Un-hustling the hobby
Plus what to read, watch and listen to this week
In the creative industries, there is no such thing as a hobby. Hobbies have become hustles. Everything I do, from reading to watching TV or going to a show is something I can funnel into either my journalism, my newsletter, or my podcast. The other day, I received an email from a colleague telling me that I was no longer needed to host this month’s Telegraph book club. The book I had chosen was open in front of me, half way through. After reading the email, I closed it dejectedly – time wasted.
But, hang on, I was actually enjoying the book. What time wasted? It was depressing to catch myself thinking in such mercenary terms about something I had loved since childhood, when I would sit on the steps outside my bedroom as soon as my parents had put me to bed, catching the weak glow of the hallway light while furtively turning pages for hours into the night.
I’d never been into sports – too embarrassed to wear my glasses on the netball court, I flailed blindly around the pitch, a great nuisance to everyone. Musical instruments weren’t much more successful – one piano teacher politely ended things after I abstained from practising for a year, though the one before that endured me falling asleep on his keys after a night of no sleep. But reading, I had always been good at.
And, while I try to read a couple of pages before bed on the rare evenings I haven't collapsed face-first into my duvet, or plough through three books on holiday, my reading habits are not regular, and they are often for work purposes – hardly a hobby.
Since lockdown, I’ve noticed several of my friends picking up hobbies – and maintaining them. One who works in banking, is doing a philosophy course once a week in the evening. Another, a lawyer, is painting figurines, while I know a teacher who has taken up life drawing on weekends and a publicist who has taken up pottery.
One of my friends in strategy has taken up boxing, training several nights a week after work, getting so good he’s even competed in two white collar boxing matches. Watching his most recent match one Friday night, it felt surreal when his dad and I threw our pints in the air when he won, covering ourselves in beer before going on to celebrate at a local pub. By Monday, back in his suit trousers, it was like the match had never happened. Funnily enough we haven’t spoken of it since.
My friends’ hobbies are private affairs – you wouldn’t know about them from social media. And discovering they even exist at all has often been accidental, through a friend or mentioned casually in conversation. A talent unmonetised, untethered to a “personal brand”, and nurtured quietly for personal pleasure: an alien concept for many of us creative hustlers.
The word “hobby” originated in the 15th century to refer to a small horse that could be used to “amble”. Around this time the toy “hobby horse” was created, a stick children could gallop on pretending to ride. The word then became attached to activities that were seen as silly or pointless. But in the 19th century, with the rise of the middle class and the increase in “leisure time” thanks to the Industrial revolution, the idea of finding value in activities once considered “frivolous” became fashionable.
In 1938, author William Howitt predicted that a ‘leisure revolution’ would soon hit Britain, and sure enough, the middle-classes went mad for everything from amateur botany (specifically, "ferning", which became so popular historian Charles Kingsley coined the term pteridomania, or fern madness) to the more macabre pursuits of post-mortem photography and taxidermy. (Yes, the Victorians actually took family portraits of their dead, dressed-up children). When the Great Depression hit America, hobbies were encouraged to help fulfil idle hours, and after the war the hobby became a means of boosting morale.
Growing up, I saw hobbies as something “grown-ups” did because they didn't have friends to play with: stamp collecting, bird-watching, knitting, life-drawing. Then at university, time was feverishly, militantly, split into work and play. (In fact, perversely, my university tutor actively discouraged one friend from playing netball and stopped me from babysitting, so obsessive she was about preserving our academic energy, though she soon realised we were dispensing most of it in the pub).
Then in the first half of my twenties, happily squashed between housemates, spending sleepless nights desperately trying to get a promotion or running around Soho, there wasn't much time for the extracurricular. As our late twenties crept up on us, along with the two-day hangover and a sense of existential dread, the odd weekend would involve an emergency "wholesome" activity – a pottery class, at-home candle making, or, usually, frantic WhatsApp efforts to create a bookclub (which never happened).
In lockdown, it seemed like the middle-class collectively took up one single hobby and turned into parody: baking banana bread and posting it on Instagram. But privately, friends and strangers were pursuing nicher interests. For instance, in this very charming New Yorker article a writer talks about the sense of calm brought on by drawing pictures of their dishrack – of which they now have thousands of drawings.
