The following conversation between Tom Hodgkinson (The Idler), Ian Bone (of Class War fame) and Ray Roughler-Jones (Roughler TV) took place in December 2009 and appears in issue 43 of The Idler: Back to the Land.
by Tom Hodgkinson
WHEN IT COMES to being a professional idler, I have to take my hat off to those two grand masters of anti-capitalist slack, Ian Bone and Ray Roughler-Jones. Bone is best known for Class War, his provocative, aggressive, radical paper. I also read Bone’s excellent biography, Bash the Rich, an account of a working class bohemian life. Being working class for Bone is not about slaving in the factories, but about pursuing a life of intellectual curiosity, pleasure and freedom; in a sense, not working. Ray Roughler-Jones is Bone’s old friend who I remember from my days working at Rough Trade shop in Portobello Road in 1990. Ray edits the Roughler magazine and puts on all sorts of events in the W11 area, often working with the actress Anna Chancellor, who starred in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Another project is the Youtube channel Roughler TV. He has been on the dole for about forty years. Bone is publishing Ray’s autobiography, Drowning on Dry Land, on his indie publishing label, Bone Books. Another release on Bone Books is Hartmann the Anarchist: The Doom of the Great City, a story first published in 1892 and written by a seventeen year old public schoolboy called E. Douglas Fawcett.
Anyway, I arranged to meet up these two outstanding beacons of the idling classes in Mike’s Café in Portobello Road. “Blimey, this has smartened up a bit, hasn’t it?” commented Bone when he walked in. Bone is well-dressed in a Fedora and a nice wool overcoat.
TH: Now most people think of anarchy as violent and aggressive. But to me it is all about voluntary action and independence. I have been talking [with Warren Draper] about an anarchy movement—called “Anglarchy”—that is rooted in English literature, Blake and Cobbett, very practical, and not about smashing up the bus stops. Although there may be a place for that. What’s your idea of liberty, anarchy, freedom?
IB: Pretty much the same as yours: a world without work, a world of unlicensed pleasure. I certainly don’t go for all that right-to-work bollocks. I see interviews with kids hanging around shopping centres and all they want to do is sit on the wall all day and talk to their mates, and someone with a microphone goes: “wouldn’t you rather have a job?” And they say, “yes, oh yeah, we’d rather have a job”, as a knee jerk. But that’s the last thing in the world they want.
TH: The recent marches and demonstrations in London: they were marching for jobs. They had banners saying, “we want jobs”. And there’s this thing called The People’s Charter, which says vaguely “we want more and better jobs”.
IB: That’s just bollocks. It’s mostly people on the Left who have this ethos, but the feckless working class doesn’t want “more and better jobs”. The Left has an image of the Jarrow Marches. My Grandad was an unemployed miner in Scotland in the thirties, at the same time as the Jarrow Marches. He was supposed to have had a job filling the pits in, but instead, there’s a great photo of him playing cards and dominos. The central question is, how do the working class become idlers, as opposed to those who can afford idleness, knowing others will provide their sewerage, drains, electricity, food, water and so on. There is a pivotal moment in Dave Douglass’s new book where he writes about the return to work after the miners’ strike where many miners deliberately sabotaged the pits in order to take redundancy payments. This unseen, unheroic working class struggle for freedom from work is seldom recognised or acknowledged, so idleness as a class issue is not taken up because the Left has a different agenda, with its Jarrow heroism.
TH: One of my enemy figures would be Tony Benn. He has this idea of full employment and the working classes riding off to the factory.
IB: In the Eighties the SWP organised the “right to work” marches. Everyone had their little SWP bibs on. The kids who went on it were promised discos every night, sex, and all they got was Trotsky’s Transitional Programme.
TH: Do you ever hear that thing where people on the hard Left accuse anarchists of being bourgeois?
IB: Fucking hypocrites — the SWP is entirely made up of people who used to be polytechnic lecturers wearing corduroy trousers… what’s their working class composition? Virtually nil, now. But I don’t really care about people’s background: it’s where you are now. What you can’t do is do both: be politically anarchist and retain all the privileges of the previous life. For example George Monbiot, who has done the classic thing: Monbiot is so keen on allotments that he has seven of his own. But it never occurs to him there might be six other people out there. Have you heard his thing, “the Land is Ours”? Yes, the land is yours: you fuckin’ own it, you cunt!
