At work with: Tom Hodgkinson, The Idler

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Tom Hodgkinson launched The Idler in 1993 as a celebration of loafing, taking the name from a 1758 essay by Dr Johnson… ‘Every man is, or hopes to be, an idler.’ It was initially a quarterly, became a biannual, then an annual book, before ceasing publication a couple of years ago. Meanwhile The Idler Academy had become a success, offering lessons in neglected subjects such as ukulele playing. Next week the print magazine relaunches, and we catch up with Tom as that issue goes to print.

Where are you today?
I am sitting in the café of the Bush Theatre in Shepherd’s Bush. It is housed in the old Victorian library and I work here most mornings. I have an office as well, at Great Western Studios near Paddington, where I work with team Idler in the afternoons. We used to work at our bookshop but we’ve just closed that. And sometimes I work at home.

What can you see from the window?

A tall Victorian brick building with an estate agent called Orchards at street level.

Which magazine do you first remember?

My Mum had magazines like Vogue which I vaguely remember. I produced my first magazine at the age of eight. It was called The Penguin.

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What’s your favourite magazine this morning?
Today I am liking Little Atoms and Kennedy.

What’s your favourite leisure pursuit?


Drinking. And walking.

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Some readers might not remember The Idler – tell us about its previous print incarnation.

We started as cult mag in the nineties and were published by The Guardian. It was an A4 bi-monthly art directed by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. In the noughties we turned into a bookazine and published two paperbacks per year with Random House. Then we became an annual hardback which we published ourselves.

The magazine slightly went on the back burner from 2011 as we have been working on our Idler Academy project, an events, courses and retail company. Last year I did not produce an Idler at all. But now I’m back in the editorial saddle and we are relaunching as a quarterly. Rather than being graphic designed, I would described our design style as “decorated typesetting”. The design team are Christian Brett and Alice Smith.

You’ve since focused on events, books and the website. It all sounds very busy, definitely the opposite of ‘idle’.
Yes, I have been a busy little bee, particularly over the last five years. Sometimes I need to remind myself of my own philosophy, so I take a few days off on a retreat or go for a one or two day walk with friends. But really the Idler has always been about freedom and a different idea of leisure – not giving up and watching Jeremy Kyle and eating takeaway food in your underpants. I still manage a nap most days.

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Why are you returning to print now, and what changes have you made to the magazine for the relaunch?

We’re now returning to print as I was inspired by the contemporary renaissance in print magazines, championed by people like yourself. I was seeing great titles like Hole & Corner and Ernest coming out, and I thought that it was crazy that I was not doing what I really love, which is putting physical magazines together.

Also I spent a year busting a gut updating our website every day doing this stuff for free. There is something deeply unsatisfying about the digital medium. Digital magazines are largely rubbish in my view. The magazine provides a blessed escape from the screen. Screens are great for sound and video of course – but somehow fall down when it comes to words. I’m also not sure how to make it pay.

So I took advice from John Brown (Viz etc) and James Pembroke from The Oldie and they suggested relaunching as a quarterly journal, and so I did. I am very happy about it – it’s what I am born to do… and we have sold over 750 subscriptions already and I reckon we’ll do well on the newsstand as well. We are now A5 and we dropped the “The” from the title – that was just me copying all the other magazines. Also I think it was something that the Beatles did.

In terms of content, I have followed the conventional magazine structure of a front section with short bits and news, a middle features section with longer pieces and interviews and picture stories, and a third section of reviews and how-tos. Louis Theroux kindly agreed to a long interview and to be the cover star. Rather than a photo, we have gone with a caricature by Ellie Foreman-Peck. I love those old 19th century Vanity Fair covers and actually I find photography can be a bit boring. So I hope we’ll continue with illustrated covers.

What are you most looking forward to this week?

We are launching our new issue on Tuesday evening at the Social which should be fun. Then of course there is our evening at the magCulture Shop when I’ll be doing a brief talk about the history, present and future of the Idler. That’s on 4 Feb.

What are you least looking forward to this week?

Wednesday morning as I will doubtless have a hangover but will have loads of work to do.

What will you be doing after this chat?
I’ll be doing my Idler CEO stuff – we are launching a share sale on Crowdcube and I am working on business plans, P&Ls, slide decks, mission statements and all the stuff you need to do to get your business ready for investment. Plus I’ll be sending out my newsletter to our 22,000 fans around the world.

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Our Meet… The Idler evening at the magCulture shop takes place on 4 February. Tickets are free but need to be booked via Eventbrite.

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