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Idle in the caffeine den
The Idler Academy of Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment is a coffee house-cum-bookstore. Picture: Steve McKenna

For a nation of tea drinkers, England has a surprisingly rich history of coffee houses.

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It's believed the first one opened in Oxford in 1650 - run by a Jewish immigrant from Turkey called Jacob.

The trend quickly spread to the capital, where caffeine dens became so common - and so egalitarian - that King Charles II tried to ban them, claiming they were "places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers". His crackdown floundered after uproar from a public hooked on imbibing and gossiping.

Four centuries on, London is stuffed with places where you can have a latte and a natter. Most of them look the same (the multinational chains have taken over with a vengeance) but there are some fine independent options, including several owned by antipodeans (Flat White in Soho, Kaffeine and Lantana in Fitzrovia, to name but three).

It's in Notting Hill, however, that I come across a unique and beguiling gem where I could happily spend all day, and evening. The Idler Academy of Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment is a coffee house-cum-bookstore and cultural hub, a 10-minute stroll from the hubbub of the famous Portobello Road on a quiet street illuminated by attractive pastel-shaded terraced homes.

The academy's owner - and self-appointed headmaster - is Tom Hodgkinson, the founder of cult magazine The Idler and author of books How to Be Idle, The Idle Parent and The Book of Idle Pleasures. His humourous outpourings, which decry tedious hard graft, rampant consumerism and "affluenza", while promoting learning, leisure, permaculture and thrifty living, have been described by actress and Idler Academy patron Emma Thompson as "better than drugs, and I've tried a few. They (his words) give you a warm feeling inside".

When I pop in, I find Hodgkinson perched on a stool behind the counter. He's wearing a smart tweed jacket, attached to which is a little badge embossed with the words Be Idle.

Headmaster Tom Hodgkinson and his Idler Academy . Picture: Steve McKenna

Affable and chatty, Hodgkinson personifies the eccentric charm of this cosy little place, which is tinged with bohemian, anarchic, libertarian and intellectual flavours and bedecked with vintage furniture, quirky artwork and blackboards chalked with coffee, tea and cake selections.

With his academy, he promises to bring "a spirit of cultivated leisure to the 21st century, crossing it with the lively atmosphere of an 18th century coffee house".

"In Ancient Greece, the word for school, 'scholee', also meant 'leisure'," says Hodgkinson. "There's great fun to be had in learning, and we want the Idler Academy to be a place to read, think, debate and learn, to sharpen your mind and learn creative skills."

Though lacking the smokiness of the classic coffee houses of the past - you must instead puff away in the back garden - the academy certainly evokes a more highbrow air than your average Starbucks.

While I wait for my coffee - fair-trade stuff from Bolivia, bought from London's upmarket Monmouth Coffee Company - I browse the establishment's tables and bookshelves, which are stacked with old Idler editions and new and second-hand art, literature and philosophy tomes.

Many were written by Hodgkinson's slacker-friendly idols, the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, Dr Samuel Johnson and Bertrand Russell, who were all vehemently opposed to overworking for work's sake and eased their intellectual toils with prolonged bouts of leisure and indolence.

A former Cambridge University student, Hodgkinson set up his magazine in 1993, using the title from a series of Idler essays penned by Dr Johnson in 1758-9. A recurring theme in his writing is the fact that, since the dawn of the industrial revolution, simple pleasures, such as reading a book or simply lying in bed daydreaming, have been derided as unprofitable and "a waste of time" in turbocharged capitalist societies.

Inspired by a 1932 essay by Russell, In Praise of Idleness, in which the great thinker argued for a four-hour working day, Hodgkinson has developed his Four by Four Campaign, which pledges to work towards a four-day week and a four-hour day, so that it's culturally acceptable to carve out more space for "cultivated leisure".

As pleasant, relaxing and imagination-stirring as it is during the day - though it won't be everyone's cup of tea; tycoons, CEOs and workaholics, perhaps - the academy excels in the evenings.

Over wine and nibbles (and sometimes a few absinthe cocktails) guest speakers discuss and teach a range of subjects, including Latin, theology, the joy of plucking string instruments, playing the lute and ukulele, camping, cloud watching, embroidery, historical trivia, mathematics and far-flung foreign cultures (oppression in West Papua is a recent topic).

TV documentary maker Louis (son of Paul) Theroux, author and philosopher Will Self and Toby Young, who wrote How To Lose Friends and Alienate People (which was turned into a hit Hollywood movie), are some of the headline speakers, while Hodkingson himself gives talks on gardening, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the key to finding your hidden, laid-back entrepreneur and what it really means to be idle.

Hodgkinson and his wife, Victoria, and their three children had spent the previous five years living happily - and well within their budget - in a farmhouse in the Devon countryside. So I was intrigued as to why he returned to the Big Smoke to set up such a potentially stressful and financially risky, venture. Too much hassle for an idler, I thought.

But Hodgkinson tells me that "idling" is not really about being lazy. It's instead more about creating your own existence and doing what you love to meet your needs; to essentially find, or create, work that feels like play.

It's food for thought, I think, as I bid farewell, and re-enter the hustle and bustle of London life.

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FACT FILE


• The Idler Academy is at 81 Westbourne Park Road, Notting Hill, 500m from Royal Oak Tube station; open 10am-6.30pm Tuesdays to Saturdays, 11am-5pm Sundays; closed Mondays; idler.co.uk/academy

• Flat White is at 17 Berwick Street, Soho, near Leicester Square Tube; flat-white.co.uk

• Lantana is at 13 Charlotte Place, Fitzrovia, near Goodge Street Tube; lantanacafe.co.uk

• Kaffeine is at 66 Great Titchfield Street, Fitzrovia, near Oxford Circus Tube; kaffeine.co.uk