TH: Yes, but Simon Fairlie and The Land, though: that really is a good magazine.
IB: Oh yes, well I like all the anti-enclosures stuff, the history of English radicalism. The poaching wars. There were huge wars in the 18th century between poachers and gamekeepers, with huge gangs on either side.
TH: How have things changed since you two first came to London thirty or forty years ago?
RRJ: In Wales, signing on for us was a full-time job. The only people I knew who had jobs were people who were just about to have a court appearance. Nowadays, with the questions they ask you before you go on a medical, you can work out all the conditions to get on the sick… “bad back” used to be the only clincher… now with the Internet you can authoritatively claim to have the symptoms of Ebola virus and they’ll sort you out sharpish.
TH: And when did you both take against work?
RRJ: It’s just that nobody worked, none of our friends worked.
IB: No one ever worked… in Bash the Rich there’s a story about “turning to the working class” but we didn’t know anyone who was working! We were all on the dole so we started a Claimants’ Union, a union for people on the dole. We would fight to get you all your entitlements. The classic line was: “If they get you a job, we’ll fight your case!” There were all the jokes about what occupation you gave when you were signing on: Father Christmas, snow clearer. and so on. One job I gave was “Coronation Programme Seller”. “What’s that then, Mr Bone?” asked a puzzled clerk. “Very long hours. On the day, you’re up at five in the morning till all hours,” I countered — not mentioning I hadn’t had the luck of securing such a position since 1953!
TH: Is it actually responsible to be claiming dole from the State?
RRJ: Well, the less money they have to start wars.
TH: Is it easier now, or harder?
IB: It’s just as easy. My son was sent for a job in Cashbusters in Bristol. How was he going to get out of it? I said, well, first ask about unions. What sort of union is there? Then the clincher – ask about paternity leave.
TH: So you advise your son on how not to work?
IB: Like a duck to water. He just didn’t want to take a glorified debt collection job.
TH: Does the skiving thing go back for generations, do you think?
RRJ: It’s not exactly skiving. It’s hard graft to be on the dole. They never leave you alone… one time, we thought we’d better get a job. And we saw these dustmen in the pub in Swansea. They were always there at eleven in the morning. We thought we’d try that. We went down there. The interview was: “what’s your name? Right, start tomorrow.” So we went the next day. Fireball XL5 was the name of our wagon. We said to the bloke in charge, early finish is it? He said, oh yes, you’ll be finished by half past four. We said, what about the eleven o’clock finish? And he said, you’ve got to be here thirty years before you get that shift. I remember running away from the depot.
TH: So even the prospect of working till four thirty just for one day was too much?
IB: Yes — we’re fucking men of principle.
RRJ: It’s a tricky old life on the dole, because they don’t leave you alone and they don’t give you much money. So you spend the rest of the time trying to top up.
TH: Little businesses and things?
RRJ: Or whatever.
IB: The critical problem for me has always been that capitalism needs a reserve army of the unemployed. What about the people who want to be unemployed? All these people who are broken-hearted because they can’t get a job or are being made redundant… so you might as well have people who want to be unemployed.
TH: But capitalism wants the unemployed people who are desperate for a job, not the ones who enjoy being unemployed.
IB: Remember the four week rule in the seventies – if you were single and didn’t take a job in four weeks they’d stop your money. A fucking disgrace.
RRJ: It’s tricky at the moment.
TH: Are you on the dole?
RRJ: I’m on the sick.
TH: On the sick from what, though?
IB: Bad back…
TH: I have one friend who has declared himself mad.
RRJ: Then they leave you alone completely.
TH: Won’t you both be getting a pension soon?
IB: I’ve never paid enough subs to get a pension…. I was on the dole for years. And I had a job as a community worker. I used to go in and read the Guardian, make some phone calls and go on the Internet. I used to sit there reading the Annual Report for hours. I didn’t even look busy. You’re supposed to look busy. Most jobs you could do the work in about an hour, to be honest.
TH: So this is all about using your intellect to become master of your situation?
RRJ: The thing is, I’m always busy. I can’t stay in the flat after eight in the morning.
TH: I meet people who have taken control of their own lives and their work and been creative, and created an autonomous life, and I wonder, why is it that so few people do that? And it’s not actually a class issue.
