A New Breed of Hobby Horse

  • Themes: Culture

At present, far too much seriousness is invested in hobbies. They should instead be pursued quietly, for their own sake.

Young boy building balsa wood scale model aeroplane.
Young boy building balsa wood scale model aeroplane. Credit: coker / Alamy Stock Photo

If activity X, say wild swimming, gardening or climbing, was once generally classed as a hobby – which the OED defines as an activity ‘pursued merely for the amusement or interest that it affords’ – it is now said to have taken on deeper significance. The current orthodoxy is that hobbies improve the common lot because they perfect the ability of individuals to develop good relationships with others. Open any broadsheet newspaper’s lifestyle section and you will find the latest X portrayed in those terms. First, according to the latest scientific research, X guarantees good health. X is an organic anti-depressant (no side-effects). But, most importantly, X improves the quality of its adherents’ relationships: X makes its enthusiasts better friends, even better lovers. What would once have been assumed by the general reader as a private field of endeavour is ultimately justified in the extent to which it benefits other people. The hobby’s primary utility is now interpersonal.

But the deepest and most truly nourishing elements of hobbies remain essentially personal. Take building model aeroplanes, for example. When this amateur aerospace engineer emerges from the workshop after months of hard work, balsa-wood frame in one hand, remote control in the other, a potent ecstasy takes shape deep in the psyche: Will the new design fly? Will its wings wink and flash in the June sunlight like last year’s? Will it soar and wheel and swing? They alone can recall the plane’s component parts spread out in neat formations on the table-top and how many hours it took to construct and how they were spent. To show off the plane to family or visiting acquaintances is a poor primary motivation for all that work. The most profound benefits bestowed by hobbies have validity precisely because they are mysterious and purely internal.

No-one else can quite understand what it is to be, as Montaigne puts it, in another human being’s ‘little back-shop’, where it is occasionally possible to feel ‘entirely free’. The more well-stocked the back-shop, the better ordered, the more beautiful, how much likelier is it that his shop windows will impress upon the common thoroughfare a sense of happiness, contentment and peace?

The modern salience of the interpersonal sphere is, as Anthony Storr reflects in his monograph Solitude, altogether new in the history of mankind: ‘Earlier generations would not have rated human relationships so highly; believing… that the daily round, the common task, should furnish all we need to ask.’ He suggests (pace the sociologist Ernest Gellner) that – in the absence of an all-consuming threat from history’s chief killers: hunger, poverty and war – ‘our relations with the other people who constitute our environment… have therefore become matters of increasing concern and anxiety’. In heavily secularised societies like our own, Storr argues, those anxieties have become more acute: for if God has made His exit for good, the all-too-human need for faith and consolation has not departed along with Him. It follows that human beings seek what they once might have found in silent vigil and prayer in the hurly burly tumult of relationships: a ‘burden of value’, writes Storr, which is often too much for ‘those fragile craft’ to carry.

Hobbies can indeed fulfil an interpersonal function and have powerful effects on our relationships. During the 2020 lockdowns of Covid-19 in western Europe, they acquired a stunning level of prominence, partly because long periods of enforced isolation created incentives to communicate even banal day-to-day activities to friends and family.

But we should not invest hobbies with such weighty and serious priorities. In his essay ‘An Apology for Idlers’, Robert Louis Stevenson comments: ‘Extreme busyness … is a symptom of deficient vitality.’ Unhappy are the men and women who ‘cannot give themselves over to random provocations’ and who ‘do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake’. At present, far too much ‘busyness’ is invested in activities which should instead be pursued quietly, for their own sake.

The path of the hobby horse of ages past might have been along hardly visited by-roads, on through diversion upon diversion, the soul on its back allowed to play truant for a while from the school of life. By contrast, the twenty-first century hobby horse sets off with a destination already in mind and follows a clear direction – its waymarks are Company, Social Life, and Love. It drops you off at a town which is called Friends and Family. But human beings also need to spend time along the road, alone. And that road can have many thresholds – a garden shed, a workshop – and has no final destination.


Alastair Benn