Living the Good Life, and the Idle Life
I continue on with this series What Would a Low Density Lifestyle World Look Like? with an interesting take on living a relaxed, very Low Density Lifestyle life, courtesy of English journalist Tom Hodgkinson.
This is an interview that comes courtesy of the website Good. Good is a collaboration of individuals, businesses and nonprofits pushing the world forward.
Tom Hodgkinson runs the website The Idler and is an advocate of the good life as the idle life. He thinks the way to happiness is to be a loafer.
Tom Hodgkinson’s books sometimes end up in bookstores’ self-help sections. That would make How to Be Idle and The Freedom Manifesto the only books to advocate dropping out of consumer society, ditching urban life, anarchy, bread baking, beer drinking, and generally living like it’s the Middle Ages. As co-founder and editor of The Idler magazine, Hodgkinson champions laziness, hedonism, thrift and a freewheeling DIY approach to life. Let him tell it, and it’s the key to a more ecologically sound future.
GOOD: You’re a known critic of consumer society, so tell us: what have you purchased yourself, lately?
Tom Hodgkinson: I try not to buy anything beyond beer, bacon, and books. Generally, though, I find that the older, the better. I did buy a painted pine bookcase recently from the local antique shop, which is very useful and beautiful.
Good: What’s your take on the global financial crisis?
T.H.: I am feeling very cheerful, to the point of smugness, about it. As someone who has no shares, no stocks, no bonds, no insurance policies, no pensions, and no money, I am feeling very safe. Money is for spending, not saving. I think average people should respond with great joy. At last, what businessmen used to call the “real world” has been exposed as imaginary. Perhaps what businessmen used to call a dream world—poetry, nature, God, the spirit, music, contemplation, books and good conversation—will now be seen as the “real world.”
Good: Just after the first major government bank bailouts were announced, you wrote that all that money would be better spent giving everyone an acre of land. What would we do with it?
T.H.: With just an acre of land a family of five or six can provide a huge amount of their food needs. You can keep animals and grow fruit and vegetables. This was the thinking behind Distributism, a political idea of the 1920s put about by Catholic intellectuals such as G. K. Chesterton. They saw a return to a medieval-style system where families combined smallholding with another source of income. Smallholding is enjoyable, useful, reconnects you with nature, is therapeutic, keeps you fit and healthy and is enormously satisfying. The quality of the produce is far higher than the products of the industrialized food system. You can also do more or less of it as circumstances change. A large garden in the city, or even a terrace, can be used to grow delicious food.
Good: Yes, you’ve written quite a bit in praise of the Middle Ages—in fact, you argue they were sort of a golden age of social justice and sustainability. Really? That’s not how most people think of them.
T.H.: We have been taught the negative version of the Middle Ages by the people who replaced them, the Puritans and Protestants. If you want to replace an existing system with your new system, then you need to besmirch the previous system. The idea we carry around in our minds of the Middle Ages is a ridiculous caricature. Just think about the beauty of the cathedrals—are they really a product of the Dark Ages? They outstrip the Empire State Building in terms of beauty by a million miles. The medieval economic system, interestingly, was against lending money at interest and it was for fixed prices. You were not allowed to undercut your fellow worker or manufacturer. In a sense the system was opposite to ours: It valued community over individuality, and precisely guarded against the kind of collapse that unrestrained competition has led to.
Good: To turn to modern times for a moment, what do you think of the whole “sustainability” trend?
T.H.: Three years ago, business hated anything “green.” Then they realized that it was simply a new market, and therefore great news. What sustainability really means is growing your own vegetables. It means wood not plastic, composting toilets, chickens in the yard. It means fun and a different kind of life—not just swapping one brand for another.
Good: In The Freedom Manifesto, you urge readers to “stop consuming and start producing.” What’s that mean?
T.H.: In practical terms it means rediscovering our ability to make things, like bread, jam and clothes. Instead of buying everything, grow stuff, make stuff—rediscover the lost arts of husbandry. When you cut down your need for money in this way, you cut down your need for work, leading to more idleness all round. Look at Cuba today. Look at the U.K. during the Second World War. You can supply for yourself a lot more of the things that you need.
Good: But Cuba is dirt poor. Is that what you’re advocating?
T.H.: I just want to say that living on modest means is not necessarily a bad thing. Thrift can be creative. I don’t really care whether people are rich or poor: the thing really is your approach to life. I just happen to think that promoting the idea of being rich is ridiculous, because only a few people can be rich, whereas many can live on modest incomes. So to me it makes a lot of practical sense to promote, not poverty, exactly, but the ability to live well on small incomes.
Good: Is that what you mean in The Freedom Manifesto, when you urge readers to “Reject Career”? Do you think people should give up work and all the ambition that goes with it?
T.H.: It is not so much work per se that I am against, but rather work for someone else and work that you don’t enjoy. I work quite hard, about four hours a day, but I do things that I enjoy. How can we reclaim work for ourselves, and make it something joyful and creative? As for aspirations, I think that to aspire to real freedom in everyday life should replace the aspiration to make a lot of money.
Good: A final question, and an important one: you’ve suggested that people should buy ukuleles. Um, why?
T.H.: I don’t really believe that anyone should do anything. But having said that, I personally have derived a huge amount of pleasure from learning the uke. They are better than iPods. I play Woody Guthrie songs and the Beatles. Kids can play it, and it’s elegant for the ladies: think Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. They are very cheap and very portable, and they’ve got that fun-loving Hawaiian vibe. You can have one on your desk and practice while waiting for large downloads. Try it: Take a uke to work.
Tom Hodgkinson’s most recent book, The Freedom Manifesto, is available from Harper Perennial. His website is http://idler.co.uk/.
The website Good is located at http://www.good.is/