RRJ: People are frightened.
IB: People have families so it ain’t such a good rate to be on the dole as when you’ve got no dependants… Even I had to work as a postie and a hospital porter for years when the kids were young.
TH: Well, I’ve been in a nuclear family for ten years, and it can be hard to keep the energy up to stay freelance. Sometimes you think, this is too much hard work. Life might be easier if I just had to turn up in an office. And what did you do when you first got to London, Ray?
RRJ: I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do when I got here. I got a flat… I had a girlfriend at college, and she did what exactly what she wanted to do. She was career-minded. Her father was a professor and she had the work ethic. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I went on the dole. And nothing much has changed since.
IB: Ray was an accomplished shop-lifter in Swansea so was able to supplement his income.
RRJ: I gave all that up.
IB: Most people go round nicking big lumps of cheese, joints of meat and big Nescafé jars and hawk ‘em round the pubs at lunchtime to get beer money.
TH: So you were exiled from Swansea, Ray?
RRJ: Yes. I nicked a suit with an alarm on, got chased by a security guard who got knocked down by a car but still got up and nabbed me. All the security guards used to say, ‘Morning Ray’.
TH: You had political beliefs behind this.
IB: I didn’t want to work either for the state, being an anarchist, or for some fucking capitalist company. I thought I’d never work officially, but I could do stints on the dole and survive on fuck all money with no possessions outside of a bin bag.
TH: It’s a gentlemanly existence, isn’t it?
RRJ: This is from my book: “On the third day, they’d got us working in the bowels of some huge silo thing… a falling brick fractures my arm and crushes two of my toes. I was lucky. Who said hard work never killed anyone? The twat.”
IB: A mate of ours, John, worked as a ticket collector at Ladbroke Grove station; stood as Class War candidate in the Kensington by-election in ‘87. He never checked any tickets because he would read Class War or The Sun all day. After a while his Underground bosses said, we’ve been watching you for four hours, and you haven’t checked one ticket. You’ve been reading a copy of Class War all day. He brought a successful case saying he had been harassed. And then successfully transferred to the sick for years claiming stress!
TH: Have you ever gone into a job and tried to rouse up the workers to rebellion against the bosses?
IB: Well, always. When I was in the Housing Association once, I eventually got the sack for breach of confidentiality.. There was some fiddling going on, and I told the local paper. They quoted me, an anonymous source, but then put my name in!
TH: I thought it would be a good piece for the Idler, to get a young man to take lots of crap jobs and, in a sense, just behave like a dignified human being and see how long you last. And say: “I’m ethically opposed to that. I can’t do it.”
IB: Cashbusters… they’re all working for debt collecting agencies, pawnbrokers, call centres, charity muggers – all jobs offering mind-numbing boredom and you don’t even get the collectivity of signing on any more – all done from your computer.
TH: My parents were in Fleet Street in the Seventies, and the workplace was something completely different then. Clattering typewriters, shouting, smoking. People worked together and it was fun. They went to the pub together. Now we are separated by the computer. Before Wapping, the unions had ensured that there were some good jobs.
IB: The printers or rather the Union Chapel ran the show and got their members on about a million quid a week… in the heyday of Red Robbo, fighting for jobs, the night shift at British Leyland used their engineering skills to build secret bedrooms on the factory floor where they could grab a crafty kip.
TH: If there was something they didn’t like in the paper, the Father of the Chapel would come upstairs and say: “the boys ain’t happy.” And they were very well paid.
IB: All those big industrial jobs went. We went to a meeting called by Arthur Scargill… one of the miner’s wives went through a litany of family deaths and illness from industrial diseases caused by working in the pits then said: “I’ll fight to keep the pits open for my children and my children’s children…” A lot of the miners didn’t want to go back. They were having a far better time on strike. They were meeting lots of women. They were going all over the country… they were having a great time. There was an argument to say: “Fuck the pits. We ain’t going back underground.” After they went back a lot of them systematically sabotaged the pits so they could take the redundancy money. It’s always the middle class Lefties who claim that the working class is desperate to fucking work. There’s a whole lot of mythologised hokum spun by the Communist Party around the Jarrow marches and South Wales Miners’ libraries. And the proud working class desire for self-improvement… In his top book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, David Rose shows that most miners detested the communists because they were arrogant and bullying. The most taken out book from Maerdy miners’ library was not The Communist Manifesto but East Lynne, a Victorian melodrama.
