In defence of the hobby

Coniston Water, shot on a PentaxK1000 last November

I have always hated hobbies, even the very idea of hobbies. They seem to me to be childish pastimes attracting a childish name.

The word hobby comes from ‘hobby horse’, a wooden horse that children have played with since the Sixteenth Century. And for some curious reason known only to the vagaries of the English language, the obsession that applied to a child’s love of their hobby horse became attached to any pastime that was pursued without financial gain.

Even George Orwell’s enthusiasm for hobbies, from flower arranging to pigeon fancying, as an essential part of the “privateness of English life” did little to enamour me to the idea of having one.

Very sadly, if asked about hobbies for most of my working life, I would have said ‘more work’ or at least ‘this blog’.

But as age has crept upon me I find that I have gathered a number of actual hobbies. Real life, bona fide hobbies. Not quite pigeon fancying but not far off.

Of course, you will already have a number of amazing hobbies that fill your leisure time to the gunnels but on the off chance that you don’t or are looking for a fresh endeavour I thought I’d share mine.

Three activities that I pursue for pleasure and in my ‘spare time’. And three activities at which I am seeking to improve but in which there is no expectation that I will be at all competent. I think that this is really important for most of us who live with massive professional expectations, an opportunity to not be good at something.

Keen readers of this blog will know of the first two – wild swimming and singing. So, I won’t dwell on them to excess but merely enthuse for a moment of two.

Wild Swimming

The Highgate Men’s Pond, shot on a Pentax K1000 last autumn

Wild swimming is a revelation. Until last year swimming had always been a holiday pursuit in a warm pool full of chlorinated water or a way to entertain the kids on a tedious Saturday afternoon. Sea was for mucking about in but not for serious swimming. Swimming is now an outdoor activity in fresh or salt water at every time of the year.

After a couple of years of swimming in the Hampstead ponds only in the summer season from May to September, which is joy in itself, this year has been about pushing into the autumn and beyond. My last swim was in the Bristol Channel off north Devon on Boxing Day, deeply cold and extraordinarily invigorating.

The thing about it, the thing that gets you and makes you get in the water, though every fibre of your being says not to, is the way you feel afterwards. Yes, the feeling of the water and the closeness to nature are powerful (wildlife is a lot less scared of you when just your head is poking out of the water) but it’s the exhilaration when you emerge that becomes addictive. And the way that the water never fails to cleanse you of the hideous mood you brought to it. As if simply surviving the cold makes your other cares, at least for a moment, seem rather less important.

So, take up wild swimming, or at least cold-water swimming in an outdoor pool. But not yet if you are in the northern hemisphere. Start with the new season and see how far you want to take it after the summer has packed up and the temperature is in the teens. But imagine how amazing it might be to take the temperature right down, to 5 degrees or lower to the point where you break the ice on the water. If you can do that you can do anything. And no, wetsuits aren’t allowed, they are for surviving long periods in water while doing something else like surfing, but they kill the buzz. Neoprene booties and gloves only.

Boxing Day swim in North Devon, I fell off a sand bar at just the wrong moment. This one is a good old iPhone photo.

Sing your heart out

I’ve written about singing a little as the journey has unfolded and you can read a full account here. All I will say is that you can sing, only a tiny proportion of the population is actually ‘tone deaf’, and you must sing. And this hobby doesn’t involve taking all your clothes off in the middle of winter.

Singing is a natural behaviour most of us stopped when we left primary school and while wild swimming is a rather acquired taste, singing is for everyone. I’m four terms into a singing journey that started with the inspiration of James Sills at the Do Lectures and evolved into joining a community choir where I live. There is something phenomenally liberating about subsuming your voice in that of forty other people and creating something together that is always musical and sometimes sublime.

Just as a spell away from the gym causes you to lose fitness so a spell not singing, in other words the last couple of decades, has caused you to lose your singing voice. Get it back this year by joining a choir. Don’t do that procrastinating thing of saying that you need a few lessons first, just dive in and join a community choir. Singing lessons come later when you want to improve your technique.

And don’t let your kids stop singing if you can, we now have three generations singing in choirs in my family. My sixteen-year old has never stopped and my mum has rediscovered the joy of singing after 60 years. Because you know, that one person that told you years ago that you couldn’t sing, they lied.

Shooting on film

Hotel Endsleigh, Devon. Again shot on the trusty K1000

Which brings me to the third hobby, analogue photography. I have only picked this up in the last year and I’m still talking my first faltering steps. Analogue photography mind not digital, I’m not done with digital photography but I’ll leave that to capturing images on my iPhone for social media or to record an unmissable moment. But my real memories I will commit to film from now on.

Shooting on film isn’t just another way to make images, it’s almost a different way to live life. Its more deliberate, more measured, slower. Everything that is wrong about analogue photography is what makes it right. That you have to decide to take your camera out with you. That you only have a handful of photographs that you can take, depending on the film and camera you are using. That you can’t shoot on auto (especially if you have yourself a super basic camera from the 60s). That you don’t know whether it was any good for a while. That you can’t post it to social now. That you have to send the roll off to the lab to be processed. And that you have to wait with trepidation and expectation for the we-transfer link to the developed roll.

And the photographs. Always interesting, sometimes a little disappointing with but with the occasional image that will make your heart sing just before it melts. Like the mistake that you made that made the photograph. Like the serendipity of the perfect moment you captured almost by accident because you couldn’t fire off 12 shots just in case. Like the one shot that feels like you actually made a piece of art rather than simply a way of filling your cloud storage.

And literally nothing beats the feel of releasing the shutter and then manually winding on the film. Visceral that’s what it is. And it’s yours for the price of an old Pentax on Ebay, or maybe by dusting down something from your parent’s attic. You will love it and loathe it in unequal measure but you will never look back.

So, having hated the damn things I now find that I am all for hobbies. I still hate the word but I’m now a devotee of the idea. Time away from work that makes you all the better at work. And a break from insane pressure to actually enjoy getting better at something that no one is reviewing, appraising or remunerating you for.

In 2020 let’s get on our hobby horses.

Swimming. I swim in the Hampstead mixed ponds from May to September and the Highgate men’s pond from September to, well December so far. The Women’s pond is close by and is legendary, My wife has written about it extensively and takes the unitiated there every summer. I swim in Roka jammers and goggles and in the winter DHB socks with Zone3 gloves.

Singing. I was inspired to sing by James Sills whose book Do Sing is freshly minted and explores the benefits of singing. I sing with the Primrose Hill Choir and have tried Bellow Fellows, an all-male choir in Islington. But there are choirs springing up absolutely everywhere at the moment.

Analogue photography. I shoot with a very basic Pentax K1000 on Fuji Superia 400 film at the moment. What I know I learned from Annabel Bird and Lauren Keim, in person and through their shoot on film e-course. A new and improved version of this is shortly being released under the title of ‘enchanting analogue’. I send my films to the very wonderful Carmencita in Valencia who will look after you every step of the way.

Whatever you decide to pursue in 2020, Good luck.

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