I understand that not everyone is interested in enquiring into the nature of things, but what concerns me of late is the denigration of those who do. I’m not talking about intellectuals whose job it is to make professional enquiries into this or that, but ordinary souls who are simply interested in stuff. Being of an enquiring mind myself, I find this denigration is itself interesting and perhaps even culturally significant.
For a while now I’ve been asking the question: are interests are dying? And by interests I mean simply: hobbies. At a job interview nearly forty years ago, one of the first questions I was asked was: What are your interests? Back then it would have been photography, cycling, shooting, Origami, making Airfix kits, making balsa-wood aeroplanes, slot car racing, Judo, drawing, reading – to name but a few. None of these things had anything to do with the job I was applying for, but a wide range of interests and the ability to speak about them was considered a good thing back then. It certainly gave us lots to talk about, and I got the job.
Of course, as we age, adult responsibilities take their toll, and my hobbies have been pruned back somewhat, old hobbies have fallen away and news ones have been embraced, with writing foremost among them, and what hobbies remain to me still provide an outlet for an energy that finds its satisfaction in no other way.
I remember my father, a blue collar working man, with his insatiable interest in local history, from the Victorian engineering of mines, to prehistoric concepts of time and measure. He spent years investigating what he believed to be a neolithic calendar site on the West Pennine moors. To aid in this thesis, he taught himself mathematics, ancient astronomy and celestial navigation. He also liked to shoot and fish, studied geology, read Plato and Milton, and he wrote stuff. My father was never going to change the world with his interests and they had no bearing on his job as a colliery deputy. I think it was more the case that he found himself in them.
If you type train spotting into the Google box you’ll be a long while scrolling down to the original meaning of the word. Train spotting now means something else entirely, due in no small part to the Danny Boyle film of the same name whose brutal depiction of Edinburgh drug addiction so excited the critics at the time, and continues to inform popular culture. But train spotting was and remains a very particular hobby. That men will go out with notebook and camera to gather “intelligence” on railway engines and rolling stock seems pointless, but then most hobbies are like that. I am not a train spotter, but I understand the motivations of people who are.
What hobbies are, in fact, is an outlet for the innate and often quite humbling intelligence of ordinary men and women. Certified intelligence, in terms of school leaving or graduate qualifications, is not necessary. My father left school at fourteen without any formal qualifications, but following his interests he was motivated to take up the study of A levels at night classes in later life. These classes weren’t taken with an eye to professional development, but more as tools for the development of purely personal aims and interests. He expanded himself into the world of his interests, as I expand myself into mine.
Geek is a word I don’t approve of. Dress it up how you like it’s mainly used in a pejorative sense, and is pointed at anyone with an excessive (translate as pathalogical) interest in a technical or intellectual field – the implication being someone who is socially ill adjusted, non-mainstream, possibly even autistic. Of course in a hi-tech world where so few have any idea what’s under the bonnet of their computers, the geeks have begun laughing their way to the bank, but not every geek wants to transform their interest into a multi-billion dollar business. Use of the word geek in popular culture underlines for me the denigration of the very idea that it is normal for a human being to be interested in anything.
My youngest son is a keen guitarist, and through his interest has developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the development of popular music and both the history and the technology of guitar construction. It’s perhaps counter-intuitive then that he considers the formal study of music at college to be a drag, nor has he any ambition to form a band so he can make it big on X-factor. It is the interest itself that absorbs him; it is the block on which he hones his intelligence. My eldest son follows the sport of motor racing in minute detail and lives for each fresh season of Formula One. He revels in the statistics of points and lap times. It was this passion that provided the lure which had him navigating his independent way across Europe to Monza last summer at an age when I would have lacked the confidence to do so. In short these are developmental issues. Through hobbies and interests we see the development and the maturing of intellect in ways that a more formal education cannot address.
But my fear is that as our civilisation has matured these past decades, the plethora of interests available for pursuit has atrophied to the extent that the question I was asked in that interview forty years ago would now be met with an embarrassed silence. For many, the majority pastime is merely keeping up with social media, and the presentation of a false face to the world of ones imagined peers. And then again many otherwise intelligent people turn each evening to the world of soap opera, which can occupy the mind from six until nine p.m, each weekday night, mesmerise it in a never ending formulaic cycle of dramatic conflict and resolution. Try as I might, I cannot classify either of these things as hobbies, since they are each in their own way capable only of suspending the activity of the mind, rather than encouraging any thoughtful application of it. They each create an artificial reality of simple rules and boundary conditions, beyond which one need not stray.
To scratch build, and then fly a model aeroplane requires the development of a set of skills on a par with those of an aeronautical engineer, and all this in someone whose dayjob might involve nothing more technical than selling insurance. Pointless perhaps, but intelligence is infinitely transferable and an intelligent citizen is better equipped to cope with the real world than one who is untrained in the critical application of whatever intellect they possess. The intelligent citizen does not accept uncritically the tritely emotive headlines of newspapers with their constant calls to arms, their vilification of innocent minorities, and their scaremongering over one spurious health issue after the other.
In Aldous Huxleys dystopian novel “Brave New World” the citizenry are sold a fantasy that they are happy to believe in, and over time have lost their ability to question why things are the way they are. They are happy, of a fashion, and they simply don’t care that they are living lives that are essentially sub-human. Unquestioning and uncritical they are vulnerable to the forces that control them, and so easily suggestible they can be fed any lie and they will wholeheartedly believe in it, because they no longer possess the confidence nor indeed the independence of their own minds.
I am a defender of the hobby and all who would be branded as the geeks of this world. It’s an unfortunate turn of events that a young person indiscreet enough to advertise their liking for collecting stamps, or coins or Meccano, would find themselves hate-mailed by uninteresting trolls on that Freindface thing, but I know which of the parties would be capable of holding the more interesting conversation, and of spotting the weaknesses in the arguments put forward by their own society. It is the geeks who bring about change, the geeks with their eclectic interests who will be the first to question the order of things, while the trolls prefer instead to wallow in the mud of their unexamined lives.