TH: Can you generalize about what the miners did when the mines closed?
IB: Turn to heroin! No, get on the long term sick. They ran pubs. Many of them moved away and totally revamped their lives. After twenty five years few of them regretted. moving from the pits despite the nostalgic camaraderie.
TH: Now what about the argument that says: there is camaraderie in the workplace?
IB: Well there is, and solidarity. But people will find camaraderie in prisons or the most desperate situations you know. There is that camaraderie, but you find other ways of getting it outside the world of work. A lot of the miners found that difficult at first especially with Thatcher intent on destroying a sense of community through her “no such thing as society” speech.
TH: The Guardian is the worst for this. The comments on their blogs are by far the most mean-spirited of all the comment-makers. They’re the worst for calling for “more and better jobs”. They’re also the worst payers in Fleet Street. And it’s full of hierarchy.
IB: Well, they’re all Oxbridge, aren’t the
TH: Well, I am too! But it is Oxbridge-dominated.
IB: The editor’s daughter is on the payroll… When you see a young sprog in the Guardian, you know they’re related… Barnaby, Josh and Harry… leave it out!
TH: As an alternative to wage slavery, we want to do a “taking care of business” issue of the Idler, which will look at how to start your own small business. That is a realistic alternative. We are now running an online shop at the Idler as a micro-business.
IB: For a someone who is idle you put in a hell of a lot of hard work.
TH: As you can imagine, I’ve heard that comment a lot. Yes, we are quite productive. But at home, I work from nine to one and that’s it, really.
RRJ: If you are doing something that you enjoy, as he enjoys it, then you are idle.
IB: It’s like you said earlier, Ray: you are actually very busy.
TH: Idlers are busy! You’re more lazy in a full time job. You just sit there waiting for six o’clock to come. Then you are too tired to do much beyond go to the pub or watch telly.
IB: Do something to disengage your brain.
TH: Jobs tend to be humiliating. You spend all day being told off and then you run to the tube. Then you can’t wait for the tube journey to be over. Then you run home. What do I do now? Have a glass of wine and watch Twin Peaks.
RRJ: The magazine I did, The Roughler, that was really hard work. It was a nightmare and that was just a fanzine.
TH: Yes, it is hard putting a magazine together.
IB: The print costs have come right down. You used to go abroad to get stuff done, but you can get it done in this country now, cheap. The turnaround time is a hell of a lot quicker, too.
TH: I’ve been looking at the pre-Reformation calendar. There was more fun. Cromwell ruined it and then Charles II reopened the theatres and the maypoles went back up.
IB: Well, Charles II… The Ranters were against him
TH: When were the Ranters?
IB: Well, around the same time.
TH: But Cromwell hated the Ranters and the Diggers and the Levellers as well.
IB: Winstanley… Ranters… puritans… fornication… swearing…blasphemy – all that moment of liberation came out of nowhere.
TH: Now, do you think it is always only going to be small groups who break away in this way, like you guys, or the Ranters? Can you imagine mass liberty, or are people just too scared to take that liberty?
IB: A lot of them in jobs are doing what they want anyway…
RRJ: Everyone’s trying to be an entrepreneur all of a sudden…
TH: Yes, but take postmen as an example. I know two posties. One had a heart attack and one was off ill from stress for months. And that’s supposed to be a pleasant job.
IB: “When I get fed up I can climb higher – in time for my heart attack when I retire” – that’s an old number called “Right to Work” our band used to do.
TH: All this ingenuity…
IB: Sabotaging the production line has been a staple of worker’s fightback throughout history.
TH: Wouldn’t it be better if all that ingenuity, energy and collective action was directed towards working for ourselves?
IB: Not if it’s useless production or some chinless fuckwit fashion designer entrepreneur. And don’t get me started on fucking farmers’ fucking markets.
TH: I don’t get anywhere in persuading people near me to boycott Tesco’s… what sort of spirit do you see in people compared to the late sixties and seventies?
