Tom Hodgkinson: 'I find myself turning into Basil Fawlty'

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The Independent Online

Ever since I founded The Idler in 1993, I've been fascinated by the idea of small business and enterprise as an alternative to the slow strangulation of the nine-to-five. My embrace of entrepreneurialism has led to accusations of hypocrisy from my socialist critics. How can you say you're an idler while you also run a business? You seem to be a little bit busy for someone who proclaims himself to be an idler. And how can you be an anti-capitalist and also sell T-shirts?

The answer is that, for me, idleness has always been about autonomy and creativity. If your autonomy means that you are free to take a nap after lunch if you feel like it – which is still the case for me, even though I am now an idler-turned-shopkeeper – or that you are free to work 15 hours a day if you choose – then so be it. Idleness is an escape from slavery. It is not an opting out of life.

Opting out, giving up, was formerly considered a sin and was known as acedia. It became the seventh deadly sin, sloth, which is something closer to sadness or melancholy; a sort of depression. Idleness, or standing up for your right to be lazy, is an active and revolutionary position.

The problem with capitalism, said GK Chesterton, is that it does not create enough capitalists. In other words, most of us are wage slaves rather than independent operators. So we need to seize the means of production. We need to produce our own artefacts, food, objects and publications.

But we also need to sell our produce in the market if we are to make a living, and this is where socialists get themselves in a pickle. They are against the supermarkets in a vague way, and against all business and commerce, which they see as a bit dirty, but the only alternative is state-run socialism, which as every fule know, is simply totalitarianism.

What the idler, paradoxically perhaps, recognises, is that it is through trade, honestly carried out, that freedom can be found. We need to set up our own stall in the marketplace and sell our goods. In so doing, we make all sorts of new relationships, we enjoy ourselves, and we put some good stuff out there into the world. We meet people, and we exchange ideas as well as money and goods. Trade can be a very beautiful thing.

This is all not to say that running a bookshop and café is easy. I've never worked so hard in my life; Victoria and I are doing 12-hour days, or longer. And it's stressful: I find myself turning into Basil Fawlty – rather shaming for someone who is supposed to be laid-back and, like, totally chilled.

One customer complained that her coffee was cold. Another that her brownie was "a little dry". Another woman proudly told us she had ordered her book from Amazon as we hadn't been quick enough to respond to her request to get it in. You try to be polite while fuming inwardly. What you'd like to say is: "Get out! You're banned!" But what you actually say is: "It was cold? I am so sorry. We won't charge you for that one."

There seems to be so much to do all the time that you become completely paralysed. Then there is the constant worry of turnover: will you take enough money that week or that month to cover the costs of staff, rent, rates, insurance, utilities, stock and all the rest of it?

No time for idling, then? Well, actually it is possible to build in plenty of idling time, because in your shop, you are chatting all day long, and meeting people. If you choose, you can leave the door open in the evening and lounge around on the bench outside, or lean in your doorway, talking to passers-by. The wonderful thing about running a shop is that you don't know what's going to happen each day. A shop is wonderfully democratic: the door is always open. Anyone can wander in.

And to return to the idea of small business: this is actually a very good time to get out of the nine-to-five and start on your own, and I am coming round to the idea that you can use contemporary technology effectively to help you.

Where I have objected to technology in the past is in the case of sites such as Facebook, which I believe have as their central purpose the comfort of the lonely wage slave. Where technology clearly can help is where it puts the machines in the hands of the individuals: we can now create our own radio stations, TV stations, books, magazines, shops and records. This has actually always been the case: fanzines, self-published books and pirate-radio stations are nothing new. But it is arguably easier now to use new technology to broadcast our knowledge and our skills around the world. And old technology, too: I am a big fan of the scroll. But more on that later.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'