19 | Jul | 11

Richard Johnson

What Do Idle Hands Make?

I was delighted when young Tom Hodgkinson invited me to come along to The Idler Academy on July 27 to talk about Street Food. You see, Tom knows all about the simple path to fulfillment. He is responsible for The Freedom Manifesto: How to Free Yourself from Anxiety and The Idler – the magazine devoted to the ethos of idle living. I admire his work. Besides, Tom and I share a past.

Tom, you see, used to be my neighbour in high-rise West London. Then he got out. And – even though we’ve got Westfield now – I felt a bit of a failure still to be living the life that he escaped from. To make matters worse, he had gone and reinvented himself as a guru, and invited me to his Devon farmhouse to lead me to enlightenment. I agreed to visit. But when I arrived, I wasn’t “in a good place”.

Tucked away in a valley off Exmoor, the farm was more shabby than chic. But it had a stream running through it, with swings and a treehouse. In one of the outbuildings, Tom had set up his own pub where he kept beer and a dansette record player. That’s where he sits with his family to listen to the records of Noel Coward and the Ink Spots. It was, by all accounts, idyllic.

Tom wasn’t weighed down with expectation. Or, if he was, he wasn’t showing it – he turned up late. But then Tom longs for a time, not so long ago, when humans – like animals and plants – moved at nature’s pace. In his book How To Be Free he advised us to cast off our watches. In my book, 15 minutes late is 15 minutes late. But maybe that’s why I needed Tom’s help.

When he bowled up, happy as you like, he was handsome, with long, dark eyelashes. He wasn’t dressed like a public school boy playing at The Good Life – he wore wellingtons by Dunlop rather than Hunter, and the same shirt he wore yesterday. Which was frayed round the collar. And, if I’m not mistaken, he had had a go at cutting his own hair.

The vegetable patch didn’t look like some Sunday magazine photo shoot. It was a mess. And leaning against the permiter fencing were sheets of corrugated iron and old wooden window frames. Like, one day, they might come in useful. Self-sufficiency certainly isn’t pretty. But, by gardening without unnecessary expense, Tom is less committed to being a wage slave.

So, no expensive fertilisers. As Tom says, “there are piles of shit everywhere”. He’s currently writing a book about husbandry, and now wants to get into biodynamic farming. That involves preparing a humus mixture by stuffing manure into the horn of a cow and burying it. And then digging it up again at the right stage of the moon’s cycle. He doesn’t believe in it, but that’s not the point. It’s fun. And fun is nice.

As the weather closed in, we moved into the kitchen where, on the shelves by the heavy pine table, there were jigsaws – and a VHS of Swallows and Amazons. Victoria, Tom’s wife, wanted to teach me the joy of bread. I was already a convert. Flour has no taste. But a 12-stage process can pull extraordinary complexities from the grain. It’s a little miracle.

So is bee-keeping. And bee keeping gives an idler an excuse for sloth. You can’t mow the grass because the bees hate the vibration; you can’t really dig; and you mustn’t weed too vigorously because you’re depriving the bees of valuable pollen. But it’s an expensive hobby. And the children have got to have their own bee-keeper outfits. The simplest life isn’t always the cheapest.

By the end of the day, I was starting to think ‘Why am I here?’. Not in an existential kind of way, you understand. Just ‘Why the hell am I here wasting my time listening to Tom talking about companion-planting with nasturtiums?”. To make matters worse, there was something up with the plumbing in the farmhouse, and the loo had stopped flushing. But I owed it to myself to stay.

The problem was that, for me, gardening, bread-making and bee-keeping weren’t good examples of a simple life. They were examples of retirement. I wanted fun. Like Tom wrote in The Freedom Manifesto, “We should be mucking about all the time, because mucking about is enjoying life for its own sake, now, and not in preparation for an imaginary future.” That resonated with me.

Wild swimming is something you do in secret, undiscovered places. And Tom had found an out-of-the-way beach, inaccessible only by a narrow cliff path. It didn’t make it any easier that the rain was coming down in sheets. Or that my boots weren’t waterproof. But I’ll remember that wild swim all my life. I was present. I didn’t think of anything else. I just listened to my breathing. It was magnificent.

In the pub, as others sat round and talked about Thoreau, I sank into a comfortable armchair. Drying by the fire, it all made sense. The way I find it often does in a pub – where I come from, it’s all trendy bars where music is loud and conversation is discouraged. But going to the pub is a way of stopping. I felt a real sense of achievement at the simple pleasures of the day. And ordered another pint.

I realised quite how detached from the wild I had become. I vowed to change that. Before the drive back to London, Tom suggested a song on his ukelele. I’ve always stiffed come singalong time. I’ve never wanted to put my left leg in. Or out. And I most certainly never wanted to shake it all about. But there was something that made this feel different. I didn’t sit it out. I danced. Thankyou Tom Hodgkinson.