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Reasons to be cheerful
Part 2: Hobbies

Peter Kenny


At midnight passing through Crewe station on my way to Scotland I saw the ugly face of the hobbyist.

Trainspotters. A dozen or so of them bustling in sensible anoraks, noting down the train's engine number, one even capturing the moment with a video camera. We on the train looked out at them with amusement and pity. For there is something faintly unnatural about actually seeing trainspotters about their business. It is like catching ugly people having sex.

Lately the whole spotting business has re-emerged as a news story. A group of Brits went to Greece to spot planes. After lurking about taking photos of Greek military aircraft with zoom lenses, imagine their amazement at finding themselves arrested and imprisoned by irate Greeks. Our Hellenic cousins were entirely mystified.  What sort of person would travel to a beautiful country like Greece to photograph planes?

On this matter the BBC website quoted "seasoned plane spotter" Geoff Richardson, who said "I've never seen doctors or judges train spotting, but people from the highest ranks and best professions spot planes."  Which apart from being very sad indeed, betrays the essential impulse: categorisation.  Men, and it is invariably men, love to categorise. It may be planes or trains but ultimately what they categorise is each other.

In fact, these are the sort of men that give men a bad name.  

I look at the men I know and see dark secrets lurking in their hearts. An insider's knowledge of drosera (a species of carnivorous plant) for example, or an obsession with Global knives, or plastic construction kits of battleships, or stamps, or 1970's progressive rock music You name it.  

It's all about refuge, and being expert in a tiny field when all around the wider world rages and seethes unknowably.  

Even the present writer has a keen grasp of tropical fish, and is unable to pass an aquarium without thinking something like "Ah. Shovelnosed catfish."  Or "Mmm. Xiphophorus Helleri/Maculatus cross", and nod sagely to himself.

For there is no end to the expertise of the hobbyist.  I know people barely able write a sentence who are positively encyclopaedic in their knowledge of English Third Division soccer teams past and present.

But what is it all for?

Men use hobbies to talk to each other.  Everything can be turned into a hobby. In the UK CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) has long transformed the blameless glass of beer into a hobbyist's fetish object, about which there are facts to be learnt. 

After all, is this not what male communication is all about?  Men telling each other facts. The impressiveness of the fact allows us chaps to establish a pecking order. 

In short, it's about getting one up.  I remember once saying during in a party that I'd seen an owl.  Unfortunately I did not know to whom I spoke.  For I spoke to a hobbyist. His eyes narrowed.
       "Colour?"
          "Brown." I said.
          "Barn," he said.  With a smile that conveyed both masterfulness and glee.

I have just asked an expert twitcher about this. Apparently I now learn that the first hobbyist had been a charlatan. For, in fact, barn owls appear more ghostly than brown. And they have white faces. 

You may clean toilets for a living (as I once did) but being able to accurately recall the members of Leeds United losing 1970 FA cup team (and of course here I refer to the replay) then a certain status can be yours.

And there you have it. Hobbies can be a great leveller.  And that's why hobbies are a reason to be cheerful.

(c) Peter Kenny 2002