do you see in your head, when you’re talking about these ideas?’ About particle physics and what an atom is? I was very interested to find out that very few of them have any image at all. It’s kind of just there. It’s like trying to describe a colour that neither of us can see. It’s a different kind of imagination, even though some of them have quite artistic imaginations as well.

“Part of the show will be about the fact that some people say science is just about accruing facts, and they make this enormous division between the art mind and the science mind. What you see with Darwin is that when he’s looking, his mind is captured by a creature he sees scuttling across a flower, but before he can even properly look at the creature, his mind is suddenly captured by the flower. He says, ‘My mind is a chaos of delight.’ It’s my favourite phrase!”

Ince gives me a potted biography of Darwin – the married years, covering the deaths of some of his children – that touches down on vaccines, before circling back to the great man. “Darwin’s letters are so beautifully written. That’s one of the reasons I like him, because he comes across as a good human being. Quite often, with my shows, the hope is that people will want to go off and read the work of some of the people I’ve mentioned.”

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While Ince is in Scotland, he’ll also be taking part in the Edinburgh International Science Festival. One event will find him interviewing Christopher Sykes, who directed and produced documentaries about Richard Feynman in the 1980s. “He was the one who persuaded Feynman to do it.

“Have you ever seen The Pleasure of Finding Things Out? Feynman, again like Darwin, as a reasonably young man experienced death: his first wife Arlene died very young. He never really wrote anything; all the books are really collections of what he said, or lectures. He was a fascinating man and it clearly dispels anyone’s myth that scientists are somehow these frosty individuals.”

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Ince’s work has evolved quite dramatically, and I wonder how he describes these shows. Do they still qualify as stand-up? “I don’t like to class it as stand-up because I want people to lower their expectations. I don’t want them to think there’s going to be too many laughs. But there are probably enough funny bits. When people ask my job I pass over it very quickly and say, I do radio things about science, then quickly ask, ‘And what do 
you do?’

“I want to create shows which are interesting. I hope that some people are excited by some of the ideas. Every time I find out someone was inspired to start reading Richard Feynman, or some physics, that’s great. I couldn’t call them lectures, I’m not an educator. It’s two hours of mess with the hope that something might eventually stick on you. It’s Velcro! That’s all it is. I used to describe it as the lecture on the cusp of the nervous breakdown near the end of term.”

The man who told me, “Earlier today I was reading some Wittgenstein – but don’t worry, I don’t understand it,” insists he’s not a swot. Like a dragonfly, he skims across the surface of a great many things, but with limited concentration. “I tell the audience I am an idiot bridge.

“The idea is I’m not a smart person but I can help form some kind of bridge to ideas that they can explore and discover how I was wrong about them. That’s it! It’s a nervous breakdown lecture.”

With that, he’s off to perform back- to-back shows at two London venues. I really hope Ince leaves his lungs to science: I’d love to know where he gets his stamina.

• The Importance of Being Interested is at the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 20 March (with an afternoon schools show); Tolbooth, Stirling, 21 March; the Stand Comedy Club, Glasgow, 22 March, as part of the Comedy Festival; the Stand; Edinburgh, 24 March.

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