Idler Academy: Victoria Hull Launches First Idler Festival
Summer for me conjures up long, lazy days of idling — honed to perfection in the humid heat of my New England childhood during the slow but always happy months of July and August. Anything that might help guide me back to those eternal and languorous days — like for instance a new festival, whose only intention is to share the pleasures of life — I welcome wholeheartedly.
The big news for Londoners this summer is that The Idler Academy, co-founded in 2009 by Fabster Victoria Hull and her partner Tom Hodgkinson, is launching just such a festival with their first Idler Festival at Fenton House, a National Trust property in the leafy idyll of Hampstead over the weekend of 13 – 15 July. Idling the weekend away in a 17th century Georgian merchant’s home complete with walled garden and filled with a carefully, curated line-up of artists, wits, performers and characters discussing ideas and dispensing tips for three days — what more encouragement could the lapsed idler possibly need?
For those of you not familiar with The Idler, it all started twenty five years ago when Victoria’s partner Tom Hodgkinson started The Idler Magazine with his friend Gavin Pretor-Pinney as an antidote to the concept of working to live. The bi-monthly magazine and now the academy with its online courses are devoted to helping people lead more fulfilled lives through the pursuit of the interesting and inspirational.
We recently caught up with Victoria to learn about what life is like in the ultimate Idler family — Tom, their three children, one dog and one cat — how her role as programming director at The Idler Academy came to be and what exciting events she has in store at The Idler Festival.
Fabulous Fabsters: How did you first become involved with The Idler?
Victoria Hull: Tom started the Idler Magazine with Gavin twenty-five years ago, a couple of years before we met. They were interviewing all sorts of interesting people like the artist Damian Hirst and the punk poet John Cooper Clarke. I was going out with the novelist Will Self who was contributing to The Idler at the time and that’s how I met Tom. He and Gavin would come to dinner and Will and I would cook fish and chips for them. Those were always the best chat nights.
FF: And how did The Idler Academy come about?
VH: In the summers we would take The Idler to festivals under the guise of The Idler Academy. Our tents at festivals like The Secret Garden Party, Wilderness and Port Eliot were always packed. I originally got involved with the touring of the festivals and then we had the bright idea of having our own venue — The Idler Academy in Notting Hill — with our own events and books and coffee. And while the venue is no longer open, The Idler Academy continues with strength online. We originally launched our online courses when Idler fans asked if we could run an Idler Academy in their part of the world. I now produce one course a month for Academy members.
FF: The Idler Academy is about finding pleasure in learning for the sake of learning. What sorts of courses can one find at your academy?
VH: Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment. So we have lots of philosophy courses – Ancient, Modern, Eastern and themes like Utopia or Anarchy plus courses on the heart of things like meditation and the key psychologists. Then we have courses on practical old-fashioned creative skills for the home like growing herbs, bread baking and calligraphy. And almost most importantly we have lots of music – easy instruments to play like the ukulele and singing and song writing lessons.
FF: The first Idler Festival at Fenton House is not actually your first festival. Can you tell us about your first?
VH: Yes, the first festival I produced was the Clerkenwell Literary Festival, which happened organically. A friend of mine asked me to book her boyfriend — Mark Manning of Zodiac Mindwarp and The Love Reaction — into literary festivals because he had written a book that wasn’t getting any PR. Mark had written a book called “Bad Wisdom” with the KLF star Bill Drummond and it was really gritty. I knew the literary festivals from having been to most of them with Will and I knew that this book “Bad Wisdom” was too much for all of them. That’s when I realised that the existing literary festivals were all utterly square. We decided to put on our own for young people and party-goers during those Rave and Britpop years. The Clerkenwell Literary Festival started with just one night for Mark Manning and Bill Drummond, one Idler night and one night at the pub Filthy McNasty’s — they always put on cool talks with music and it’s where the Libertine boys were working. This was the start and the Clerkenwell festival just took off and grew exponentially. We attracted the attention of publishers who saw its potential in promoting their up and coming writers like Zadie Smith and Ali Smith and the Arts Council who liked our mix of genres and mediums with stories being acted out in the streets of Clerkenwell and our use of new technology. It was so much fun.
FF: How did The Idler Festival at Fenton House come about?
VH: Unsurprisingly we had always imagined doing our own Idler Festival and when the National Trust asked us to do an Idler Academy day at Fenton House Hampstead in 2013 we were over the moon. And from that day The Idler Festival Weekend this 13 – 15 July was born. This is a much bigger thing — not only will people be able to meet our tutors and sample lessons like beekeeping, ukulele and Latin — but we will also be discussing big issues like Syria and Cambridge Analytical. Anthropologist and Occupy activist David Graeber will be giving a talk about Bullshit Jobs.
FF: What excites you most about the upcoming Idler Festival at Fenton House?
VH: Fenton House is the most beautiful house and garden and the National Trust want to make it alive with activity so that you think of it as somewhere to do things — not to just view in an upstairs downstairs sort of way. I’m excited to see the house transform over the weekend with the activity of our programme.
FF: Please tell us about some of your Fabster speakers?
VH: Fenton House has always been a merchant’s house and we’ve taken that theme and programmed lots of Business for Bohemians salons where you can talk to successful business people and hear their stories. I’ve chosen some of my favourite female business women — Fabulous Fabsters like jeweller Dinny Hall and shoe designer Tracey Neuls.
FF: Who else will there?
VH: I’m also excited about restaurateur Zoe Adjonyoh, the brilliant young singers Olivia Chaney and Kitty Finer and our salons with Agony Aunt Virginia Ironside and Erotica editor Rowan Pelling.
