The Great Escape: Tom Hodgkinson (with Neil Scott)
The interview can be read in its entirety in Issue Three of New Escapologist.
Tom: I’ll go back to when I started the Idler magazine, which was in 1993. The reason I started was because I left university and I was beginning a career. I had had one year working in a record shop called Rough Trade in London. I’d met a whole different crowd of people; these people were skateboarders. It impressed me as a very creative scene, full of autonomously functioning individuals. There were people running their own club nights and tprinting T-shirts and running fanzines and magazines and playing in bands and there were DJs. No one actually had any money, but no one seemed to have a job. And it was great to meet such people here, who were coming from a completely different and a less academic background, but who seemed to be much more free and more spirited and were grabbing their life with both hands — much more than I was — because I was sitting in the shop all day.
So that was one thing that began to open out: the fact there might be work outside of the conventional. I think I had the idea for the magazine a couple of years later, when I was working on the Sunday Mirror magazine. I had got the job kind of by accident — fifty pounds a day as a researcher for three days a week. I thought this would be good; I could do my own stuff at the same time. I found myself being made thoroughly miserable by the culture of the office, which was later well portrayed in The Office. I was too young and new to get involved in the politics, but there was something about these offices: the boss was made into a petty tyrant and we were humiliated daily and one day I’d be asked to, sort of, write a short article, which, itself, was actually rubbish, as it was a terrible magazine. One of the editors would come by and go “coffee run, coffee run, coffee run, Tom, Tom, coffee”. So, we had to go and get the editors their different kinds of coffees. I didn’t have any money. I couldn’t stand the commute every day.
I was always late; I was probably a very bad employee. And I was also very bored for long periods of the day. I had been bored at the shop, but it was a little different, because people came in and we were able to hang out. But if you started, sort of, chatting to your neighbor in this office, then the editor would tell you, “I want to see heads down, heads down,” and just enjoy, sort of, putting people down. It’s really very humiliating; I felt so depressed.
Neil: Okay, Rob. The latest issue of your magazine is about the practicalities of escape. I was wondering if you could tell us how you got to be producing this magazine and to be expressing these ideas and what you think are the practical ways that people here tonight can take to get to where they want to be.
Robert: Well, the practicalities edition is not actually released yet. The War Against Cliché Issues is on sale tonight. The practicalities one will be a little bit different, but, yeah, we can talk about that for a bit. I think, as Tom was saying, the 9-5 work system does not work. It doesn’t make anybody happy and it also fails in terms of production as well. I mean, do a lot of people here have officy kinds of jobs?
The audience responds with an unenthusiastic ‘Yeah’.
Robert: (Laughs). See, you cannot muster the energy to be enthusiastic – even ironically – at working in an office 9-5. The bottom line is: if you work in the office, probably about 80% of your time is spent doing not very much. So, even from the employer’s or the bureaucrat’s perspective, it’s probably a very inefficient system. It fails on both sides. It doesn’t make the worker happy, we don’t make enough money, we are not respected, and, frankly, it doesn’t work. We produce inferior products and inferior services that probably don’t really matter, especially if you work in something like marketing.
I worked as a librarian for a long time, but I ended up working in an office again. Librarianship is one of those careers that was, perhaps, a trade, once upon a time, but it is becoming kind of deskilled. They outsource a lot of the skilled work, so now librarians end up in offices, either at the back of an actual library or there is no physical library at all and they offer electronic services. And that’s basically where I ended up: it was somewhat dissatisfying, not because I fetishise books or the ideas of a library to a huge degree, but I just felt that the cornerstone principles of librarianship aren’t being met anymore.
So, to answer the question about the project’s history, it came about when I was reading two books simultaneously: one about the life of Houdini and also one about the rise of Bohemianism around the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Buy New Escapologist Issue Three for the complete conversation (and other issues) here.