How to be Free

As a bit of light entertainment I’ve started to read Tom Hodgkinson’s How to be Free, his second “manifesto for living” after How to be Idle which I haven’t read. “Modern life is absurd. How can we be free?” Tom, perched on an upturned trolley in his cherry red DMs and strumming a ukulele, is going to tell us.

I’ve only read the first six (short) chapters, each one exhorting us to reject little things such as shopping malls, class war, competition, government and even time itself. Easy. Tom describes himself as an anarchist which immediately raised my hackles, but when relinquished this grudge I found myself smiling and nodding in agreement. And to be fair to him, he uses a soft definition of anarchy, in that it is a state in which individuals interact with each other rather than state and citizen. More on his later.

What have I liked so far? Lots. I like his justification of rose-tinted spectacles. Many commentators are routinely criticised for being nostalgic and unrealistic, but Tom Hodgkinson argues that the creation of a golden age is the prerogative of every generation, because it allows us to learn from the past. It isn’t about rejecting changes that have benefitted us but about seeing where we have made bad decisions, albeit with the best intentions, and now regret the consequences. He makes this point particularly with regard to mechanism and efficiency being advanced over human concern, and looks to the Middle Ages – rarely championed in our days of cult-of-Enlightenment – to see how some aspects of life were perhaps better and could be again.

I also like the fact that he is not a bland lefty, in fact he is as averse to many socialist ideas as he is to conservative ones. For instance, whilst he is against class war, he is not against the existence of class. He paints a classless society as a drab, nothing-y place but also a cruel meritocracy, lacking both variety and excuse for failure. Again, looking to the Middle Ages he hails the aristocracy, with their idleness (rejection of career as raison d’être is a strong theme) but also responsibility to patronise the arts and hold feasts, but also the working class and their ability to find cash for regular pleasures even if garments are threadbare.

His love of the colourful, the small scale and the personal is infectious but eventually tiresome. It reminds me of videos and accounts of the Burning Man festival (which I imagine is some kind of paradise to the author) where money is banned and people wander round “gifting” each other. It all sounds lovely and wonderful, but after my tenth homemade organic carob bar, an arm full of friendship bracelets and a queue of people dressed as fairies wanting to tell you some special folk story of great personal importance, I suspect my thoughts would be “get me away from these hippies and into a hot bath.”

I also found his purported love of rebels wearying and unrealistic, a predictable attempt at shock value. He apparently “loves ASBO kids… criminals… and drug addicts”, partly due to the way in which they buck against authority and partly just because they represent yet more colour and variety. Really, Tom? Your house in the country is ransacked and defaecated in by someone looking to fund their next bag of heroin, and you’re going to return and proclaim “three cheers for such a free-spirited individual!”? I think not. Which also raises his interesting take on escaping the city; I can entirely see how moving to the country and trying to be more self-sufficient, holding parties for friends and growing your own vegetables would lead to a happier way of life. But it’s hardly anarchist, is it? In several awkward paragraphs he stretches credibility as he tries to explain why moving to a nice little rural village is not in fact an entirely bourgeois manoeuvre. Hum. (As it happens, I have moved to a bustling little market town with a strong sense of community. It’s great, but I’m not trying to pretend I’m an anarchic bohemian.)

Finally, my favourite realisation about this book is that, for all their supposed radicalism, the author’s self-proclaimed bohemian anarchist ideas and ideals closely match those of Burkean conservatism. That the government are weak, bland, inept, inefficient and corrupt, and should be given as little involvement and responsibility as is practicable. That local communities are best placed to recognise their own needs and respond appropriately. That some things deserve protection because of their human or artistic value, even if they are not the most technically efficient means to an end. And that people should primarily rule their own lives, albeit within dependent communities, rather than looking to the state. All of these sentiments deserve hearty agreement in my view, and I look forward to reading the rest. Now where’s my ukulele…