The quite interesting digital world of the podcaster, publishing disruptor and QI’s oldest elf.

John Mitchinson’s Twitter bio sets out the marvellous eclecticism of his life succinctly. He is, as it tells us, the co-founder of Unbound, a revolutionary publishing house which puts the power in the hands of consumers. It does this by crowdfunding all of its projects, thus – and in adherence to its tagline – ‘liberating ideas’ that don’t quite fit the often-narrow mould of traditional publishing.



He is also the co-host of the Backlisted podcast in which he and Andy Miller discuss a book as nominated by their weekly guest, as well as the wider idea of what makes certain stories endure.

And finally, in his words, he is ‘the oldest of the QI elves’ – one time head of research – and co-author of the official QI series of books. Given all the hours of spare time the mere three parallel careers must afford him, he fills the chasm by keeping pigs, sheep and bees at his Oxfordshire home.

Here he tells us why he buys the same books in multiple formats for daytime and night-time reading; how recording his podcast has been a lockdown lifeline; why he’s recently found himself feeling sorry for Skype; and how Tim Berners Lee’s munificence in gifting the world the internet makes him the Tesla of tech.

My favourite website...


This is a little bit like asking a truckdriver if they have a favourite road. The internet is where I spend too much of my life, and the site I use most is Wikipedia. It takes its fair share of flack – some of it deserved – but let’s be honest, can you imagine life without it? When people fantasised about the revolutionary democratising potential off the internet, what they described sounded a lot like Wikipedia.

My favourite app...


Like most people, I suspect, I have phone full of apps I no longer use. The ones I do use – Twitter, Instagram, Facebook – can’t really carry the adjective ‘favourite’ with any conviction. I like the Met Office app for its terrifying (and usually depressing) accuracy.

My favourite blog...


I’m not massive consumer of blogs, although I keep promising myself an afternoon playing around on Substack to discover some new ones. The last one I really warmed to is called Horses Noise by the poet Timothy Thornton. It’s odd and touching, slightly off centre in its interests and perspective. And, like anyone who reads and thinks, I’m in awe of Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings.

My Internet hero...


Tim Berners-Lee, forever. He could have ‘monetised’ his insight that hypertext would link computer users into a World Wide Web and ended up richer than Jeff Bezos. But like Nikolas Tesla and his invention of AC electrical current – he chose not to, and gifted his invention to the world.

My favourite podcast...


Like a lot of podcasters I spend more time making my own than listening to others. The two I’m pressing on others to listen to this month are Winds of Change by Patrick Radden Keefe, about how the CIA might have written the song that became the anthem for the collapse of the Soviet bloc; and The History of English. Impossible not to love a podcast that takes 145 episodes to reach the year 1400 and has four dedicated to the Great Vowel Shift alone.

My favourite YouTuber...


Unbound publishes both Dan NerdCubed and Stuart Ashen, so I’d better opt for them. In truth, I don’t ‘consume’ YouTube. It is associated almost exclusively for me with American and Australian men shouting about films or food from the laptops of my three sons, now in their late teens/early twenties.

My most recent buy online...


Filé powder – an essential ingredient in making gumbo, the great dish of New Orleans, which my wife Rachael has perfected to assuage her feelings of homesickness. She grew up in Petersfield but has adopted New Orleans as her true home.

Last book you downloaded or read...


Another impossible question. I’m awash with books in all formats. I try to buy as many as I can from our excellent local bookshop, Jaffé & Neale, in Chipping Norton. But because I often wake in the cold, small hours of the night oppressed by nameless dread and find reading is the best antidote, I often download the same books to read on my phone, so I don’t have to turn on the light and wake Rachael.

Favourite tweeter...


After twelve years, I still find Twitter a convivial place. Two accounts that epitomise that are the LRB Bookshop (@LRBbookshop) and the Museum of Rural Life (@TheMERL). Wit is a rare and precious commodity and they both have it in abundance – nor do they fear entering the green valley of silliness when circumstances demand it.

Favourite Instagrammer...


This is the easiest question to answer so far. Stephen Ellcock’s (@stepehnellcock) account is the one I send people to when they ask – usually with a sneer – what I mean by ‘curation’. It is a magpie’s nest of paintings, prints, photographs, colours and textures, themed into the most beautiful and inspiring threads. It does more to fill my lungs and brains with the pure, clear air of creativity than any ‘calming’ app can or will.

Favourite tech gadget...


Surely everyone has to say their smartphone here? I mean, I hate and resent it, but carry it everywhere. The universe in your pocket. A portable miracle machine.

The most useful gadget/item on your desk...


I have a letter knife that has beautiful Venetian glass beads in its handle. I get sent a lot of books and it’s useful for slicing and stabbing through the Sellotape. Gets rid of a lot of tension.

Most useful digital resource during lockdown...


Again, I feel the rest of the planet joining in here… Zoom, alas. I found myself feeling sorry for Skype the other day. The sooner we can all get back down the pub the better.

Most inspirational digital resource during lockdown...


I hope this doesn’t sound self-regarding, but the extra Locklisted episodes we record for people who subscribe to Backlisted’s Patreon are the things that have kept me afloat over lockdown. Andy Miller and Nicky Birch are such generous and stimulating companions, and the luxury of being able to talk about the things you’ve seen, listened to and read in company of that quality has been a lifeline. That this process has worked for so many other listeners too is a wonderful bonus.

First thing/app you look at on your mobile when you wake up/in the morning...


Twitter. Then Instagram. The Facebook. Then the Met Office. Then Gmail. I’m depressing myself just typing this…

Last thing you binge-watched...


I’m about to commence season five of The Wire. It has been a revelation, of course. The best texture of any TV show I’ve ever watched – I feel like I live in part of my week in Baltimore now – though for character and pathos, I’m still Team Sopranos, with Deadwood a close second.

Favourite brands have you discovered online...


Not really ‘brands’ as such. Plucky online makers and artists via Etsy. But I do think brands I love offline – like the All Blacks (I grew up in New Zealand) – are nourished and maintained by their online presence.

Social media allowed me to meet...


So many people I now count as friends. And to keep friendships going that might otherwise have foundered.

The best digital advice I've been given...


Never argue online. No one has ever changed their opinion because of an argument conducted via social media.

My screensaver is...


A photograph of the Hawk Stone, a local Neolithic standing stone.

My standout online memory...


I don’t think I have ‘online memories’. And it’s a slightly terrifying thought that the thousands of hours of Zoom calls and evenings spent doomscrolling are changing the deep structure of our consciousness. But then I think, has a millennium of reading really done that? Are we really changed by what we consume? Whenever I get fearful about the impact of technology on our lives, I remember Douglas Adams’s brilliant line: ‘We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works.’

My pet online hate is...


Those dead pages every Zoom call opens in your browser for no discernible reason whatsoever.

Do you have any online rules or resolutions?


No, I don’t. I probably should. I try not to take my phone on walks but then think, ‘Ooh – what if there’s a lovely photo op?’ So I take it and, generally, there isn’t. Because, as Instagram constantly reminds me, some bastard’s always got their first and done it better.

The Internet. On balance, a force for good or ill?


It’s made by humans, go figure!

By Nancy Alsop
March 2021

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