Tom Hodgkinson: 'Our target market - people who can't be bothered - doesn't tend to excite advertisers'


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While everyone else has been out having fun, I have spent the past couple of weeks finishing off this year's edition of The Idler. It is our 20th anniversary, 20 years since Gavin Pretor-Pinney and I produced 1,000 copies of the first Idler, with the unlikely celebrity cover of Joshua Reynolds' portrait of Dr Johnson, and three headlines in small type.

It was not, perhaps, the most commercial magazine cover ever created. And it was not a commercial magazine in any sense. In particular the anti-consumerist editorial was not well designed to attract advertising. And our target market – "people who can't be bothered" – does not tend to excite the manufacturers of trainers or energy drinks.

It would be nice to say that today we are selling 250,000 copies a month across nine countries, but I'm afraid the reality is that the print run is still 1,000. We started small, and have remained so.

The magazine has, though, increased in size. Issue one had 32 pages; issue 46 will have 320 – and will be beautifully bound as a book. We are collecting together all the interviews or "conversations" we've printed since 1993. The book, subtitled Free Spirits, celebrates more than 50 characters, bohemians all, most of whom have never had a job in any conventional sense, and many of whom have since died.

It's an intriguing selection of people. The first interview was with Terence McKenna, the Californian "magic-mushroom guru" who died in 2000. At the time he was recording samples for the Shamen, and the interview took me right back to my raving days.

Around that time I also interviewed the film director Richard Linklater and author Douglas Coupland, both of whom were associated with what was called "Generation X" in the 1990s, the Nirvana-fan drop-outs.

There was also a wild night out around then with Bez, who lent me £20.

As the raving died down, I found myself chasing fun in Soho, and this period of my life is represented by drunken interviews with Damien Hirst and Keith Allen. I also interviewed Bruce Robinson, writer of Withnail & I, and the Platonist John Michell, lover of sacred geometry and unexplained phenomena. The sense of creative freedom in the magazine is palpable.

There are some real gems from Louis Theroux. He contributed to The Idler from issue one, and did some extraordinary interviews. My favourite is a long profile of the philosopher-novelist Colin Wilson, author of The Outsider, who became Elvis-famous overnight in the 1950s, only to be cast aside again a few years later by the critics. Louis went down to visit him in Cornwall, and was amused to find that Wilson is given to sudden outbursts of swearing.

Louis also chatted with Bill Oddie about his depression, and David Soul about what happens when megastardom melts away.

Radicals are well-represented: there is a nice interview with Situationist philosopher Raoul Vaneigem, and I spent a lovely day with anarchist Penny Rimbaud. Elsewhere, Class War editor Ian Bone rails against Tories, socialists, liberals and every other political movement conceivable, and QI producer John Lloyd proposes a radical theory of education.

While just about every single piece of orthodox wisdom we might hold dear is questioned by the interviewees, looked at from a utilitarian or commercial point of view, The Idler has been a complete waste of time: it has never made any money for anyone, although I did manage to pay contributors a gold sovereign each for a couple of issues. Sometimes I wonder why I have bothered. It would have been easier to have joined Shell as a junior executive in 1992 and worked my way up the ladder just by turning up every day. By now I'd be a millionaire.

But oh, I'd have been bored! And I have never been bored over the past 20 years. I wonder, though, if the bohemian spirit will live on. Most radicals today have been absorbed by that horrendous advertising-sales game, Facebook: instead of doing anything, they just create Facebook pages, which are then covered in ads.

Well, the new Idler will not be available online or digitally. It's the real thing.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'

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