AN INTERVIEW WITH TOM HODGKINSON
So I thought there might be room for a magazine that explored these ideas. Particularly at a time when Douglas Coupland had just done Generation X and discovered this Slacker thing over in America and I thought maybe we could bring together these ideas with a sort of eighteenth century elbow on the mantle-piece appeal with modern ideas about what was going on culturally and in the work place. So we explored new ways of working." Tom Hodgkinson is the editor of the innovative and brilliant alternative culture bi-annual magazine The Idler.
Richard Marshall interviews Tom Hodgkinson
COPYRIGHT © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
3AM: So when did it all start?
TH: We did Issue 1 in 1993. By then I’d been out of University for three or four years and I was trying to make a living as a freelance journalist but at the same time I’d always had this problem about … well, I was really lazy and lacked motivation. So I’d be in my flat and I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed and then I’d finally decide to get out of bed and decide to have a bath and then I wouldn’t be able to get out of the bath and then it’d finally be about noon or one. And I was kind of beating myself up about this and then I read these essays by Dr Johnson called ‘The Idleree’, done in the 1750’s, and they were a column in a magazine written just round here in Camberwell actually . He was describing the character of an Idler and what he was describing was not someone who was just lazy but someone who worked in a different kind of way. So someone who finds it very difficult to get to work on time and work the eight hours might be able to do something good very quickly. He was describing this idea of an Idler as someone who worked by building up a momentum. The quote is something like ‘As ponderous bodies forced into velocity move in a violence proportionate to their own weight’ - so the idea is that you can lie in bed thinking and then when you do work you work very quickly and get it done and then you get off to the pub. This is an attractive way of working to me. Idleness is not something that I should beat myself up about. It can be something positive. So I thought there might be room for a magazine that explored these ideas. Particularly at a time when Douglas Coupland (Generation X)had just done ‘Generation X’ and discovered this Slacker thing over in America and I thought maybe we could bring together these ideas with a sort of eighteenth century elbow on the mantle-piece appeal with modern ideas about what was going on culturally and in the work place. So we explored new ways of working. As well as bringing in all that Californian stuff, you know, bringing in all that stuff about UFOs which was my interest at the time. And also to publish some work by friends who didn’t have the wherewithal or whatever to get their stuff published in the mainstream. So we were trying to bring together all these things. That was the original concept. And so we thought about it for about a year or two and then I asked my friend Gavin, who had designed The Modern Review, if he would help me to put it together. The first issue we just raised £800 from friends and stuff and printed a thousand copies of 33 pages and that in a way was the easiest one. After that we had a magazine. I felt I was creating some good ideas right from the very beginning. Right from the beginning we were getting letters from people saying, ‘This is amazing, I thought I was the only person in the world with these ideas, that I was all alone,’ and that encouraged us to carry on. But now, eight years later we’re still doing it – still not making any money out of it – but it’s taken us into all sorts of fantastic areas and we’ve met some fantastic people. To me an Idler is an anarchist so you can’t stand being told what to do – I mean, you might have a slave mentality deep down so that, you know, I’m quite easily bossed around – but basically you hate being told what to do – you hate the presumption that someone else can tell you how to live. So for that reason it's very anti-New Labour. New Labour insults your intelligence really. The more you think about it, any sort of government seems to be an insult. So I suppose that means I’m an anarchist. An Idler is trying to create his or her own existence where he doesn’t have to feel guilty, where you don’t have to go to work and you can lunch all day and New Labour is all about guilt, anxiety, fear. I saw those new posters for benefit cheats – real Big Brother stuff. You know, we’re onto you, benefit fraud, we’re on to you, with a target sign, and I haven’t signed on for years but when I was signing on I was also writing articles so I was a benefit cheat but even now they just made me feel scared and nervous. You get assaulted by these things all the time. So a combination of a moralistic government and a capitalistic system combines to bring about an awful lot of anxiety and guilt. We’re trying to make people feel better so we’re definitely anti-New Labour.
3AM: You’re picking up the dissenting imagination. Have you read about Dr Johnson and Richard Savage…?
TH: Yes, yes. He picks him up. Everyone hates Savage and thinks he’s an arsehole but Johnson supports him and they go on long rambling pissups through the city of London.
3AM: Is that the kind of atmosphere you’re trying to create with The Idler?
TH: Yes. We had this period at the Guardian where we felt that we were being patronised by the editors, that they thought they were doing something slightly more serious than we were. I see The Idler as more serious than most other commercial magazines and newspapers because those work just on that day’s agenda whereas we’re trying to do something that won’t date. It’s about how to live – it’s a philosophy about what people are really thinking. So I suppose it is dissenting. In 1991 I asked why are Idlers frowned upon and the answer was that an Idler is a thinker. Thinkers tend to be malcontents. And anyway, a thinker is not a welcome addition to most social situations. They get in the way. They won’t be bossed around. So I like the idea that we’re creating a home for people who are independent in thought.
3AM: Who are your heroes?
TH: Well, Dr Johnson is my original inspiration. What was brilliant was that once we started looking into it there were all these other philosophers who were Idlers too, Betrand Russell wrote a brilliant essay about it, Jerome K Jerome had a magazine called The Idler at the turn of the century, so he was a great Idler, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote an essay called ‘An Apology For Idlers’, there’s tons of it in ancient Chinese poetry, Li Po and the Taoist principle is ‘Do nothing’ – ‘go with the flow’, and that’s picked up by the Ken Kesey’s, and all that sixties stuff . He just died, he was quite young, only in his sixties, - they had a thing at the Eclipse which we went to which Channel 4 sponsored and I met him briefly. You got to catch them before they die. I was really glad to meet Jeffrey Bernard for example. I always wanted to get Peter Cooke – we never managed to. Dr Johnson is dead. That was a great shame. Some of the people we’ve interviewed – I like the Keith Allen and Damien Hirst stuff, because they’re free, it’s all about freedom, and they just make up their own way of living, which is a very difficult thing to do. Oscar Wilde said ‘Being idle is very hard work, because everyone’s against you.’ So that’s why we need a journal to support people.
3AM: Will Self. You’ve interviewed him. Is he really an Idler?
TH: Yes, he was in Number 2. He’s very hard working. The great quote from Dr Johnson is ‘Every man is or hopes to be an Idler’ so he’s saying the end of work is idleness. So if I work now then I can slack off tonight or if I work all my life then I can have my retirement. I think Will Self is deeply an Idler. Taking junk is about doing nothing basically. It’s about lying about doing nothing. But then he’s also impelled by ambition and wanting to do things but the weird thing is that I think Idlers can work quite hard, it’s just that they do it on something they want to do. We work quite hard on this because it’s something that we’ve chosen to do – my definition of work is something that you don’t want to do. So if you do want to work, is that work, or is it play? So the ideal is not doing nothing but doing work that you want to do at the time when you want to do it. DH Lawrence wrote some very good idling poems.
3AM: You seem to have done this.
TH: Well, no. I’m victimised by capitalism and desire and all those kinds of things, anxiety and ego – I think everyone is – I sometimes think I’ve organised my own life to some extent but it looks pretty much like a 9 to 5 life – most days I go into the office for most of the day and then I go home – and Gav and I still end up doing loads of work – I mean it’s not like going down a mine, it’s pleasant work really, but a lot of the stuff is not stuff we’ve particularly chosen to do. My ideal is still quite a far way off which would be that The Idler makes money. So then I could do stuff I wanted to do. I’m quite pleased with what we’ve done – we did the Absinthe importing as well so we have a pretty good record of having an idea and then pulling it through.
3AM: Yes, well, I was expecting at least a bottle for myself.
TH: Well maybe I could sort out a miniature. But everyone creates their own life though and anything that hasn’t happened yet - it’s only my own fault. So perhaps where I am now is where I want to be. But I don’t feel particularly complacent about it.
3AM: So in terms of ideas for the future – where do you think we’re going?
TH: I don’t know. There’s a perception of these two cultures going on at once, there’s a sort of Blair view of ‘airy fairy’ views of civil liberties – Blunkett saying that a few days ago wasn’t it… new crack-downs on dole cheats and the whole money, materialistic culture, based around work, work, work, spend, spend, spend, and then live in this constant cycle of unfulfilled desire – but there are encouraging signs that there are lots of things going on culturally that is quite positive. But it is a bit depressing when you consider all the stuff written about idleness over the last 5000 years and an anthropologist might say there are tribal societies involved in this whole way of doing things, you know, not working very hard and enjoying themselves, probably because they don’t have a notion of progress, betterment, self-improvement like we do in the West, - I’m talking vaguely because I don’t really know what I’m talking about – other cultures and so on – but one of the great things about it is that we’ve never had any trouble finding things to fill the magazine. When we started doing it, after the first one people wondered how were we going to fill the next one, and the next and so on. We’ve never had a problem having stuff to fill it. There are plenty of people looking around for alternatives. It came out of recession – being on the dole you had nothing to lose when I started it. I did English at University and after a few months on the dole I thought I might as well start my long cherished magazine project because if it doesn’t work it doesn’t matter. In times when it's easier to get a job – maybe if I’d gone to University in 1997 – I might have got a job in a dot.com or something and thought I was doing fine. And the underground creative stuff would never have started. Which is why if we’re going into a recession now maybe that’s quite a good thing because that’s when underground stuff – Acid House and Rave started, in a recession – punk too – and in the 80’s you got Duran Duran, which isn’t very interesting. So there’s a lot to be said for Recession as a spur to new ideas. I haven’t got a sense of whether we’re in good times or bad times. I did have a feeling in the mid 90’s that we were in the middle of something quite exciting – there was a lot going on.
3AM: So how do you get things to happen?
TH: It’s all quite random. If we try going through agents and stuff it all starts to break down. It’s just a question of being open and different things opening up new things. I met Mark Manning at a Stewart Home party years ago and he said he’d just written a short story which sounded quite funny so we went and used that. Mark wouldn’t mind me saying – he’s an autodidact. He doesn’t – there’s no received opinion in him, there’s no cliché - he’s completely free of that, he just says what he thinks and he can’t think any other way which is why a lot of what he says is disgusting and quite offensive but it’s all true. My mum actually read his story and she said ‘very cruel, but true.’ We had a reading where he read a story called "the Paedophile’s Christmas" which we never published and people walked out and thought it was terrible but it’s not. There’s nothing in it for him, there’s no commercial agenda or anything, he just has to do it, or he wants to do it. Something to do with Leeds perhaps. Damien Hirst is from Leeds as well. In terms of making connections, I must admit that some of the events at the Groucho Club have been quite good. Some people think that it’s a kind of arsy, elitist place but it's quite good fun. I’m sure that once you set up your pitch people just come to you. It’s a great feeling of power – I don’t mean power over people – but a feeling of getting something done. You know, you read something about someone and you go and meet them. Which is what I always thought was the great thing about journalism. On Monday, you can say, that’s interesting , I’d like to meet them, on Tuesday you can ring them and on Wednesday you can meet them. It’s a real privilege. I think most people can see that we do more interesting things than most magazines so they’re happy to get across. We didn’t pay – I mean now we pay a measly £50 but there’s no commercial reason to be part of this. There are no massive sales so there’s no PR benefit either. But hopefully they do get something out of it – we certainly do.
3AM: You sense that you’re setting an agenda then?
TH: Yes. An area of enquiry rather than an agenda. We’re quite open. When we do interviews they’re transcripts. They’re not trying to do a psychological profile on someone. The only agenda is the celebration of idleness as a positive force not a negative one. Ideas happen when you’re idle. You can’t have ideas if you’re working all the time. They come when you’re lying in the bath or drinking.
3AM: Do you connect with the Beats?
TH: Well, some of it’s a bit mad and dated but all of these things have the same thing at their heart whether it's hippy or punk or whatever – its doing what you want to do.
3AM: So where’s The Idler going to be in ten years' time?
TH: I do have commercial ambitions for it. But I was thinking – you know when pop stars say that they just want their work to reach as large an audience as possible, well it’s a load of bollocks, what they really mean is they want to make as much money as possible. The audience is just an excuse to make more money. Now obviously we’d like to sell more copies of the book and then more people will read it. That’s a nice feeling. But I don’t have any sense that… well, I used to work for the Guardian newspaper and you know, a million people might read the Telegraph but I get a better response from the 3000 people who read The Idler. So it’s not exactly that you want more people to read it. I’d like to make an independent publishing venture work. I’d like to make it happen. So we can pay ourselves and pay a couple of people to help. The good thing about it is that it’s already bigger than just the magazine. It exists as a series of events too. You’re making something happen, bringing people together, you act like a curator, bringing people together round one event, doing it on all sorts of different scales. We had this nightclub party at the 333, we get festivals and bands and readings, if people meet each other then you get a feeling you’re not alone which is a nice feeling. It’s London based but it isn’t a London thing particularly. We’re based here and everyone’s here. Everyone from Leeds is here. I don’t feel guilty about that metropolitan thing. We’re selling in the States now and it’s not about London. Anyone can read it. We have readers in New Zealand, we get e-mails from Mexico and stuff. So it gets out there. Anyone living in the Western system will respond to the ideas because there’s some sort of hole somewhere and this is addressing the hole in some way.
3AM: Do you get feedback from the States then?
TH: We have had lots of it when it was a newsstand magazine we sold more copies in the States and I think people like it there because the work culture in the states is even worse than here – you know they have something like two weeks holiday a year - really work focused and career focused and money focused and status focused - everything that we’re questioning. So I think there’s probably a real thirst for it in the States and probably the worse the work culture is the more you need a magazine like The Idler. You know, if you took it to an African village it wouldn’t really mean anything to them there. I’m romanticising about other cultures I don’t know anything about again aren’t I? Australia's not supposed to be all that work orientated. It goes down quite well in New Zealand though.
3AM: You personally write anything other than this? You know, novels, short stories?
TH: Not at the moment. I think maybe a novel one day but at the moment I’m quite sociable and I like working with other people and if you want to write a novel you’ve basically got to sit on your own for six months. Nicolas Coe apparently manages to get up at six, gets the children out of bed, spends two hours at the word processor and then goes out and runs Conde Naste but I don’t think I could ever do that. I think for most novelists it's about sitting on your own for days, weeks, months on end. At the moment I quite enjoy working collaboratively.
3AM: Do you see the parties and events you organise as being creative? Making something happen?
TH: As creative? Yes. Making something happen. Yes. It's very good fun so it doesn’t seem like work really. I remember talking to Jeffrey Bernard and he was talking about the people he used to hang out with in the fifties and sixties in Soho – Dylan Thomas and so on – and he said it’s not so much name dropping as the fact that these people were outstanding in that they did just that, they stood out! They made things happen. I thought that was quite a nice idea because it doesn’t have to make money – when I was starting off as a journalist and I was working on a piece of writing or trying to get something published everything else is by the by - but that’s nonsense. You don’t have to be doing just the one thing. People like Mark Manning and Billy Childish do loads of different things – music, art, poetry writing. They don’t even care if it’s good or bad. So that’s another thing about work – it tends to get you into lots of little specialisations and everything else becomes a hobby. I have lots of ideas for things to do. Things that may never happen. I have an idea for a West End Musical. But you kind of think – if I can make a magazine happen which is basically about getting people together and getting something out there then it’s pretty similar, the skills needed, to get a musical or a film together. It’s not about ambition, it’s basically about having an idea and then trying to see if you can make it happen. I’d quite like to have a members club. A real eighteenth century hang out with absinthe selling and stuff. There’s lots of things I want to do. I like the idea that says ‘what a small amount of effort is required to produce a great work of art.’ Like, there’s a Picasso piece, I don’t know what it’s called, where he basically turned a bicycle handlebar into a bull’s head. You know, it was just a matter of putting two different things together. You have the idea, wonder what it would look like, hmm, that’d be quite cool and then you do it, you put them together. So with Damien Hirst, I like the idea that he has the idea but then it’s delegated. It might be somebody else painting the spots, someone else is blowing up a shark or making little pills in the same way Michaelangelo working on the Cistine Chappel – you know, the Pope thinking, it’d be great to have God doing something really interesting on the ceiling and Michaelangelo saying I’ll get my fifty assistants and we’ll get it together. Someone’s got the vision and it doesn’t really matter if they don’t do all the work themselves. There’s something very attractive about that idea. The craftsmanship and the skill you’re supposed to have built up over thirty years or whatever don’t seem to matter. It’s not a particularly new idea, I mean Duchamp and his urinal and all that. But I think strictly from The Idler point of view it’s quite attractive and also the artists I’ve met seem to be incredibly cheerful, positive life-affirming people like Gavin Turk or Damien Hirst – they’re a really good laugh.
