Tom Hodgkinson: Just don't do it!

Cast your chains to earth like dew! There's an idle revolution going on, and its message is: lie in, take a sickie, doze, dawdle and dream. Suzi Feay meets the laidback Tom Hodgkinson
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The Independent Culture

Perhaps I haven't got the hang of this idleness lark. I may have more of the striver than the skiver in my makeup. Reading How to be Idle from cover to cover, compulsively, wasn't a good start, since it's designed to be dipped into in desultory fashion. Divided into 24 chapters, it suggests the appropriate activity for each hour of the day. At 10am, you're still sleeping; at 11am, you're skiving; at noon you're nursing your hangover. Tea's at 4pm, and a ramble at 5pm; desultory sex at 1am, and meditation at 4am. The book is so stuffed with wisdom and so studded with good jokes that I raced through it like a speed freak. Not good.

How can you not fall in love with an author who writes this? "Go go go! ... skydivers, bungee-jumpers, skateboarders, snowboarders, jet-skiers, surfers, mountain-bikers, off-roaders... Get out there, dude! Awesome! Don't just sit at home! Do something. Do anything! Don't stop. Don't think. Go for it! Just do it. The idler surveys this dismal mishmash of lifestyle options and decides: just don't do it. Just don't. Don't go - stop." Or who deplores the competitiveness of modern sex in this masterly fashion: "A part of me would like simply to toy with my mistress for days on end under the lotus tree or on an enormous pile of velvet cushions, while smoking, drinking and laughing."

I emailed the author, Tom Hodgkinson, with the comment that my version of his fine book would contain chapters on Chocolate, Yoga and Ironing (on the grounds that my best thoughts seem to come when pushing the iron around, although I do tend to burn my hands). But I received the stern reply: "In Idlaz paradise there would be no ironing. Creases would be cool." Maybe I need some urgent guidance here. In a badly ironed shirt I go to meet Hodgkinson in a pub in Clerkenwell.

He has lost the Byronic curls he sports on his jacket photo, but otherwise this shambling, cherubic-faced creature looks the part in a refurbished, inside-out shirt and ragged pants. He puts a book down on the sticky tabletop: Tom Paine's The Rights of Man. "I thought it would look really good to be reading this, but actually it's quite difficult and boring," he laughs.

Idling was a source of guilt before it became a job description. At Cambridge: "My friend's tutor said to him, 'Christ, you do less work than Tom!' I was already a benchmark for laziness." The movement began in earnest with the launch of The Idler magazine in 1993. "I'd probably been thinking about it for two years before. I was at the Sunday Mirror, feeling useless and crap, doing three days a week researching. I did okay, but I always had this self-hatred going on - why can't I get up earlier, why can't I work harder? - and then I read these essays by Dr Johnson in the gentleman's magazine The Idler. I suddenly realised, hey, I'm not a lazy idiot, I'm an idler! It's something to aspire to, it's part of the creative process! That's fantastic! And that's how it started, really. We printed 1,000 copies of issue one, and 11 years later we're printing 3,000."

Underneath all the frivolity is a serious message. The philosophy of idling has affinities with the Slow Food movement. Hodgkinson has scathing words for chains like the grisly Prêt à Manger "who pretend to be 'passionate about food'... their real passion, of course, is profit, and to create cash they have appealed to the culture of the time-starved worker." He champions tea (leaf tea, if you please) for similar "slow" reasons and deplores the new trend for "carrying around vast paper flagons of latte". He supports proper lunching, as practised in France, and questions the value of the traditional working week. Added together, How to be Idle is a manifesto for change. Other voices concur: a recent French book called Bonjour Paresse (Hello Laziness) advocated climbing the corporate ladder by doing the minimum. But that doesn't go far enough. As Hodgkinson would say, why bother climbing the corporate ladder at all?

"Idling is not the same thing as being unproductive," he maintains. "It can be the opposite. It's always been about getting some control over your own life, I suppose. I certainly became more productive and enjoyed life more when I accepted my own laziness as something not to be pushed away but celebrated."