My sister began painting brightly coloured still-lifes and gifting them to friends and family for house-warmings or birthdays. Another friend started embroidering handkerchiefs and T-Shirts with animals and fruit that represented her friends. She was so good I kept trying to encourage her to start an Etsy shop and sell them, but she refused, saying it would take the pleasure out of it.
At the time, I thought she was wasting an opportunity. But looking back now, having read a flurry of headlines about how “the side hustle has killed the hobby”, I’m glad she ignored me. Last year The Atlantic published an article headlined, “Stop Keeping Score”, about how our obsession with tracking and posting our achievements online for external validation was getting in the way of happiness. “Extrinsic rewards can actually extinguish intrinsic rewards, leading us to enjoy our activities less.”
Recently, I accidentally joined a ballet class (thinking it was a regular barre class), and for several weeks felt thrilled to be doing something totally new – something I was so naturally terrible at that there was no way I could see it as anything but frivolous. The other attendees were old women in their forties and fifties, all much more talented than I was, and the instructor had us practise a routine, every week, that at the end of the “term” she would film. I’d like to say I kept at it, but sadly I stopped going after a couple of months after too many missed classes made me feel too mortified to return.
But this week I’ve decided to go back. And that book I was reading? It was brilliant – but maybe I don't need to write about it.
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This week in links
I’ve been commissioning this very fun piece by Ralph Jones about Lindsay Lohan’s enigmatic, and slightly bonkers, acting coach Bernard Hiller, who she worked with for her Christmas comeback, Falling for Christmas, on Netflix this week (I’ve heard it’s, unsurprisingly, terrible). He thinks everybody should take up acting classes, that we all deserve an Academy Award simply for “living”, and that single people can’t act.
I’ve been writing about Matthew Perry’s harrowing memoir, Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing, which chronicles his life-long abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs, and how he almost died after falling into a coma with a 2 per cent chance of making it through the night. Despite this, the memoir is actually rather funny (if a little too Chandler in tone), and contains plenty of juicy nuggets about his showbiz career, including dating – and dumping – Julia Roberts.
I’ve been watching The Playlist on Netflix. It’s a six-part drama about the rise of Spotify, with each episode told from the perspective of a vital cog in Spotify’s original machine, from its main coder to its lawyer. It begins with founder Daniel Ek, who was once a bored and unfulfilled coder from Stockholm who had just been rejected from a job at Google. He then made $10m by building an ads listing website, before investing in Spotify. It’s a fascinating look at one of the music industry’s most powerful men, but I was unnerved by The Playlist’s creators admitting they fictionalised certain elements of Ek’s life and personality, simply because “not much is known about him”. Put it this way: he doesn’t come across well.
I’ve been listening to the French-Cuban twins who make mystical, multi-lingual art-pop under the name Ibeyi (which means twins in Yoruba), and who, according to this week’s Telegraph review, sing “as if joined by an electric current”. Listen to their song River.
I’ve been reading Jo Elvin’s piece about all the times she’s cried at work, over on her excellent Substack My Goodness, which I read religiously. I am one of those people who, frustratingly, cries at everything: when I’m angry, overwhelmed, happy and sad. Which means I am basically crying all the time. But, like Jo, I also believe that crying is usually a good thing: it means your foot has come off the pedal and you’re processing emotion. I remember when I started a new job and saw a very senior woman crying freely in front of her mostly male, more junior team, without any sense of embarrassment. Far from a sign of weakness, I saw her refusal to apologise for her moment of frustration and vulnerability as a sign of strength and self-confidence, and was hugely inspired.
I can’t stop thinking about the pumpkin sitting on my kitchen window ledge. Having bought it with the small hope of carving it for Halloween, I then put it by the window, determined to make a pie. I screenshotted the recipe and, having since deleted the screenshot in a manic springclean of my iPhone, every day after work I remember to buy just one single ingredient: the cream, the caster sugar, the nutmeg. Now only the frozen pie crusts remain. And as each day inches us further into November, and I arrive home without the pie crusts, the pumpkin gets smaller and angrier.