Tom Hodgkinson: A short walk around my neighbourhood


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The Independent Online

Following a recent crisis and near breakdown caused by overwork – and yes, I am aware of the irony that the editor of The Idler has suffered such an affliction – a friend advised me to take two 15-minute walks each day. I have followed her advice and found this strategy to be extremely effective: a brisk stroll really does calm you down. It relieves anxiety.

This new resolution to pace the streets has merged with another idea put forward by my friend Sir Timothy Ackroyd, the very well-connected actor and favoured customer at the Idler Academy. He advised that I should get off the computer and do some old-fashioned marketing, meaning going out there and talking to people. Like many of us, I am tempted by the seductions of the digital world, and spend an inordinate number of hours sitting in front of a screen or phone, Twittering, texting, emailing and updating our website in my efforts to get bums on seats for the events we hold.

But how effective is all this digital activity? Doesn't most of it get lost in the soup of noughts and ones? "Let's get out there and meet people," said Tim. "Get a pile of flyers and we'll go and communicate in person."

So it was that yesterday Sir Tim arrived at the shop at 11am and we set off for a wander around the streets of west London. We walked down Chepstow Road and turned into Westbourne Grove. "Look!" said Tim. "There's Michael Gove. Hello, Michael!" And sure enough, there he was, Secretary of State for Education, standing at a bus stop, speaking into his mobile phone. We gave him some flyers which he accepted with great charm. "Oh yes!" he said. "I'm a fan."

Maybe Mr Gove says this to everyone who thrusts a flyer into his hand, but it was gratifying nonetheless. What better person to inform of our pedagogical activities than the man in charge of national education policy? "Grammar, Latin and ukulele lessons," I boasted. "Long live the old school. We are taking education into our own hands!"

Next we visited the owner of the Aphrodite café, who greeted us warmly and took some flyers. Then we meandered up to Notting Hill Gate, where Tim cried out "Ben!" And who should it be but television's Ben Fogle? Mr Fogle patiently listened to us explain the aims of the Idler Academy and expressed interest in giving a talk.

Our next stop was Notting Hill Books, a lovely little shop where we happened to bump into an Idler Academy regular. "You must put me on your mailing list," he said. "I was very disappointed to miss your Montaigne event." Outside the shop we flyered a bookish couple who promised to pop round.

Our little promenade then took us down Holland Park Avenue, where we hoped to bump into Tony Benn, but alas did not. However, we did drop off a flyer at PD James's house. Then we went on to the very wonderful Daunt Books, where they kindly let us put some flyers on their counter. It struck me that I would have been far too shy to ask such a favour had I been alone. But with Tim by my side, "bigging up" the enterprise on my behalf, everything seemed easy.

Truly, this was highly targeted marketing. We were finding all the literary types in the area, just by going for a walk. Another nice encounter was with a small business owner who was doing exactly the same as us: wandering the streets and handing out flyers for her enterprise, a stress-relief massage business. Clearly we are not alone in embracing the old-fashioned methods. It occurs to me that we should get really old-fashioned and invent some London cries, like the vendors of chestnuts and tripe from past centuries. "Come and get your lovely lessons in Plato! Aristotle next week! Roll up for the Stoics!"

The exercise reminded me of a scene in Julien Temple's film about Joe Strummer. Strummer spends a good hour or two out on the streets handing out flyers to advertise a gig he is playing that night. "You've got to hustle!" he remarks. And this is true: the small man has to hustle to survive, he has to get out there. Don't cut yourself off and hide behind a computer.

We returned to the shop after about an hour-and-a-half. Not only had I soothed my poor old nerves, but I had also done something useful and intensely enjoyable. You could call it therapeutic marketing. I look forward to more such brand-awareness drives with Sir Tim. So do look out for the two purposeful flâneurs of Notting Hill, if ever you are in the area. We'd love a chat.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'