IB: There’s very little fightback or imagination around at the moment. We are fed a diet of Daily Mail heath scares and panics. Don’t go outside you might get swine flu. Also in the eighties if you went on a riot and weren’t nicked on the day you got away with it. Now with CCTV and telly coverage you can get nicked months or years later. No fun in that.
TH: What about Climate Camp and all the rest of it
IB: I think that’s just middle class wank turning into green careers or environmental quangos. Climate Camp is the new Cowes week.
TH: Well, what’s happened to the working class intellectuals, then?
IB: A lot of them have been bought off, writing opinion pieces like in-house bits of rough.
TH: Or they become stand-up comedians.
IB: That’s another lot – even the fucking comedians have all been to Oxbridge… Sorry to say it, Tom, but they’re all fucking at it. Everything from the protest movement to even the journos are Oxford or Cambridge educated – Tony Benn, Tariq Ali, Ken Loach…
RRJ: I interviewed Tony Benn. And I said to him, Tony, what about this story of Mrs Thatcher liking you? “Oh, that’s in the past, we’ve got to forget about the past.”
IB: I remember when Churchill died in South Wales. There were collections and some English villages raised thousands. Merthyr Tydfil raised half a crown, a couple of buttons. And some green shield stamps.
TH: But what’s wrong with a good education…
IB: Tony Benn, Ken Loach… I rest my case.
TH: I wrote a chapter in one book about how anti-war marches were a waste of time. But my liberal publishers — who work with the organization Liberty — wouldn’t print it.
IB: One of the problems with the anarchist movement is that it’s lost its libertarian impulse and its hedonism. It doesn’t vigorously oppose restrictions on liberty. We believe in free speech – opposing Griffin going on Question Time was fucking ridiculous, with people saying: “I believe in free speech but…”
TH: But a big part of the anarchist thing is to bust up racist marches and so on.
IB: Nothing wrong with a punch up. I believe Griffin can have free speech but take the physical consequences if people don’t like what he says. I used to admire Donald Soper on his stepladder at Speakers Corner taking on all comers. Top geezer. There’s a whole gamut of things… that’s what I like in the Idler, that libertarian, English anarchy, an affection for place and roots. I love Frank Newbold’s wartime posters: “It’s Your England… Fight For It” and Orwell’s English socialist patriotism. A lot of anarchists are actually just boring leftists…
TH: I like those creative things that actually add to people’s lives, rather than the far Left whingeing. Which is also, in lots of cases, just resentment. And resentment is the wrong attitude.
IB: Nothing wrong with a bit of resentment. Resentment and bitterness! The Yippees and the Dutch Provos showed you can be both bitter and funny. I can just imagine Monbiot on the train saying “don’t do that, Harry” to one of his annoying sprogs who’s annoying every other fucker in the compartment.
RRJ: At dinner, the parents will stop the conversation so their child can interrupt!
TH: We’ve been a bit guilty of that sort of thing. There’s something wrong with my generation of parents. It’s good to be ignored.
IB: People give their kids ridiculous choices. Shut up and eat it! Would you like shallots? No fucking way.
RRJ: If their mother and father are going out, the children should know they’ve got to behave…
TH: Some kind of horrible progressive thing has happened. The word “parenting” is a new word.
IB: They’re treated as young adults. But they’re not and you need to take decisions for them.
TH: State schools are pretty awful because they have been subjected to successive progressive ideologies. That’s why at home we are rebelling by learning Latin, by rote. So we are learning amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant.
IB: Amabo, amabis, amabit, amabimus, amabitis, amabunt.
TH: The future simple! You remember it. You were probably taught well.
IB: I did O level Latin. It’s so easy to learn.
TH: That’s why you have a good brain.
IB: Because of the Latin?
TH: Someone like Boris Johnson did classics at Oxford. He has that bluff exterior but he is a serious guy.
IB: There was a story in the paper this morning that a woman was suing her boss for sexual harassment at work, and he had sent her a rude poem by Catullus in Latin He claimed that she couldn’t possibly have known Latin, but she did!
TH: The old ways
IB: The old ways! I went to visit a kid at Summerhill School once.
TH: How did you find it?
IB: Oh, fucking awful. Half of them are Japanese, strangely enough, and there was a big row about stabbing a pet rabbit… They were having a debate about poor dead bunny but the young kids don’t know what to think… what are your views on stabbing a rabbit to death, aged three?
