Busy doing nothing: Ten years of The Idler's interviews with outstanding bohemians

Back in 1993, our columnist  Tom Hodgkinson dreamt up  the idea of ‘The Idler’, a magazine that would cherish a life of languor. Here, he presents some of his favourite interviews of  the past 20 years, from  John Cooper Clarke to Zadie Smith

The Idler magazine was launched in 1993 when I was  25. The title came from a series of essays by Dr Johnson  published as weekly columns in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1758 and 1759. This was one of many publications that thrived in the lively Grub Street journalistic scene of the day. In it, Johnson wrote on such subjects as sleep and sloth and said: “Every man is, or hopes to be, an idler.” My Idler would take an 18th-century sensibility and combine it with the radical philosophies of today. So it was that a profile of Dr Johnson in issue one was followed by an interview with the so-called magic-mushroom guru Terence McKenna.

A regular feature throughout the past two decades has been our “In Conversation” feature. I used to love the interviews in Playboy and the Paris Review. Instead of the modern habit of attempting a sort of Freudian psychological profile of the interviewee based on an hour’s meeting, these magazines simply presented an edited transcript of the interview, making for a very readable piece. These interviews did not deal with topical issues, and this means they have dated very little. Mirroring that style, I tried to avoid discussion of that day’s politics or culture, and instead we talked about the big questions: how to live, how to work, love and melancholy.

What we now have in The Idler’s vaults is a collection of interviews with outstanding bohemians, the best of which are presented here. More or less, the interviewees do not have, and sometimes have never had, what you might call  a proper job. Instead, they have forged their own path with great courage in a world which would be happier if we stuck with a job in government or corporation.

These interview subjects provide hope to the wild at heart – though that is not to say that the life of the idler is not difficult. Idlers don’t get paid holidays. We have to scrabble for every penny. We have to manage our own accounts and tax affairs. Our workload, paradoxically, can be heavy. We live through periods of poverty and uncertainty. We inevitably need to deal with the very “world” which we have rejected in order to earn money. Our own values are questioned by cynics who accuse us of hypocrisy. Reject the creed of consumerism, for example, and  someone will always gleefully point out that they saw you shopping in the supermarket. But despite the inevitable privations of the idle life, we prefer to cling to sweet  freedom than enter the workaday world…

Will Self, author, November 1993

“I wanted to be a philosopher, which is the idlest occupation  in the world. I wanted to be involved in abstract thought, but because of various problems with the authorities I wasn’t able to pull that one off.

“A lifetime of idleness in academia would have really suited me. Other than that, there seemed no idle occupations,  so writing… although writing  isn’t exactly idleness.

“I’ve written three books in  three years and I write a lot of journalism, and people seem to think that I’m incredibly hard-working. But in fact I’m incredibly idle. And I’m not one of those boys who would say that and  then creep off and study; I am genuinely idle. But I’m highly disciplined. I do nothing and then I do something. It’s taken years  of investigating idleness in all its forms to be able to achieve this.

“And of course, drugs are useful if you want to be idle. If  you spend a significant proportion of your life in underground car parks waiting for dealers…

“There is a cultural taboo against thinking in England because of the Protestant work ethic, which demands that people shouldn’t be idle – ergo, they shouldn’t think. Driving is a good way to recapture that. It’s very close to philosophising, large amounts of motorway driving.”

Richard Linklater, director, September 1994

“Where do you get your ideas from? If you’re working all day, it kind of kills a lot. So daydreaming is a productive activity. It’s also about visualising your ideal world, both the kind of world you live in and also who you want to hang around with and what you want to spend your time doing. My ideal world, which I’ve been thinking about for 10 years, is  the film world, where I can make films and watch movies and be around creative people.

“When I was 17,  I remember thinking, ‘My whole life is anticipation, everything I’m doing in school is to serve some future purpose.’ All people would say is, ‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’ Wait – you mean we’re not people right now?  You’re being moulded to be a little drone-worker in the system.

“In [my film] Dazed [and Confused], one of the characters, Don, says: ‘I want to look back and say that it was the best  I could do when I was stuck in this place.’ That’s probably a more positive attitude than,  ‘We, as a generation, are going to change the world.’ And you do change the world, in your own way.”

Jeffrey Bernard, journalist, February 1995

“I enjoy doing nothing. There’s no virtue in work for its own sake. It’s a myth that was invented by people such as DH Lawrence, as if there were something romantic and glamorous about hard work, like being a coal-miner in Sons and Lovers. If there was something romantic about it, the Duke of Westminster would be digging  his own garden, wouldn’t he? Shitty jobs are alleged to have dignity. But there’s nothing undignified about lying about  all day and being waited on  by servants, sipping champagne.

