It’s Friday afternoon, and after a particularly busy week, with only a few things to wrap up, I try and scratch off the last important thing on my list of things to do – interview author/journalist Tom Hodgkinson.
First I try his London office a number of times, only to get the following answer-phone message: “This is the office of the Idler [the magazine of which Hodgkinson is the founder/editor], there’s no one in right now, we’re not in very often, so if you leave a message it might take a while for us to get back to you…”
At 5:50pm Bangkok time (11:50am in England) I try my luck with his mobile number, which I was given “in case something goes wrong”.
“Hi, this is Tom, I’ve left my mobile at home today, you can reach me at [the number for the Idler office].”
It appears I am trapped in a Sisyphean cycle of messages left on answer-phones that lead to more messages on other answer-phones, all equally unlikely to be answered or to yield in the previously arranged interview.
Normally this would be cause for concern, but today a smile born from a wonderful sense of irony spreads across my face.
You see, apart from editing the magazine, Hodgkinson is also the author of a curious little book, How To Be Idle. Broken down into hourly chapters, starting at 8 am and finishing at 7 am, it wages a war on work while providing practical and philosophical loafing advice for every part of the day.
Chapter three “10 am Sleeping In”, begins as follows: “It’s 10 am The successful idler, having avoided the guilt produced by 8 am, the culturally determined hour of rising, and the guilt produced by 9 am, the hour of work, may now be awake, and thinking of perhaps getting up. Don’t!”
The fact that he was either not up, nor in the office to answer the phone, came as no great surprise. I fired off a bunch of questions via email, and left the office heading for the pub.
Hodgkinson practices what he preaches in How To Be Idle. He takes the subject of doing nothing very seriously, and aims to inspire more than a quiet chuckle from readers. “Although the book is a good read, it is intended to be taken seriously. I really do believe that our system of things is anti-life,” he says.
That he takes idleness sincerely is demonstrated through his fastidious research, which draws on sources as varied as Robert Louis Stevenson, Lao Tzu, Dr Johnson, Albert Camus and Damien Hirst, who provide a 2,500 year old legacy to loafing (there’s nine pages of further reading on the subject).
It has to be said that the end result really is good. Not only is the book thoroughly entertaining, it should resonate with anyone — except the most puritanical workaholic bores — who has ever questioned how our lives have become to be dominated by work, time, and the need to be constantly doing something, or by feeling guilty for being inactive.
Hodgkinson says that this angst-driven nine-to-five drudgery is only a fairly recent development in terms of human history. That it is the result of when, some 250 years ago, we were ripped from our agrarian existence by the ravages of the Industrial Revolution. This transformed our previous existence of spontaneous, task-oriented work, to one where we were shackled to the ruthless tyranny of the clock and wage labour.
It has alienated us from our authentic lackadaisical state of nature, Hodgkinson adds, saying that the only purpose chirpy axioms – such as Benjamin Franklin’s 1757 utterance, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man, healthy, wealthy and wise”– serve are to fill us with guilt whenever we return to an authentic state of doing as we please.
“[If we were idle] we would become more alive. We would be less stressed out because we would be in control of our own lives. We would free ourselves from the master/slave dialectic and all the other imprisoning dualities that control us.
“Life and work would become the same thing. We would become whole people rather than fractured people.”
But left to loafers like Hodgkinson, wouldn’t the world just go to the dogs?
“I think the claim is self-evidently false. Idle people are creative and hard workers are uncreative. Is it better to trick people into buying crisps or to grow your own vegetables? Clearly the latter. It is generally better to do nothing than to do something. It creates less harm in the world.”
When summing up whether How To Be Idle offers an intelligent critique of the alienating nature of the rate race, or just a self-indulgent lazy man’s guide to life, it’s worth considering the words of the British journalist, and celebrated alcoholic, Jeffrey Bernard (quoted in the book) on the matter how those who preach the benefits of working harder, are normally the people having a nice time, relaxing and getting rich on the backs of others.
“As if there was something romantic and glamorous about hard work… if there was something glamorous about it, the Duke of Westminster would be digging his own fucking garden, wouldn’t he?”