RRJ: Piers Thompson [a friend with kids] said to me, which camp do you think we fall into, Ray? I said, there are two camps. Either you tell your kids what to do, or you ask them what they want to do. If you tell them what to do, that’s tough love. If you ask them, then you’re a twat.
IB: On the train Jane, my partner, has no patience with middle class twats letting their kids run amok… “Stop these children coming up and pawing me… Harry, Harriet and Josh… you’re going to get thumped in a minute.” She got off to a bad start, because their mater was reading the Tatler. Because she was reading Tatler, she thought everyone else had to look after her kids. After some strong words from Jane, the woman called the police… everyone was craning their necks – class war on the 5.20 outta Paddington!
TH: This new attitude makes having children doubly more difficult than it was before. The men are feeling emasculated because the women ask for so much help, and naturally enough turn to the nearest person around. There’s not enough help from the wider family group.
IB: Also other people used to intervene with your kids. Children are indoors much more these days. The computer games but also the fear… parents read the Daily Mail horror stories
TH: Which are very rare instances.
IB: The local papers like the Hackney Gazette are full of it…
TH: Even where we are, the Mums are frightened. They say: “You can’t be too careful these days.” Although it may be changing: I just came back from a conference of teachers and social workers in Scotland and the theme there was that we have become too “risk-averse” as the jargon has it.
IB: I can remember hitch-hiking – no one does that now. So, Tom, you mix with a broad church of people, then? Social workers, Women’s Institute. A life of ludic pleasure.
TH: And hard graft.
IB: It’s hard work being playful all day. Don’t you think the Idler will be sucked into the corporations and you’ll be bought out and take the money and run off to Alex James’s organic farm? It’s inevitable…
TH: I think it would have happened by now. We have been doing it for seventeen years.
RRJ: When I get the dole now, they ask me what do I do, and I take up old copies of the magazine, and I say, can I use that computer, and they say, yeah, type this in, and I show them my TV station, Roughler TV. Now, why don’t they jump up and down and say, look at this bloke, he’s actually doing something! Instead of saying, there’s a job in this factory.
TH: I was on the dole when I started the Idler, round here, and they did send me on a sort of dolies’ business training course for a week.
IB: You were on the dole and they send you on a course to produce the Idler!
TH: Ha! But it’s kind of unrealistic because they are asking these seventeen year-old dolies to produce a business plan. There was the Enterprise Allowance Scheme. Can we not though find simple ways of working, which is making things and selling them? Women can make things at home.
IB: You want women staying at home?
TH: That’s surely better than working at Asda, to have your own small business.
IB: What about the camaraderie and the saucy banter?
TH: I’d rather be at home making jam with a couple of friends than being bossed around by an idiot at Asda.
IB: Women at home… cottage industry… I’m going misty eyed.
TH: The Women’s Institute is coming back among young people. There are art students at places like Goldsmiths who are starting their own Women’s Institute branches. It’s creative.
IB: You really do see the good in everything.
TH: It is a good thing, though!
IB: Those organisations have always been around. The Women’s Institute have been making jam at home for years, but you’re saying it’s a new trend.
TH: No, I’m saying that I’m into the old ways.
IB: The old ways!
TH: It’s the old ways that politicians hate. They don’t have a sense of history, Left or Right. They are all Whiggish.
IB: Or they make up versions of the old ways. … myths.
TH: The yeomanry. Old-fashioned Tories… You must have found with Class War, it made people realize that they were not alone.
IB: Oh yeah. We would express the wish that the Queen Mother would die of cancer. And you would get an enormous postbag with people agreeing.
TH: I think the over 65s are more radical than the young ones. How old are you two?
RRJ: I’m 58.
IB: 62. We know the old ways. How old are you?
TH: Me? 41.
IB: Ohhh! And he talks of the old ways!
TH: Well, why do you think I’ve brought you together? So I can pay my respects and sit at your feet.
Ian gives me the last four issues of Class War and also a pamphlet written by Tom Vague about the radical history of Notting Hill. Ian asks me, teasingly, whether I was in the Bullingdon Club when at Cambridge. No, I say. I was playing in hardcore punk bands and doing fanzines. Finally, we discuss schools.
TH: I went to Westminster.
IB: Fucking hell. They’re all the same, Ray!