John Walsh: Self-improvement is on the rise. At last, a true return to Victorian values

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The Independent Online

I've been pondering the legacy of Samuel Smiles, the Victorian social reformer born 200 years ago in 1812. He was an interesting cove – a former surgeon who became editor of a newspaper – and he published one of the most influential books of the age: Self-Help. It preached rugged individualism and encouraged people to find their own way in the world, rather than accept their lot. Get off your lazy butts, it told the delighted Victorians, and develop yourselves.

He especially hated "over-government" in which church or state tells citizens how to behave. In his view, thrift, "industry" and self-improvement were the keys to happiness. "Heaven," ran the famous first line, "helps those who help themselves."

Scroll forward 150 years and it's shocking how "self-help" has been debased. In California, it means acquiring encouraging phrases (eg "I am a cute and extremely loveable person") or behavioural techniques to boost your flagging self-esteem. Over here, Self Help UK is an online database for patient support groups, primary carers and their relatives. The phrase is now about dysfunction and co-dependency – it has damn-all to do with sturdy self-reliance.

Mulling over these thoughts, I found myself at the weekend in London's Westbourne Park standing in front of a new-ish shop called The Idler's Academy. Inside, secondhand books were on sale along one wall, while chairs and three tables lined the far wall, and a modest coffee-table offered scones and chocolate bars. People who popped in were encouraged to chat about philosophy and Newton's self-doubt. It was all terribly 18th-Century Coffee House. During a lull, the cafe's owner produced a ukulele made from an oil-drum, and started to play a lively, if plonky, country song. This wasn't your ordinary west London shop. The ukulelist was Tom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler, a magazine which has been appearing sporadically since 1993, encouraging readers to slow down, ignore the "live to work" ethos, and to follow their instincts towards personal enlightenment by embracing hobbies and creativity.

I'd been aware of Hodgkinson, his magazine and his books (How To be Idle, How to be Free, The Idle Parent) for years and admired his ideas, but I'd always assumed he was too professionally enervated to give them much application in the real world. Now, here he was, running a café-bookshop, singing to strangers and soliciting their views on Plato and Thomas Aquinas. And I realised I'd seen the name of The Idler's Academy recently invoked in unusual surroundings – at Selfridges, no less, where for the next two months their book-strewn UltraLounge will host evening classes arranged by the Academy. Classes with a nicely old-fashioned feel on English Grammar, Latin, Calligraphy, Herb Gardening, Sampler Embroidery...

God knows if this bold initiative will succeed. But to find the nation's second-ritziest department store prepared to embrace the spirit of a 1950s' grammar school strikes me as the best adult-education news I've heard in ages. And it suggests the warbling idler Hodgkinson, in his Enlightenment café, is a natural successor to Sam Smiles. About the only thing he isn't very good at, evidently, is being idle.

How can it be a film if there's no dialogue?

The Artist, a tribute to the silent-movie era, is tipped to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar. In Manchester and Liverpool, though, where people know what they like, audiences have been walking out, complaining that "There's no talking" and "It's in black and white". It's easy to sneer, but haven't we all been guilty of failing to appreciate arty sophistication? Remember Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in the Ukraine, which contained hardly a word about tractors? Or the Damien Hirst restaurant, Pharmacy, which had to turn away those who arrived with prescriptions? God, it's hell being literal-minded.

j.walsh@independent.co.uk

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