Tom Hodgkinson: They were expecting a carefree soul; instead they found a man with a furrowed brow


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The Independent Online

To paraphrase Mick Jones, my indecision's bugging me. I am tormented by choice. Twelve years after my semi-retirement to a remote village on Exmoor, I find myself contemplating a move back to London. There are various practical benefits. Victoria and I could spend more time working on the Idler Academy, our shop and school. After all, its physical HQ is located in west London, and the 200-mile commute has presented certain challenges over the past three years. Our children could go to the exciting schools of Shepherd's Bush and Hammersmith. We reckon that life would be made easier in some ways. We'd also be nearer our old friends and our parents. There would be less driving.

On the other hand, the children are reasonably well settled in their schools down here, and when the sun shines, there is no better place to be in the world. Yesterday evening, I took the kids down to our nearby beach, Woody Bay, where we cooked sausages over a fire, lazed on rocks and swam in the sea. And it was free. We can live fairly well here on a modest income and we have time and space. We are mercifully free from envy and from striving for material things: no one here really cares about showing off their new car or boasting about holidays.

And have I forgotten the things that made me want to leave London: the bustle, the expense, the hassle? Don't I want to reject the "world", as it used to be called, and worldly cares, the striving and vanity? Didn't I move down here because I wanted to embrace the vita contemplativa and live a quiet life of study, the life of a Taoist monk or an Epicurean, who has retreated from toil and worry to tend his small plot of land? With the added convenience of a wi-fi connection? Why don't we just close the shop and go back to writing books and editing small magazines?

But, oh, the city calls me back. It exerts a gravitational pull. And perhaps you can find freedom there. After all, they used to say "City air makes you free" back in the Middle Ages, when droves of peasants left the land and the yoke of the landowner and built a new life in one of the city states, a life based on the joy of creation, of trade and the exchange of ideas. The culture, too, is all in the city: this is where the art is, the music, the literature.

Of course I am under no illusions that a move back to London would make me happy. Ha! Silly notion. I have settled down into a middle-aged life of worry punctuated by the occasional bit of fun. My friend Gav says that he is a "Man of Constant Sorrow", to use the title of the famous folk song, memorably performed by George Clooney in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?. I, too, am a MOCSO. I have also become money-obsessed to an alarming degree. I wake up at six in the morning, worrying about bills. Still, this, I think, is simply an outcome of not having any. It was only during a brief period of relative wealth about 16 years ago when I used to say "Oh, I don't worry about money".

As a freelance hack, I suppose I have condemned myself to worry and there is nothing new about that. As Dr Johnson put it: "Mark what ills the scholar's life assail,/ Toil, envy, want, the patron and the jail."

Last weekend, a German film crew came down here. I suspect they were expecting to find a more carefree soul, that I would be lounging in a deckchair all day drinking real ale. Instead, they found a man with a furrowed brow complaining about being poor.

The other problem is that you're not allowed to express such negative thoughts these days, at least not in public. We are supposed to be positive people. The medium of Twitter seems to encourage absurd hyperbolic language. "Thrilled" is a word that appears regularly. It's as bad as the overuse of the word "passionate" in business. The relentless positivity of it gets me down. It would be far more cheering if people were honest and wrote things like, "Really bored by my new project" or "Mildly deflated".

Sometimes I wish someone would just tell me what to do. It's my fault. I wanted to be free and I am, so I shouldn't whinge about the responsibilities that come with it. But liberty, thou art a cruel mistress!

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'