Truth, beauty...idleness

A new 'academy' is setting out to 'liberate' Londoners - and teach them Latin and butchery along the way. Matthew Reisz stops by

August 18, 2011

Credit: Charles Fox
Idle dreamers: Hodgkinson at the cafe and 'centre of learning'

"State education today", proclaims the website of the Idler Academy of Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment, "is really a matter of fitting us out for servility rather than liberty." The Idler Academy's aim, by contrast, is "to liberate" through "giving people skills both academic and practical. We want to teach English grammar, Latin, calligraphy, gardening and embroidery, so we can concentrate more of our time on beauty and truth rather than simply toiling for wages."

The academy is the brainchild of "headmaster" Tom Hodgkinson and his wife Victoria Hull - and consciously reflects the philosophy Hodgkinson has set out in a series of provocative, entertaining and infuriating books: How To Be Idle (2005), How To Be Free (2006), The Idle Parent (2009) and now Brave Old World: A Practical Guide to Husbandry, or the Fine Art of Looking after Yourself. In setting up their bookshop, cafe and "centre of learning" in West London, the pair hope to combine "the atmosphere of cultivated leisure that distinguished Plato's Academy with the lively conviviality of the 18th-century coffee house", together with "a good dose of the 1950s grammar school".

This eclectic, traditionalist yet anarchic mix closely reflects the passions and life choices of Hodgkinson and Hull. After public school, a University of Cambridge English degree and an unhappy spell in journalism, Hodgkinson launched the magazine The Idler in 1993 with art director Gavin Pretor-Pinney. Although briefly distracted by an absinthe-importing business, they went on to revamp the magazine as a biannual, self-published book. Hull, meanwhile, set up and ran the Clerkenwell Literary Festival in the 1990s.

In 2002, however, the couple decided to leave London and their careers behind for a smallholding in Devon, where Hodgkinson embarked on his polemical books. How To Be Free, for example, is an exhilarating attack on mortgages, painkillers, pensions, puritans, supermarkets and much else. Its eclectic list of intellectual heroes includes St Francis of Assisi, G.K. Chesterton, William Morris, George Orwell, punk rockers and 1970s radicals. It concludes with chapters urging readers to "depose the tyrant wealth", "embrace thrift" and "stop working, start living". The message has proven to be congenial enough to make the books a notable success.

Brave Old World, published in July, takes the form of a seasonal guide to greater self-sufficiency, exploring tasks such as chopping wood, baking bread, minding bees, brewing beer and killing pigs. It celebrates a world that Hodgkinson believes existed from classical times and "came to an end around 1535 with the Reformation, Calvinism, the Renaissance and the looting and smashing up of the monasteries". What we need to return to, it suggests, are "the most important but generally the most neglected of the arts of everyday living: philosophy, husbandry and merriment".

Always amusingly candid about the many mistakes the couple have made, Hodgkinson admits that "the simple life is both extremely complicated and very hard". Yet, though "studded with disappointments...the satisfactions are immense". For a period of seven or eight years, he claims, he managed to achieve a form of rural self-sufficiency while "working nine to one, writing in my study".

"An independent life is out there for the taking," he elaborates, "though you may have to put up with poverty or very thrifty living. People tell me that my books spurred them to quit their jobs and that they are now much happier, even if they've got less money. I've yet to meet a tramp on Old Compton Street who accuses me of ruining his life by encouraging him to give up a good job."

Less happy were his children's experiences in state primary schools, which left Hodgkinson "disillusioned with the progressive ethos: 'don't correct the spelling, because it might interrupt the creative flow.' The effects of child-centred education are just rubbish. Pushier educational systems produce more intelligent people." The whole family has now signed up for a very old-fashioned Latin and English grammar course - albeit on newfangled Skype.

In some ways, Hodgkinson's interest in a life outside the office that combines philosophical speculation with practical, hands-on work echoes the argument of another highly successful book, Matthew Crawford's The Case for Working with Your Hands, or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good (2009). A research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, Crawford recalls his job at a Washington thinktank where he "honestly could not see the rationale for my being paid at all". After five months, he left to set up a motorcycle-repair shop where, along with a "greater sense of agency and competence", he discovered that manual work is often "more engaging intellectually" than "knowledge work".

London already has a philosophical centre based in a shop offering courses on everything from "How to be cool" and "How to have better conversations" to "How to face death", together with food-based events such as "Dinner with Virginia Woolf", "Curry with Gandhi" and "A Fry-Up with Jack Kerouac". This is the School of Life, founded by writer Alain de Botton and former Tate Modern curator Sophie Howarth in 2008, where Hodgkinson has sometimes taught "simple living". Described by director Morgwn Rimel as "a place to step back and think intelligently about questions of personal fulfilment and how to lead a better life", it has attracted more than 40,000 participants since its launch, most typically those in their thirties and forties.

The Idler Academy, however, is intended as "a centre of learning" rather than self-help. "We want it to be a comfortable, fun place to learn things, whether needlework or classical philosophy," says Hull, "so people can really enjoy being educated in a way we didn't feel we could at school. I was too busy being silly to learn Latin! I would also like to know how my mother was able to darn so well."

Based in a cafe and bookshop, the academy obviously has limited space, though it can hire out the local church. There, Will Self has already answered an audience's philosophical questions, Rabbi Julia Neuberger has discussed slowing down and what we need to make us happy, and Louis Theroux has spoken on, well, how to become the new Louis Theroux. Hull hopes to create cheap after-school sessions for children, mending get-togethers and paid masterclasses, and free Sunday cafés philosophiques. There are also outreach events at summer festivals and courses on topics from butchery to bee-keeping for up to about 20 people on Hull and Hodgkinson's Devon smallholding.

So who is the audience for all this? The bookshop was originally intended largely to stock titles listed in Hodgkinson's own bibliographies, and still focuses on his personal enthusiasms. He also mentions "tea towels with Latin grammar which we sell through The Lady", which might suggest a rather staid, middle-aged clientele.

"We probably appeal partly to people who are in jobs but looking to get out," he suggests. "A friend said it's a mid-life crisis centre! But I've also been very impressed by all the young people getting involved, for example as volunteer 'prefects'. The number of extremely beautiful young people interested in Plato just blows my mind! When a beautiful 22-year-old girl comes in to buy a copy of Engels' Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, it's thrilling."

It remains to be seen whether Hodgkinson and Hull's distinctive philosophy of life strikes enough of a chord to build a successful, if small, "centre of learning".

"Despite the most expensive education money can buy," Hodgkinson reflects, "I've had to teach myself English history, Virgil and classical philosophy. The Idler Academy is about filling the gaps."

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs