Tom Hodgkinson: the hardest working man in slow business
The editor of The Idler magazine on his new book, and why we should all be a little more idle
A life of idleness
It’s been 27 years since Tom Hodgkinson launched his magazine The Idler, advocating a slower pace of life with time for rest, play, cloud-spotting and creative day-dreaming. He’s been its editor ever since, as well as writing several books on how to be idle, and developing a whole ecosystem of Idler events, courses, talks, retreats and festivals.
When the magazine made its debut, the Telegraph newspaper said Hodgkinson would need imagination to keep the joke going. Later, when he and some of his team were given jobs at The Guardian, the satirical magazine Private Eye called it “a one-joke Will Self fanzine staffed by friends of the former junkie”.
Hodgkinson is characteristically sanguine about such barbs. It got the magazine noticed, he says. “What they didn’t realise is that how you work and how you live is the biggest subject of all.”
The Great Resignation
Far from being a joke, The Idler‘s concerns now seem more current than ever, with the growing interest in living well while consuming less, the FIRE movement (Financial Independence Retire Early), and the pandemic, which gave many a chance to rethink their relationship with work. After the lockdowns, so many people chose not to return to jobs that made them unhappy that it’s been dubbed The Great Resignation.
“Every year we say, ‘This is going to be the year of The Idler.’ And it never quite is, so I’m slightly cautious,” says Tom. “But a lot of people had the experience of being furloughed. Previously when you talked about idling, a four-day week, or a Citizen’s Income, there was this idea that people would just watch TV all day, drink beer and eat junk food.
“That’s incredibly patronising. But when people were given that leisure time and a financial cushion, they did up their houses and gardens, they read more books, they learned languages.. All this idling stuff that we’ve been promoting, people do very naturally.
The life-changing magic of being frugal
“Before, it was all about hard work. [Former British Prime Minister] David Cameron was always talking about ‘hard-working families’. But for once, governments were saying, ‘Please don’t work! We’ll pay you 80 per cent of your salary, just to stay at home and do nothing.’ You were doing your social duty by idling.
“And now people are thinking, ‘Maybe I don’t want to want to go back to commuting two hours a day and doing something I didn’t enjoy just to make money to buy things I didn’t need in the first place. Or to buy a silly expensive car that put me in debt.”
Not everyone can cut costs, he acknowledges. “There are periods in life where you do really need quite a lot of money. When you’ve got young children, for instance. And I get that. We’ve got three children and a mortgage! But do you need quite so much? And what do you actually need to be happy?”
He’s not minimising the impact of the pandemic. “Obviously it was a nightmare for a lot of people. My mum was seriously depressed, she hated it. But some people were happier. The pressure was released. We were all in it together. And people really did discover the bare necessities.
“We had a really nice time going on family bike rides along the river in London, and when it was sunny, it was sort of blissful. Hammersmith looked like some kind of William Morris-type paradise with happy families, picnicking or cycling along.”
An Idler’s Manual
He has just published a new book, An Idler’s Manual. An antidote to those prescriptive self-help books that urge you to get up early and work hard, it’s a short, amusing introduction to idling, with short essays each explaining his 24 rules for a slower, more restful life.
He wrote it quickly, over the summer over 2021, which he says isn’t quite the feat it sounds. “This one was a bit of a cheat because it was partly assembled from the newsletters I send out each Thursday. I went back and looked at the ones that have been most popular and liked. Also, it was only 20,000 words. It wasn’t really a whole book.
“We went camping in Wales and we had a really nice caravan, with broadband. When everyone else went out, I had about three hours each day on my own, which was quite an efficient way of working. I just did that on the iPad, using Google Drive. I went through old newsletters and I did about 8000 words in two weeks.
“Then I had another two-and-a-half weeks on holiday in Italy, staying with my friend Kamin Mohammadi. I’d work from about 9.30 or 10am till 1pm. Then I’d have a glass of wine, lunch, a nap and a walk. My son came too and occasionally, we did a day trip to Florence. Then in the evening we’d all eat together.
“In my mind, I was DH Lawrence or something: writing a book in the morning, drinking at lunchtime, sleeping, going for walks and picking grapes. So that was lovely, and I got a lot of work done.
In praise of self-publishing
“We had the idea in July, and it was published in September. It’s all self-published, so I didn’t have to write 29 proposals to different publishers then have them turn the book down two years later!”
Having published books the traditional way, he found the DIY route liberating.
“It cost us £7000 in total. The printing was £4200. The original idea was to make a gift for subscribers to welcome people to the Idler world and say thanks for joining us. Then we decided to sell them as well, for £8.95. We’ve sold 500 copies already, and that’s directly to Idlerreaders, not through retailers. So we get all of that money apart from the postage. We’re already quite close to breaking even!
“If we’d gone to a publisher, they were very unlikely to want it. Even if they had, what sort of advance would you get? A maximum of £5000, probably. And at best, you’d get 50p for each copy sold.”
Nonetheless, he adds an important proviso to this. You need an audience, first. “We have built up an audience over the years. Someone who’s just starting out couldn’t just press a button and sell 500 copies.”
The hardest-working man in slow business
And this is where we come to the contradiction at the heart of the Idler philosophy. Over the years, Tom and his wife, Victoria Hull, have worked hard to keep their little empire afloat.
They sell courses on everything from philosophy to gardening, history and literature to Tom’s hobby of playing the ukulele. Then there are the retreats, events, talks, festivals.. The truth is, they don’t seem very idle at all. Tom must be the hardest working man in slow business.
“We’re terrible hypocrites,” he admits. “I promote idling, and I do love idling. But I’m somehow driven to do this. I really enjoy it.”
