Tom Hodgkinson: 'The only booming businesses are booze and payday lenders. No one buys books. The high streets are collapsing'


Related Topics

In the run-up to Christmas I found myself watching a lot of telly. My friends accuse me of hypocrisy since I used to rail against the evils of TV and even advised people, in a book, to chuck out their telly. I defend myself by blaming my children: I felt bad denying them the pleasures of schoolyard conversation about The X Factor.

My main argument with telly is not so much with the shows. It would be perverse and excessively curmudgeonly to deny the talents of, for example, the great Graham Linehan, co-writer of Black Books, The IT Crowd and Father Ted. It is rather with the stream of advertising they blast you with.

The ads that really got me fuming were the ones for payday lenders. The best known is Wonga, with its homely puppets of old people, but other immoral bean-counters have entered the fray, with names such as QuickQuid and Mr Lender, charging anything from 1,500 to 5,000 per cent interest. This kind of unvarnished usury was considered by the clerics of the Middle Ages to be a sin. We would call it exploitation.

The success of these companies suggests that, for ordinary people, our much-vaunted economic recovery is something of a fantasy. In the 18th century, the equivalent of payday lenders were the pawnbrokers’ shops. The busier the pawnbroker, the more parlous the country’s finances.

William Hogarth was the 18th-century artist with a conscience. Rather than painting grand portraits for wealthy clients as his contemporary Joshua Reynolds did, he chose to create series of moral fables, which he produced in low-cost editions so the ordinary man in the street could own them. The best known is probably Gin Lane, a horrifying portrayal of poverty, which famously shows a gin-addicted mother carelessly dropping her baby. Hogarth filled his pictures with symbols, and here we see that the only successful business on the street is the pawnbroker. There is a skeletal figure unsuccessfully trying to sell educational pamphlets. The independent barber shop is in ruins.

Is this so far from our reality today? The only booming businesses are booze and payday lenders. No one buys books. The high streets are collapsing. No one has the time or energy for self-improvement and self-education, those true goals of life. Instead, they distract themselves with telly and drinking. The owners of TV stations, mail-order internet companies, money-lending operations, cocaine cartels and social-networking sites coin it in while the rest of us cannot see till the end of the week, financially speaking. The money of the tycoons is directly syphoned from the poor and the weak.

Hogarth produced another print called Beer Street, which was a utopian vision to contrast with the dystopia of Gin Lane. Instead of gin, beer is the drink of the day. Everyone is reading books and pamphlets. Fisherwomen are reading self-improving tracts with one hand while holding a pewter tankard of fine ale in the other. The men are fat and jolly. Independent shops thrive. And, tellingly, the pawnbroker’s shop is in ruins.

To me, Beer Street remains an achievable fantasy. Perhaps perversely, I still believe that people do want to read, learn, debate and educate themselves. The internet began as a medium of communication. It quickly turned into a medium for selling ads. The sole purpose of companies such as Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter is to sell advertising. That is why they exist. But I believe that this year we will see a return to the internet’s genuinely democratic roots. In the case of the Idler Academy, we are exploring the fantastic potential of the internet to provide high-quality online education in a convivial setting. That has been the dream of every liberal-minded reformer since the Founding Fathers: a society not based on work and money but on the original Greek ideal of cultivated leisure.

It’s a dream worth pursuing.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Residents of the Gravesham constituency are 10 times closer to what Peter Hain scorns as the “Westminster elite” than are those of Linlithgow and East Falkirk  

Will no one stop the march of localism?

Jonathan Meades
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam