Back in September, we interviewed five speakers at the Hello Etsy conference on small business and sustainability. In the third installment of our series, we present Tom Hodgkinson, editor of the philosophical journal The Idler, and headmaster of London’s Idler Academy. Tom tells us about the possibilities that are unlocked when you break the mold and start creating your own life, and what it’s like to be a Bohemian entrepreneur.
Tell us about the Idler Academy and its subtitles.
The full title is “The Idler Academy of Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment: Bookseller, Coffeehouse, School.” So it’s three things. It’s a bookshop with a café attached to it, but we also run courses, events and lectures in old-fashioned subjects. It could be needlework, the study of Latin, grammar or rhetoric, or ancient philosophy. And that’s mixed in with a program of talks by well-known writers.
What’s the philosophy behind the Idler Academy?
It’s based on my magazine, The Idler, which has been going since 1993. It started as a very small magazine, more like a fanzine. Eighteen years later, it still is a very small magazine. The Idler Academy is sort of the educational wing of the magazine. It’s about alternative ways of living, alternative ways of looking at your work and your life, coming from kind of an anarchistic philosophy. Not in the sense of smashing up bus stops or shooting people. By anarchistic I mean I don’t want to work for the state, but also I don’t want to work for the corporations. I think both of those systems are unhelpful for everyday freedom. You have to go out and create your own life. The Idler’s always been about that.
How did the initiative get started?
My wife, Victoria, runs the Academy with me. She started a literary festival in Clerkenwell years ago. It was kind of a hip festival, and it was actually quite influential later. She had lots of young people reading. Radical, cutting-edge young poets, philosophers and writers. It was much more lively than literary festivals were then.
We started the Idler Academy at another festival. We came up with the idea almost as a joke. What would we teach if we were running a school? My joke was that it should be “anti-progressive educational philosophy.” My children are in the state system in England, and the progressive philosophy has come in. You don’t teach children — you bring out what’s already in there, and this sort of thing. You don’t correct their spelling or grammar. You don’t teach them anything in case it interrupts the creative flow! I used to think that was quite a good idea, but I now realize it’s complete nonsense. We thought it would be quite fun to start an Idler Academy with an old-fashioned vibe. I would wear a mortarboard and a gown, and be the headmaster. It would be very strict — you’d have to be punctual. We would teach.
And how did you carry out the idea?
We got a small budget to try out this idea at a festival. We wanted to make some extra cash out of it, so we sold some of my books and Idler back issues, and we sold teas and coffees, and we had a tuck shop. (“Tuck” means snacks and sweets.) Tuck shop, café, bookshop, kind of a library, and this old-fashioned school with blackboards, and a headmaster with a gown. We invited all sorts of great speakers. We had a sewing lesson: we got a Savile Row tailor to teach you how to sew a button on properly. That’s what “husbandry” means. Looking after yourself, vegetable-growing, that sort of thing. Bill Drummond of The KLF was our woodwork teacher, and he spent the whole weekend making a bed for his son, live, outside, and people could just come up and talk to him. He was trying to do it more or less without power tools.
It was just really, really good fun, and we thought: wouldn’t it be fantastic to start something like that full-time in London? So we went to see an estate agent, and found a place. We’ve had a year now of complete hell and stress! We opened the doors on March the first.
I don’t like working; I didn’t like being in a full-time job. But I don’t mind working when it’s something I’ve chosen to do. Also, as long as I can have a nap.
You mentioned in your talk that the Idler dream isn’t quite realizable. Could you explain for us why “The Idler” is a bit of a misnomer?
Ever since we started the Idler, people have accused me of working too hard. People told me, “You say you’re an idler, but you must put a lot of work into creating this magazine.” I moved down to the countryside and started to experiment with smallholding — we had chickens, vegetables and so on. And everyone said that was hard work as well. Now I’m a shopkeeper. You have to open the shop at half past nine, and stay there until six-thirty. So that’s not really idle either.
I have been really, really lazy. That is true. I don’t like working; I didn’t like being in a full-time job. But I don’t mind working when it’s something I’ve chosen to do. Also, as long as I can have a nap. Even when we’ve been working really hard in the shop, waking up at half past six worrying about it, and then having an event in the evening — it’s quite a long day — I’ll still manage to get in a sleep after lunch. When I was writing books at home, I would work for three to four hours a day in the morning, and that was about it. The Idler really is about freedom. For me it’s always been about creating your own living situation.
And why are you unable to be properly idle?
When you’re sitting around doing nothing, you have all these ideas. Ideas generally come not when you’re working, but when you’re not working. You have these ideas, and you start doing them, and then you realize that there is actually an awful lot of work involved in carrying these ideas through. But you’ve started; it’s too late. We opened the shop; it’s too late now. What I’m really interested in is a new kind of entrepreneurialism.
Do you have a favorite class among the Academy’s offerings?
I’ve really enjoyed the classical philosophy classes. Mark Vernon is teaching us about an amazing period in ancient Greece, from just before Socrates, for about two or three hundred years. This is when a lot of philosophies that we still use today were invented: the Stoics, the Cynics, the Epicureans, the Skeptics. These were all schools of thought in ancient Greece, based on the work of Socrates. (Not the actual work, since he never wrote anything down.) It’s been fascinating. This character, Socrates, is amazing. He used to drink all night. He didn’t wear shoes. He had a horrible nagging wife. He never charged for his teaching, and that’s why his wife hated him. He would come home from drinking all night and teaching with no money in his pocket. We’re learning stuff like that. It’s just very interesting for its own sake.
If you are an independent person, do a bit of teaching alongside your other work. It’s a good extra source of income, and could make a nice addition to your portfolio.