At one point, when he was writing a newspaper column and their clan were living a fairly frugal life in the Devon countryside, he did manage to stick to a four-hour day. “But we also had young children, so I wasn’t exactly idle!”
They later returned to London and for five years ran a bookshop and café with regular events in the evenings, which was probably their busiest period: “That really was hard, stressful work, 12-14 hours a day.”
Now, he says, they have a happy medium of 6-7 hours a day in the Idler office, with a team of freelancers and helpers who come in when the magazine is in production.
“There’s more of a gang, and the work is shared. It also helps that I’m not a perfectionist, so I can get quite a lot of work done quickly. Under pressure, I can probably write 1000 words of journalism in a couple of hours. And if I’m writing a book, I can probably do like 2000 words a day, if I’m really pushed. And that’s not working all day.”
It’s all about balance.
Working hard isn’t necessarily the problem. The real issue is that we’ve been so conditioned to equate work with virtue that we no longer know when to stop. So we work past the point when it is productive or useful, and castigate ourselves for our laziness when we can’t do even more.
“And it’s not just white-collar work,” agrees Tom. “I met a building contractor who said he’d read my books, and gone down to a six-hour day. Absenteeism stopped and the well-being and happiness of his workforce went up. There was no more skiving, and people were enjoying it much more. And they were more productive. Because you can’t really do more than that as a builder: you get tired, you start doing shoddy work.
“With creative work, it’s crazy to do eight hours in a row. You can do an awful lot in four hours with concentration – and without a boss there. Meetings can get in the way, but Zoom has made them far more efficient, too.”
During the lockdowns, they set up Thursday night events called A Drink With The Idler, in which Tom chats with an interesting guest via Zoom, and the Idler community join in with the discussion via the chat. “They’re really good fun,” he says. “Doing a real event is so much work and stress, but Zoom is really democratic. It’s global. There’s no barrier to entry. You can make them cheap or free. And it’s easier for the interviewee as well.”
Why your phone shouldn’t be so smart
Not all tech meets with such approval. There’s a chapter in An Idler’s Manual about giving up your smartphone, and although he knows this won’t be a popular option for many, he has gone back to something far more basic.
“I now have a phone of medium intelligence!” he says cheerfully. “I like having a phone that isn’t always firing advertising at me. All the social media companies are advertising and sales companies: that’s what the basic business model is. So I’m free from that.
“But also if you’re waiting for the bus or Tube, or you’ve got a little gap of time, you immediately start checking messages and things. If I get my phone out, once I’ve seen the time, there’s nothing else to do with it. So I get this moment of idling, a bit of daydreaming or staring out the window.
“My favourite writer on this is Jaron Lanier. He’s just so intelligent, I feel like I’m in the presence of a superior being. He understands how the social media companies work, and how they reward you.
“Also, I can’t get away from the feeling that when I type something on Facebook or Twitter, I have just worked for Jack Dorsey or Mark Zuckerberg, for free. They make some more money because they got a bit more information, and they’ve sold some more advertising. And I’ve just given them my creativity or ideas.”
He’s not totally against technology.
As well as the mic and camera he uses to stream Idler events, he loves his iPad. And his 10-year-old MacPro. “It’s still the generation that you can unscrew, and then put new bits in. So I take it to a shop in my road, and they update or repair it for like, £40. If I took it to the Apple shop they’d tell me to throw it away. So I’m trying to keep this computer going, even though it’s missing a shift key, which is really inconvenient.”
This year, he’s also started writing a diary. “I do that by hand, in a floppy notebook, with a proper ink pen that I fill up from an ink bottle. Which I really enjoy because you get inky fingers!
“I try and write half a page or a page per day. Ideally, I would do it first thing each morning. That’s what Michael Palin recommends. It’s the first thing he does, he sits down at nine and spends 20 minutes doing his diary. It’s a good way to get into flow. And it’s quite satisfying.”
The write stuff
If his children, or someone their age wanted to be a writer now, I wonder what advice he would give them.
“Well, the obvious joke would be, just don’t!” he says. “Because it is much harder nowadays. In the 90s there was more money in the media. We didn’t have to compete with social media. And things weren’t as expensive. I went to the pub all the time, I didn’t think about it. But now it’s like £6 a pint. I was in the pub the other night for 90 minutes, and I spent £38!
“I do think life is harder for our young ones. The cost of living is higher, and it’s much harder to get a decent advance for a book. Even if you get it commissioned, you might get £5-10,000. That’s not a year’s salary, and it might take you two years to write.
“A little bit of me was hoping that Arthur, my oldest, would turn into a sort of velvet-jacketed fop, and sit around talking about Oscar Wilde. But he’s really interested in data science, Bitcoin, making money, running businesses. He’s an entrepreneur, and I’m quite pleased about that, because he might actually make some money.”
A life of freedom
He stops, realising he might have gone too bleak. “But if you really want to be an author or a journalist, it’s a fun thing to do, a privilege. And the most beautiful, wonderful thing, if you can pull it off. It’s just amazing to write and have people reading it, to do events and go to festivals. And to have this quite free life.”
It’s about balancing art and commerce, I say, and finding those gigs that support the writing you really want to do.
“Exactly!” Tom agrees. “And those gigs are out there. There are so many websites now. And writers are needed more than ever.”
He points out that successful writers such as Zadie Smith, Will Self, Hanif Kureshi and Geoff Dyer all teach, as well as publish fiction.
“We also have Idler readers who do shifts at fairly boring jobs. One was a lorry driver, so he did four shifts at weekends then had the rest of the week free to do his other stuff. So there are lots of creative ways you can do that. And who knows? You might have a success!”
About the author
Sheryl Garratt is a former editor of The Face and Observer magazines, and has written professionally for more than 30 years. She is also a coach working with creatives of all kinds. Find her at thecreativelife.net