In the mid 90s Tom Hodgkinson wrote an article for The Guardian entitled ‘Why I don’t want a job’. The following week he was offered a position at the paper, which he accepted. His own magazine The Idler, was partly funded by his freelance work and it managed to carve out a peculiar niche offering cheery and whimsical advice on enjoying life, taking things slow and escaping the rat race. Tom went on to build up The Idler brand by writing several books, running a consultancy firm, opening a shop and packaging online courses on everything from philosophy and yoga to baking sourdough bread.
In other words, he’s a living contradiction. Through his efforts to spread the gospel of enjoying an easy life he’s ended up running an entire cottage industry (at times literally, from his farm in Devon). Often, where you find contradictions you’ll also find humour, but not always. There’s plenty of comedic potential in Tom’s stories about how his idealistic notions collided with the practicalities of running a business, but unfortunately it tends to dissipate in the telling. There’s an awkwardness in the air (and a heatwave outside) which results in tittering instead of laughter.
We’re in a half-full school hall for the Brighton Festival launch of Tom Hodgkinson’s latest book, Business For Bohemians, which is described in the blurb as a mix of “practical advice and laugh-out-loud anecdotes”. Interviewed by a former Guardian colleague, Tom talks us through the difficulties he faced in setting up a bookshop and cafe in Notting Hill. Even if the guy isn’t a comedian, he must know a thing or two about running a business. There’s a discussion on why you should always look over your own accounts, why performance targets are fun as well as useful, and why you should never employ staff from certain public schools (they’ll drink all your wine). We’re also treated to an explanation of a spreadsheet as “a kind of grid with numbers”.
The audience is made up of a broad mix of people, most of whom are probably local freelancers looking for tips on how to make a living out of doing what they love. The only solid advice we come away with is to enrol on a basic accountancy course. Where’s the bohemian in all this? Tom’s detours through leftfield topics such as punk lyrics and magic mushrooms seem to cause a stir, but the reaction is more a matter of embarrassment than provocation.
His story might be inspiring – we all need to know that it’s possible to build a career on our own terms – but it’s a hard one to relate to. At certain times Tom’s projects were backed by wealthy friends and when push came to shove he was forced to sell off his personal collection of gold coins. Being an idler is easier for some.
Brighton & Hove High School, Saturday 5th May 2018