3AM: What’s also attractive is the end of a hierarchical approach to all of this stuff.
TH: Yes. It’s not elitist. We used to all live in Notting Hill so people sometimes say hmm you’re all rich people in Notting Hill but we were certainly not rich. You know, the way we got portrayed in Sunday magazines as lazy rich kids. It was quite funny. It’s supposed to be the opposite of elitist. Or it’s an elite that anyone can join.
3AM: It’s like getting rid of second and third class – everyone will ride first class now.
TH: That’s a nice way of putting it. One way I like to think of it is that it’s comforting and inspiring at the same time. It’s comforting because it’s telling you that your laziness and your distaste for work and your drinking are perfectly normal and nothing to feel guilty about and it’s inspiring because hopefully it inspires you to do your own thing. It’s not against enterprise. In fact someone suggested at lunchtime that we should do a feature on enterprising businessmen who started their own companies doing whatever it was they wanted to do, starting their own record company years ago, say, and they’re still doing it years later . You know, if you can’t stand working for someone else then you’ve got to start up your own business and work for yourself.
3AM: You seem to have avoided being laddish.
TH: We still get accused of that actually. But I never even thought about the issue. If we have avoided it, it just kind of happened. If anything we try and make it a bit more female friendly but I do think it’s more of a boy’s thing. We have Rowan Pelling’s Erotic Review. I hate to say it but it’s like the Royle Family, the age old thing. Where have you been? And the men’ve been sitting in the pub and the woman’s work is never done. It’s a cliché but it’s got some truth in it. Women tend to be thinking about lots of different things at the same time whereas a man can work incredibly hard and with great concentration on one thing and then stop and do absolutely nothing. Women can’t believe that we can just sit there doing nothing when there’s all this work to be done . Which is why they probably make very good managers in companies. We see it in the marketing stuff we do. The women give us the work and we do it and hand it in. There are women Idlers and we’d love to have more female writers but most of it comes from men. Germaine Greer is not an Idler. Colette was. I don’t know much about her . Suzanne Moore wrote a great piece on Idler sex arguing that the way sex is represented in women’s magazines it’s become this great effort and is about the work ethic. You have to go into sex training and ask ‘am I doing it right ?’or ‘am I doing it wrong?’ and suddenly it becomes a job which you’ve got to do right . So it loses its pleasure. And Suzanne asked ‘what’s wrong with lying back and thinking of England?’ Let the other person do all the work. That was a great piece. But on the whole women tend to say I’d like to be an Idler but there’s so much to be done. I’ve got to do all these things. I’ve got to pick up the kids. And the man has his shag. It’s just a fact. I was brought up by a feminist mother but I’m sure that she’d admit that idleness comes more naturally to men. That’s one of the sources of friction between the sexes.
3AM: Let’s leave it there and get some more drinks in because I’ve to write all this stuff up.