The traditional 40-hour working week is, he reminds us, a relatively recent development. "People generally were more independent before the Industrial Revolution. The average person, I'm absolutely convinced, was more free, because they didn't have a full-time job. You had your pig and your cow and your vegetable patch; you weren't completely dependent on your wage packet, you were looking after yourself."

Hodgkinson is now based in Devon, and earnestly attempting to create a pre-Industrial Revolution lifestyle for his family, detailed in his diaries on the Idler website ( The attempts to brew beer failed, he says sadly, but his venture into vegetable growing has been a spectacular success; he's even thinking of launching a magazine on "radical vegetable gardening" called The Radish, "because radish is what you start with. You put your seeds in and think, surely that's not going to grow into a radish, and a few months later you go: My God! There's a little radish! I can't believe it!"

Such naivety (and boundless enthusiasm) is easy to satirise, as he cheerfully accepts. "There is all this metropolitan scoffing about real ale and growing your own vegetables and being poor, but it's really good fun. When I did have money I used to sicken myself by how much I wasted. There's a place for frugality."

To underpin his "modern life is rubbish" philosophy, Hodgkinson turns to the past, to his beloved 18th century and to the Romantics, slackers to a man. How to be Idle, with its quotations and reading lists, has a pleasingly autodidactic flavour. (He diligently scribbles down the name of Leigh Hunt when I tell him about the celebrated man of letters so cruelly lampooned by the arch-striver Dickens in Bleak House. Hunt once wrote an essay about sitting in front of his parlour fire for a whole day which wouldn't be out of place in today's Idler.)

In our quest for modernity, argues Hodgkinson, we have simply forgotten the old ways of enjoying life. The cult of professionalism is one problem. Samuel Pepys and his friends made their own music, whereas our tolerance for amateur performance has been eroded by CDs which briing world-class performances right into our homes. Even scientific experiments were once the province of the amateur. Dr Johnson was into chemistry as a form of advanced idling. "People would come round in the afternoon and he wasn't doing anything he was supposed to be doing, but he would have a completely sooty face from doing experiments," Hodgkinson laughs.

One of the book's funniest and most pertinent chapters deals with taking sick-leave. Time and opium, he reminds us, was the doctor's age-old prescription; these days we embrace the cult of endurance. Lemsip, formerly a "soothing nectar", has been adapted for people who are too rushed and freaked to boil a kettle. Now it's a sachet ("Max Strength Direct") that you open and chug down: "Lemsip without the tedious sipping. And without the lem, most probably."

Hodgkinson offers relief for mind as well as body; there's time for spiritual wonder in his 24 hours of idling. Buddhism is the approved idler religion (it was of course a Zen master who inverted the phrase "Don't just sit there, do something" into "Don't just do something, sit there!"). His father lives in a community devoted to meditation near Oxford. "It's not one of these rip-off seven Rolls-Royce kind of things," Hodgkinson says. "It's run by triangular old ladies who look like ET. It's Raja Yoga, enlightenment through the intellect, so it's basically reading, talking and learning. We've all got a lot out of it, but for me personally it's a bit too ascetic. I'm not ready to renounce the worldly pleasures... I probably won't ever."

Finally, still worrying about that pile of ironing, I ask him whether idling is essentially a blokey indulgence.

"I've been thinking about that a lot recently. We had this problem for years with The Idler being blokey. It wasn't deliberate, it was sort of what happened, but I did wonder: are men genetically more lazy than women or is it a cultural thing? I think that work and jobs were seen by women as a source of liberation because it meant economic liberation, and they envied the blokes going out having a job. But now men are thinking that the workplace is pretty tedious. You often find that when you're in the workplace it's not as liberating as you thought it was going to be.

"I get the sense now that women are getting into idling as well. Jean Rhys became a writer because she was totally incapable of holding down a regular job." And Sylvia Plath needed 10 hours of sleep a night, I tell him. "I think poets are natural idlers, whatever sex they are. I've seen lots of arguments between couples with children where the bloke's a musician saying: "I need my creative space..." I don't know whether that's a battle that'll last forever, but I definitely see more women idlers cropping up." So perhaps there's hope for me yet.

To order a copy of 'How to be Idle' (Hamish Hamilton £12.99) for £11.99 (free p&p) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897