Saturday, 23 August 2014

How To Be Free...

I know I don't often post book reviews on this blog, more likely spoons and tools, but I think I can be forgiven on this one instance, since I am after all an English teacher and therefore have an invested interest in literature. I wanted to give a recommendation for a book that a friend gave me at the beginning of the summer and which, not only have I thoroughly enjoyed reading but which I would even go as far as saying might actually change my life - just a little bit, maybe.
I feel like I should know about Tom Hodgkinson - perhaps I have heard him mentioned before but I don't remember. To quote his Wikipedia page (I can't be held responsible for any inaccuracies) "...Tom Hodgkinson is a British writer, socialist and the editor of The Idler, which he established in 1993 with his friend Gavin Pretor-Pinney. His philosophy, in his published books and articles, is of a relaxed approach to life, enjoying it as it comes rather than toiling for an imagined better future."
As a self-proclaimed anarchist, Hodgkinson's book claims to present the formula for a free life - free of social constraints, financial pressures, the evils of supermarket chains, the snares of political activity, and many other modern annoyances. And whilst these are all interesting themes on their own, and something that I find generally interesting, questioning my own relationship with some of societies more insidious constructs, what I found most interesting were his insights on crafts and making things with our hands versus mass-productions and industrialization, with the notion of celebrating difference. Let me give you a little taste:

".. I understand that there is a tradition in Chinese pottery deliberately to create a slight imperfection in the object to ensure that every piece is different and unique. Perfectionism itself is a kind of death; the machine can turn out thousands of perfect objects, but they have no life.

So, what can we do about the uglification of life? Well, there is an easy answer. Avoid ugly things, ignore them and instead embrace craft, which is what the arts and crafts movement was all about. Let each man and woman master one or two or three crafts. I look forward to a craft revival [bear in mind that this was written in 2006]. Crafts are people-based, pleasure-based; they represent an equal society, they represent quality and joy in the making. Crafts mean the triumph of quality over quantity, of self government over exploitation. Bring beauty into your home. A pot if geraniums on the windowsill. A Pelican paperback. Make your own clothes. See red diamonds on you sleeves. With less time given to work and the Thing, the Combine, the Construct or the Man, you will have more time for yourself and more time to be creative, more time to produce than consume.

Only buy beautiful things [by this Tom does not necessarily mean things that look beautiful, but things with an intrinsic beauty endowed through the creative process, embed through human contact and not machine made]. Only make beautiful things. It is surely better to to buy on shirt of high quality each year than to buy five cheap ones which will be in the garbage within months. And things that you make, however ugly [in the conventional sense] are always more beautiful than the mass produced option, simply because they radiate care even if they are wonky and erratic and funny looking..."
Good stuff, hey?

 I guess my main criticism of the book, if I had to have one, is the almost chocolate-box impression that Hodgkinson sometimes paints of pre-modern, medieval societies, to whom he often turns as the archetype and exemplar for the perfect society, very much papering over the awful conditions and short life-spans that many endured during those periods, at times making bubonic plague sound preferable to a shopping trip at Tesco. I'm no historian but having studied and taught literature of the medieval period, I know it was no picnic for the peasantry. There are also a few apparent contradictions, such as on the one hand heralding as a virtue a friend who is able to do as he likes without considering the effect on others whilst in another chapter encouraging us all to be thoughtful of others and promoting courtesy and politeness - though the error may be more in my reading than in his writing. Otherwise, I love what Tom says in this book, have found it very thought provoking and, at times, a little uncomfortable as I try to reconcile what I am reading and tending to agree with, despite it being in contrast with some of my long-held, modern, societally constructed wisdoms.
HEALTH WARNING - Don't get taken in too much by it all though - Hodgkinson himself has since grown weary of the simple, idyllic, rural life that he seems to promote in the book as the zenith of a fulfilled and idle life, free from the stresses and anxieties of modern consumerism, and headed back to the smoke and bright-lights of London, exclaiming "...goodbye bohemianism, hello bourgeois life!" A little disappointing. All that aside, and Hodgkinson's seemingly unapologetic hypocrisy and apparent cynicism (I was so disappointed to read his article in the London Evening Standard about his move from rural Devon back to London as if the life he had been promoting and heralding as a more perfect existence was nothing more than a public school boy's wheeze, a jape or an indulgent distraction), there is plenty in this book, if taken with a pinch of salt, to make you think - it's certainly made me think.


  1. even Thoreau left Walden after a while, presumably considering that his point had been made..

    1. Or that the lifestyle he had advocated wasn't sustainable or all it was cracked up to be. A good book though (Walden, I mean).