Wednesday, 11 July 2012


I declare an interest in this subject: as a stamp dealer, I make a taxable income out of other people's hobbies. So I will have nothing disagreeable to say about them. But I do want to reclassify as hobbies some pursuits which usually have other labels and that will be the controversial bit.

Hobbies - pastimes - stand in contrast to work. They may absorb much time and energy, but they are not the way you earn your living. This does not exclude that, at the end of the day - or sooner - a hobby may increase someone's assets: some collections turn into very valuable things. But not all hobbies are asset-building: bird-watching isn't

Hobbies contrast with work in another way. They may be pursued passionately and arouse passions, they may be intellectually demanding, but normally they do not involve the kind of emotional demands made by a job or even by life in general. They are relaxation. They take your mind away from work. They give you something else to think about. Thus is explained the surgeon who collects stamps.

Indeed, if something does engage the same emotions and strains as work or everyday life then we tend not to call it a hobby. Back in 1967, I spent a summer at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research working with Peggy Hemming. I was a politically engaged student. In conversation one day, Peggy Hemming called political activism, "a hobby". That was cynicism with a grain of truth: getting involved in politics can indeed be a way of passing the time. The time would have passed anyway; but not so quickly. Interestingly, I have never forgotten the remark.

But political activism isn't really a hobby: it's too close to the everyday world with its demands and unpredictability, its challenges and defeats. And it matters. You might say that the whole point of a hobby is that it isn't about making the world a better place or indeed having any effect on the world. A hobby isn't a hobby if its absence from the world would make a difference. A hobby can die out and the world goes on much as before.

In the fifth edition of his Fruit Manual, published in 1884, Robert Hogg lists several hundred varieties of gooseberry. The number is swelled by the fact that in parts of northern England, growing gooseberries for competitive exhibition was a popular 19th century working class hobby (pursuit, pastime). Hogg duly records after the name of each gooseberry the name of the man who introduced it: Freedom (Moore), Garibaldi (Walton),Independent (Brigg), Pastime (Bratherton), Railway (Livesey), Sheba Queen (Crompton) ...

Unlike pigeon fancying, gooseberry fancying - which came with its own Craft mysteries ("Table by which the approximate weight of Gooseberries may be ascertained by measurement with the callipers" Hogg, page 366) - is all but lost and forgotten. The world may be a bit poorer but not at a loss.

That is why for some people hobbies are a waste of time. Serious people don't have hobbies. They have better things to do. Even when they are absorbed in a relaxing activity, like watching a play, they are actually doing something better: improving their minds.

This then becomes the basis for many assumptions, among them that the State should subsidise theatre ticket prices. I suppose it's one of the main reasons that I have never really made it into the middle class that I can see no more reason why the State should subsidise theatre tickets than train spotting. When it comes to how other people's taxes should be spent, poetry has no more claims than pushpin.

A few days ago I took down from my shelves a book I bought maybe twenty or thirty years ago but have never read: Hegel's Aesthetics in the two volume translation by Sir Malcolm Knox. I have made a start...

Knox was a University professor of philosophy and then a university Principal. He did Hegel translations during his career and he continued in retirement: he retired in 1966 and the Aesthetics was published in 1975. His work became his hobby; or vice versa.

A lot of work done in universities within government-funded Humanities departments ought to be re-classified as Hobby. Editing classical texts, translating poetry, compiling bibliographies - these are splendid hobbies for doctors, engineers and bankers. In the past they often were. They provided intellectual challenge and required dedication - often enough obsessive dedication - but they also provided relaxation - escape - from the demands of demanding careers. There is no pressing reason why such activities should be funded by the State and jobs for life made out of them. The world might be a richer place if we had to rely on them being pursued as hobbies. And they are probably more satisfying than spending money or snorting cocaine.

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