FF: You and Tom are partners in work and family. What’s it like to be with a man who espouses idling as a way of life?
VH: Tom is simply the most entertaining, endlessly interesting person to have around. Never a minute of our 23 or so years has been boring. In fact I have to escape sometimes to get a place for my own thoughts. All those years with tiny children and after we’d put them to bed each night, I remember thinking that every night was like a party. I’d cook and Tom would sit at the table with his rollies and a beer and we’d non-stop chat. And now, we have shared project after project. Somehow it works. He has learnt to put up with my chaos at least.
FF: And how did that lifestyle translate into The Idler Family?
VH: After a couple of years with small children in London we decided to move to this scruffy farm house in North Devon full time while Tom wrote his first book How To Be Idle. And then we didn’t come back for thirteen years. Both Tom and I have always prioritised being at home with the children and one of the reasons we left London for Exmoor was that our two-year old at the time hated babysitters so we just settled into our remote farmhouse and gave up on speedy London adult evenings.
While we were there I became increasingly focussed on the children and giving them a life of rock pools and surfing and cats and puppies and ferrets and ponies and chickens and vegetable gardening and even pigs. Killing those pigs left one of the children vegetarian.
Social life was always with all the family – long weekend lunches, beach days, bonfire camps and festivals. It was full on. Their tiny village school was completely un-pushy but we had reading at home along with animals, and mud, and fields, and sea and rocks to climb, which are surely the best lessons for a small child.
FF: Back in London. What’s family life like now for the Idler Family?
VH: Family life is so family right now. I am in the thick of it and very happy. I know the time is looming when they will all slip away but meanwhile I have my favourite people in the world at home to chat to every evening and I love it. We have just finished A levels and GCSEs. I say, ‘we’! But of course all I have done is provide the food. I make sure they have eggs for breakfast, a healthy packed lunch and a good supper. It’s hard work though — up at 6.45am, breakfast cooking, packed lunch making, clearing and cleaning and laundry before I set off for work and then I leave work at 6pm, pick up something to cook, cook, clear up, laundry, bed. My daughter and I have managed to fit in some super silly Love Island evenings together though. That really is light relief. I love lighting candles in my room, propping the computer on our knees and watching something together. My thirteen-year old and eighteen-year old boys have given that up. We used to all cuddle up together in that bed while Tom read to us before bedtime when they were little. But on birthdays, we still always have breakfast together in bed and open presents.
FF: Any Wardrobe Wisdom?
VH: Having chosen a path of artistic and little money, I have had to be very careful and so I have lots of tips about how not to spend much money.
- First – don’t shop!
- Second – when some money falls into your lap, buy a good coat.
In England we spend most of our time in a coat and it covers all the rest of your cheap clothes. My clothes come from Notting Hill charity shops, and Primark, of which I am not proud. The Pakistani shops near us are wonderful for a good day dress or a short embroidered shift. Occasionally I get to splash out on a silk dress from Zara or Topshop. My old designer clothes from Vivienne Westwood and the Soho tailor John Pearse stood me in good stead for years before the London moths hit recently. On my Fabster list when I have a little extra money? I’d go to Rigby and Peller to buy a good bra and to the optician to buy some prescription glasses that shade in the sun.
FF: What’s in your Prescient Pantry?
VH: In Devon we lived thirty miles from a supermarket and five miles from a village shop. You didn’t pop out to get milk or sugar but we did have an enormous larder – the old farm dairy. So I bought in bulk and stored all the dry and tinned food. We grew our own vegetables but we always relied on a delivery from Riverford and I still do in London. They are the real thing — not fancy. I buy their UK-only box, which is cheap. I will not drink homogenised milk. It tastes of puss — poorly farmed cows leak puss into their milk which is something you may not want to know. Luckily Riverford deliver their delicious organic Devon milk each week, and a few litres go in the freezer for the second half of the week. The rest of our food I buy from the superb Syrian shop Damas Gate at the end of our road. We rely on their Greek olive oil, tinned tomatoes, bottled pulses, nuts, falafel, and fresh herbs — plus their extraordinarily array of fresh flat breads. And we also buy fresh bread and orange-yoked eggs from our local Polish shop.
FF: How do you stay strong and well in body and mind?
VH: I find that running helps enormously. I love it though sometimes I get too busy to make time for it. I run straight out of the house and down to the river. And I swim as often as I can, rather slowly. I also always walk and cycle to work and around London. And our big dog, Pilot, keeps me out and walking. In Devon I had the cliff to walk along and that kept my soul together. I miss it almost hysterically and have to get out to parks at very least. I have, however, just learnt to meditate with Sister Jayanti. Another inspiring Fabster, she is the European director of Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University and recently led meditation sessions at Davos. She also teaches our new online course How to Meditate: An Introduction to Raja Yoga. Her way is completely calming and actually happy making!
FF: If you have any messages to your younger self, what would they be?
VH; Learn for yourself. It is so easy and such a joy to learn when the lessons are fun and interesting and there’s no reason to be stressed. There’s absolute pleasure in learning without the need for exams or something useful for your job like – God Forbid – productivity. Exams do not matter. Don’t be conned into thinking that they are the be-all of everything.
FF: Besides your family, what do you hold most dear to your heart?
VH: Gardens and Books. At Fenton, we’ll have lots of books and writers in the most beautiful of gardens — heaven. Please join us!
A Fabulous Fabster thank you to Victoria Hull!