Tom Hodgkinson: 'I rejected usury, then it rejected me'

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The Independent Online

This week I became a shopkeeper. After months of planning, discussion, late-night worry and immersion in the arcane and beautiful world of the spreadsheet, my wife Victoria and I are opening the doors of the first Idler Academy of Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment, a bookseller and coffee-house in Notting Hill. And in order to make this project happen, we have had to transform ourselves from bohemian layabouts into upstanding burghers.

This has not always been easy. Five years ago, I rejected usury. I discovered that usury, or lending money at interest, was considered sinful in medieval Europe, as well as in patriarchal times. It is still considered sinful by Islam today. This is because it is felt that charging interest on a loan to a poor person is a lazy way of exploiting their misfortune. This prejudice against the money-men resurfaces from time to time: even though they help us to finance our projects, we as a nation will periodically indulge in a spate of banker bashing.

Anyway, I ripped up my credit card, lived within my means and saved by buying gold coins rather than putting money in the bank. These tactics, combined with living thriftily and frugally, have meant that we have been able to live very well, and with complete freedom, on an income well below the national average. In fact, I have allowed myself moments of self-satisfied smugness when reflecting on our escape from debt, and how we stopped spending money on rubbish, and spent it instead on good food, good booze and good books.

However, now I am starting a shop, I find I am in need of loans. And the problem is, that having rejected usury, it seems that now usury has rejected me. If you have no recent record of borrowing, then banks seem unwilling to lend, even though you have been a prudent and careful manager of your household finances. It seems instead that the careless and indebted spendthrift would find it easier to raise money than the man with the spotless record. And banks are not keen on low incomes.

To compound the situation, I find that I have been the victim of some sort of scam. Our books supplier, the most excellent Bertrams, did a credit check on my company, which is called Idle Ltd, and informed me that I had three County Court Judgments (CCJs) out against me for debts totalling around £12,000. These judgments had been made by a Northampton court in 2007. Surely some mistake? I ran a credit check and found that, indeed, these three CCJs existed.

I racked my brains to try to think of who on earth in the Northampton area I could possibly owe £12,000 to, and if I did, why they had not told me about this debt before. I called my accountant and he was similarly baffled. I noticed on my credit report that the company Idle Ltd was listed as being based in Maidstone. An internet search brought up a listing for a company going by the name of Innovative Deck Lifting Equipment Ltd, a crane-hire company, whose acronym would be... IDLE Ltd. I called the number given, and the man who answered the phone said that there had indeed been a company called IDLE Ltd, which had been in the area a few years ago.

Now I entered a genuinely Kafka-esque labyrinth. I had been accused of a crime which I had not committed. But how would I clear my name? I called Companies House, a legal helpline, the credit-check company. One agency referred me to another, and that agency referred me back to the first one. Luckily, one of my leads has given me the numbers of the debt-collecting agencies which had entered the CCJ, and they now say that they will remove the order.

Meanwhile, I have had to persuade banks and suppliers that the Idle Ltd against whom the judgments had been made was not my Idle Ltd, a small publisher in North Devon, but rather a crane-hire company in Kent. And luckily I seem to have been so far successful: I am being offered credit.

Anyway, it's all good experience. The idea behind the venture is to teach practical skills and academic learning, but also enterprise, or what is clumsily called entrepreneurialism. One of our central missions will be to help people escape the 9-to-5 and set up on their own, and the many adventures I've had on my journey from idler to shopkeeper will, I hope, help others to avoid the same pitfalls.

The Idler Academy opens on 1 March. For more details, visit idler.co.uk/academy

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