“I’m fed up with working.  I do as little as possible. I’ve been driven to work by a shortage  of money, by nothing else, not  a muse or something. Good god, no. Has to be done for bread and butter. Being a journalist is a shitty job. It’s a building up and then a breaking down of anxiety and tension. It’s only pleasant when you finish it.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt particularly guilty about doing nothing. Although I have to admit I have despised a couple of people simply because they have never had a job in their lives. Which  I think is a bit wet of them. I just don’t trust people who have  never really been up against it. There’s a half of life that they haven’t seen. Like the other side of the Moon. Incomplete.”

Damien Hirst, artist, July 1995

“Idling is about minimum effort, maximum effect. And  it’s about people who work and play in a way in which you can’t separate one from the other.  It’s like when a car is idling. You have the possibility of going somewhere, but you’re not going anywhere. But that doesn’t  mean you’re not doing anything. The energy’s there.

“Whenever I look at the question of how to live, the answer’s always staring me in  the face. I’m already doing it, I go, so that’s how you do it! The answer to how to live, is just live. And I go, ‘Oh fuck, I’ve been doing that all along.’

“And I ask myself, what do I want? Well, I want to get up  in the morning and not have too many problems. I want to walk around a bit, think a bit, I want  to slow down… the answer to  how to live is to stop thinking about it. And just to live. But you’re doing that anyway. However you intellectualise  it, you still just live.”

Bruce Robinson, writer-director, November 1995

“I’ve always had this epithet,  ‘Art is the opposite of death,’ and  I still think about that whenever  I feel really black about anything. I get in front of my typewriter.  The function of writing is the opposite of being dead. You’re living. This is the thing that always motivates me, because  I hate the process of writing.  I find it hard and hateful to do.  But at the end of the day, if  I write a couple of good lines,  or I write a page that I think is good work, I feel justified in  being alive. I feel I’ve got the right to be, in a shoddy way, pleased…  I don’t want to say happy.

“Curiously, Withnail and I doesn’t follow any of the rules  I use now. It’s a rambling thing.  I wrote it as a novel before I wrote it as a screenplay, and I was sitting there, writing with great joy as  an amateur – it’s like a poker player who’s never played poker before and clears the table;  I had that with Withnail. It was coming with ease and great joy and I’d be laughing my head off  as I’d be typing. I could hardly see the page because I was crying with laughter. So I figured, if it makes me laugh, it’s going to make other people laugh.”

John Cooper Clarke, performance poet, November 1996

“Me and idleness go way back. I’ve had a few jobs, but if you want to be a writer, you’re better off getting a job that doesn’t require that you do anything. There used to be a lot of those  jobs around. The best one I had was as a fire-watcher on Plymouth docks. I had to be there, but once  I was there, there was nothing to do. It’s ideal because you’re not surrounded by distractions of your own choice. You’re doing the Graham Greene thing… you’re going in at nine and coming back at five and that’s a long time to write. Some of it’s good, some of it’s shite. It’s a lot easier to write under those circumstances than  it is when you’re a completely  free man. You can always find something better to do than writing when you’re at home. But to create that idle world is quite  a job in itself. I wish I had a modus operandi for that, but sadly it’s  an intuitive thing, instinctive.

“Idleness – a job that you have to go to, but not necessarily do anything – is the poet’s friend.  The aristocratic disdain for work is the one legacy they’ve left  that’s really worth something.  But the aristocracy aren’t like  that now. They’re always at  great pains to point out the good  works they do. Which I think is  a mistake. I think they should be more unapologetic about it.”

Zadie Smith, author, April 2004

“I normally work three hours  a day; when a book is going well, sometimes I do 10 or more; at  the moment, because of an almost-real job, about six.

“My work does not really justify the taking of holidays.  I’m often unsure what day  it is, for example.

“My greatest pleasures are eating, sex, reading and writing. I’m very happy. But I’ve always been like that. I’m only unhappy if something really shitty happens, like a death. I find it hard to be depressed. It depresses my friends that I’m like that.

“I have to have at least seven hours’ sleep a night. But during the winter I frequently fall asleep at around 3pm for three hours. Except now I have to teach.

“Even now that I have  money I don’t know what to  do with it. I just buy books and  shoes, books and shoes.

“Paradise is Sancerre, novel, beloved’s head in your lap.”

John Gray, political philosopher, March 1998

“Someone who thought that knuckling down for 10 years of grind and self-denial, laying up  a fortune for themselves later on, is making a mistake. The changes in the world of work have been  far more profound than have  been generally recognised.

“People want more control, more leisure – and more money. And you get that by contracting yourself out; in other words, doing jobs in the old-fashioned sense. A ‘job’ meant a packet of stuff, like a bale of hay, which was moved around – a particular task, which you do at your own pace, as fast as you want, in any way you want, when you want. For many people, that makes a lot of sense.

