Earlier this year Tom Hodgkinson, Editor of the Idler journal, turned his attention to husbandry with his book Brave Old World, which offers a leisurely stroll through the seasons, taking in baking, brewing and butchery. But it’s not all idle merriment, as Ben Reynolds found out when he caught up with Tom in his academy in west London for a very nice cup of tea.
Escaping to the country to start up a smallholding has been a dream held by city dwellers for as long as there have been cities. When Tom upped sticks to Devon with his family a few years back he followed a well-trodden path, much envied by many Eel readers. But equally common for such adventurous folk is the rude awakening of the good life. “Victoria and I are now going backwards,” he says. “For us it’s been a whole succession of discovering something else that we’re not very good at.” This openness to failure, sandwiched with such stimulating subject matter and an entertaining style, make his book a refreshing alternative to the multitude of inadequacy-inducing tomes on the topic.
The chapter on November sees Tom and family grapple with pig-keeping. “It’s very difficult. You try and do something totally ordinary that’s been done for thousands of years, and find out it’s illegal,” says Tom. “We killed our pigs at home and ate them. I wrote about it in a newspaper and we got scolded by the authorities, and told that we had to send the pigs to a slaughterhouse.”
With the opening of his Idler academy a year ago, Tom still has one foot in London life. Hosting talks on scything and foraging, in amongst classes on Latin and Ukelele, the academy also sets its store by the food it serves. With cakes from Blueberry Hill of Kensal Rise, and herbs grown in the back garden, if you ask for a mint tea, you know where the mint has come from. “We want to be like the 18th century coffee house portrayed in Blackadder – Mrs Miggins Coffee House,” he says. Nowhere is the Idler ethos embodied more than its approach to the dark stuff. “We’ve agonised almost daily and weekly about coffee here. It’s such a complicated thing. After all this agonising we’ve come back to doing nothing. It’s a case of just keeping it simple and not buying a coffee machine.” So with some help from Monmouth, each cup is produced with care, and yes, a little time.
Tom’s admiration for the Slow Food movement is clearly evident, yet he is keen to emphasise that “the Idler approach doesn’t mean it’s about lying around all day”. Rather, there’s a subtle anti-capitalist thread running through this mindset, as the conversation drifts back to Devon. “We found trying to do a bit of smallholding in this way gives you some freedom. Growing your own vegetables frees you from your dependence on the shops.” But ever keen to emphasise that this isn’t just a rural thing, Tom continues: “it’s not about being rich or living in the country. Christian and Alice, who do all the Idler typesetting live in a tower block, and they grow food. It’s about freedom and this is one way of expressing it.”
Brave Old World: A practical guide to husbandry, or the fine art of looking after yourself by Tom Hodgkinson is out now through Hamish Hamilton.
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