What else do you offer?
Our offerings are very broad. There are courses where you can learn how to start your own small business. We’ve had carpentry workshops in the basement. Today, actually, there’s a workshop to make a diddley bow, which is a one-string guitar. You have one string that you stretch on a long piece of wood. You play it with a slide. It’s kind of a deep South, American bluegrass guitar. You learn how to make one, you take it home and then you’ve got one.
We also like medieval and Tudor music. We’ve had lots of these early music evenings. That’s good fun. Medieval music was like pop music, really. There was a drum, the equivalent of a guitar — a lute, a sitar or something like that — a recorder, and then people would sing these lusty folk songs. A bit bawdy sometimes.
How do you find the people to run these workshops?
It’s not difficult. They’re generally people we know or have met over the years. Other journalists, teachers…. People also come and propose themselves. There’s lots of great people out there teaching. Lots of eccentric people. The other good thing about it is that we’re providing a lot of work for people. If you are an independent person, do a bit of teaching alongside your other work. It’s a good extra source of income, and could make a nice addition to your portfolio. I think that’s exciting. All the courses are quite expensive; we price them quite highly. We want to be able to buy good wine for people and have a good party in the evening. And also to pay the teacher reasonably well, and to make sure we get properly paid.
You were talking earlier about the two different kinds of businessperson you’ve identified. What are they?
If you read the financial pages of the newspaper, it’s not about small business. It’s about big business. It’s about corporate mergers, share prices. I suppose that’s what most people think of as business — the businessman with the suit and tie going to corporate meetings in really boring hotels, Holiday Inns and stuff like that. That’s the system I’m trying to get away from.
There’s this whole other world of business that’s happening in London, massively here in Berlin. There are young people with great, creative ideas, who want to do something they enjoy, whether that’s running a café, setting up a publishing company or whatever it is. The kind of business that’s exciting probably won’t ever go near the stock market. They’re not going to sell their shares and have them publicly traded by people. These are people who really are interested in what they’re doing.
Do you have any pet peeves about the traditional business world?
The word “passionate.” It’s used far too much in business communications. Passionate about whatever you’re doing. In England it started with a company called Pret a Manger, a sandwich seller. They said they were “passionate about food.” This company became absolutely massive, and that was its phrase.
I always thought it must be absolute nonsense. The person who founded it wasn’t particularly interested in lunchtime sandwiches. He was just interested in making lots of money. He’s not passionate about food, he’s passionate about profits. The chairman of the Guardian newspaper, when I used to work there, is now in fact the chairman of Easyjet. She wasn’t really interested in newspapers, or airplanes, particularly. She’s interested in business — in earning a million pounds a year, basically. And this is one way of doing it, through corporations.
Most of us are working for the man. In a way you’ve got to become the man yourself.
Why do you think trends in the business world have gone in that direction?
This is an old quote, from G. K. Chesterson, who was a 1920s intellectual: “The trouble with capitalism is not that there are too many capitalists, but that there are not enough capitalists.” So most of us are working for the man. In a way you’ve got to become the man yourself. But not the evil man, a good man. Hang on, I’m getting lost with my metaphors here! But that’s what I’m seeing popping up.
What difficulties does an idler encounter when starting his own business?
You have to realize that you’ve got to be quite well organized. That’s what we’re learning. You can’t be too laid-back, because it’s just not funny for a customer to go into a laid-back café. You get ignored, they forget your order, it comes too late, the coffee’s cold. That’s just incredibly annoying. So I said to our staff that we’ve got to stop being so laid-back and get better organized. Someone I work with asked, “But won’t we lose the charm?” No, it’s not charming. Being crap is not charming. That may be one difficulty that the Bohemian-anarchist-punk-layabout might have when they start their own business.
What other mistakes do you see being made by entrepreneurs?
We have these programs, “Dragons’ Den” and “The Apprentice,” where the more horrible a person you are — amoral, vicious, competitive, greedy, all the vices — the better. As far as those shows are concerned, you’ve just got to be a complete bastard. That’s what you’re told to get on in business. You’ve got to be brutal, it’s a race, you’ve got to be macho and kick everyone else out of the way and beat them up, and be the winner. This other attitude to business — that’s what’s exciting. It’s great that this Hello Etsy conference is happening. To make it an aspiration for young people to start their own businesses, and not because they’re tossers.
How do you think the image of entrepreneurship is changing?
Business conferences — I have been to a couple, I can’t remember why — are usually really, really boring, and everyone hates them. PowerPoint presentations, flipcharts, whiteboards, clipboards, everyone’s wearing really boring clothes, suits and everything. People can’t wait to get out of it, you’re stuck in a stuffy board room, having to listen to propaganda. They look boring and they are boring. This Etsy conference is just so not boring! It’s full of humor, and wit and style. The appearance of everybody — everybody’s dressed colorfully, stylishly. There’s a lot of really young people in the audience as well. It’s a lively, colorful, creative and slightly anarchic approach to business, which is really inspiring.
Watch Tom’s Hello Etsy talk, entitled “Mind Your Business,” and visit the pages of the Idler Academy and the Idler magazine for entrepreneurial inspiration, or just something a bit different to read. Should you still be hungry for more conversation on small business and sustainability, see the rest of our Hello Etsy interview series:
- Part 1: Judy Wicks on local living economies
- Part 2: Chad Dickerson on how Etsy works and how we can improve the contemporary workplace
- Part 3: Tom Hodgkinson on the Idler Academy, entrepreneurship and creating your own lifestyle
- Part 4: Charlie Festa on communities, Threadless and a robot that came to life
- Part 5: Douglas Rushkoff on local economies, technology, work, and the future