“But being an idler is too austere a profession for most.  It’s too difficult. You need the k recurrent anodyne of work and routine. A really subtle culture would see work as a medical necessity or a regime of health.

“Most of the ruling ideologies  of work, or what you should be doing with your life, are ones that very few people take seriously, and they’re obviously ridiculous. All you can really do is improvise the balance of routine and  flexi-life. Work and play is a hackneyed distinction, isn’t it?”

Barbara Ehrenreich, activist, March 2004

“Americans now work harder than ever: the poor to middle-class ones, because they’ll starve otherwise; the rich ones because busyness has, perversely enough, become a status symbol. I think one of the great social struggles of this decade (or, alas, century) will be to reclaim our right to leisure. Everyone should be an idler.

“The big historical change  vis-à-vis idling was that, at one point, aristocrats did it with  pride; now the rich at least pretend to be busy. In the  1980s, I wrote a column on the ‘cult of busyness’ and how it’s become a status symbol.

“Most women, probably  like most men, would like some ‘balance’, as we’re always saying these days, between work and family, or work and whatever-you-choose-to-do. In the 1970s, when feminism was coming to life again, that really seemed possible, because in those days, work generally meant eight hours a day. Now professional and managerial people are expected to work about 12 hours a day,  and the poor work two or three jobs. This is not what we early feminists had in mind! That’s  why it’s so important to launch  a serious movement to reclaim our time. I see it as a movement that could cut across class lines and raise profound issues about the meaning of life.”

Michael Palin, broadcaster, March 2004

“Very fortunately I’ve managed to avoid the issue of getting  a proper job or deciding what I am best at or good at. It goes back to my father – he had been brought up through two world wars and the recession of the 1930s. It was a rough time, so after that the children were jolly well going to be comfortable and secure and follow a certain pattern – and part of that was having a proper job.

“I remember worrying throughout my education, as my particular talents lay not in any practical direction: I was not  good at maths or mechanics  or chemistry. I’ve always had  a rather busy, productive imagination and that led more to things that you couldn’t quantify as being useful, such as writing and acting. Those were the areas where whatever talent I had, lay, so it was hard to reconcile this with my father’s desire for me  to get a proper job. But then  I learnt that my father, who was an engineer, had never wanted to be an engineer. He had wanted to be a church chorister, or church organist. He loved church music. He really wanted to be at Cambridge or somewhere  like that and sing in the choir  and his father said, ‘No, you’ve got to get a proper job.’”

Oliver James, psychologist, April 2009

“What’s been disastrous since  the Second World War has been the hijacking of education by human resources. The invention of the IQ test, I believe, occurred during the First World War because they didn’t have a way of classifying people and deciding what do with them, so they developed psychological testing. Then you have the collapse of  the class system, or at least the illusion of a meritocracy is created, after the Second World War. The key point is that once you’ve said anyone can be prime minister, anyone can be a chief executive, there then arose the problem: how the hell do we decide who?

“And this is the point at which education became essentially  a method of trying to work out who gets the top jobs and the money. The whole premise has been that it’s vital to educate the population in order to have economic growth.

“Both parents work flat out  in order to afford the things with which to distract the children that they’re too tired to play with when they get home. I think that at the heart of it is the disinvestment  of the domestic household economy, and which hopefully the credit crunch will reverse.  But for the time being, women in particular now see the home as a kind of fuelling station for work.

“For me, the obvious solution to the credit-crunch problem  is simply for people to work a much shorter week. And to  have a lower income. That is happening naturally.”

David Hockney, artist, January 2010

“If you look at the medieval  world and you look at the Chinese world at the same time, they have very sophisticated pictures.  I found this out in a film we did about the Chinese scroll. I was fascinated by the different perspectives. I asked a scholar of Chinese art why China declined so much from the 17th century, when it was very, very well advanced, to the mid-19th century, when it wasn’t. What had happened? And I was given two answers: one was that they’d lost their intellectual curiosity; the other was that there was superior military technology elsewhere, meaning more accurate guns  and bigger ships, and so on.  I immediately connected that with perspective, because when you set up perspective, you set up triangulation; with triangulation you can fire cannons more accurately. The Chinese didn’t have that technology; they’d rejected it as not very human. They had rejected the idea of  a vanishing point, because it makes you immobile.

“Cubism was a rejection  of perspective, and the first rejection for 550 years. In a way,  it is saying: we don’t see the world like that, we see it in glimpses,  we put it together, we see with memory. Because we see with memory, we’re all seeing something different, even if  we’re looking at the same thing. We don’t ask these questions.  We do have a visual culture,  but it’s not very critical.”

Idler issue 46, ‘Free Spirits’, containing 50 ‘Idler’  interviews, is available for  £25 from idler.co.uk

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