‘When a man gives himself up to the government of a ruling passion,’ wrote Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy, “ — or in other words, when his Hobby-Horse grows headstrong — farewell cool reason and fair discretion!”
These cautionary words on the dangers of hobbies were reaffirmed recently, when a Swedish man was arrested for indulging in his rather singular pastime — he was trying to start a nuclear reaction in his kitchen. Richard Handl said he just wanted “to see if it was possible to split atoms at home”.
To that end he had gathered up small stores of radioactive material; his regularly updated blog contains a photogra-ph of the ‘meltdown’ he created on his hob when, as he puts it: “I tried to cook Americium, Radium and Beryllium in 96% sulphuric acid, to easier get them blended. But the whole thing exploded up in the air.”
In a rare moment of cool reason and fair discretion, Handl rang up the Swedish Radiation Authority to check if his project was illegal. Shortly afterwards, the police turned up.
Traditionally, hobbies are meant to keep you out of trouble, to make harmless work for idle hands, but sometimes odd pastimes have undesirable outcomes. That’s what happened 10 years ago, when a group of British plane spotters were arrested at a Greek air base and charged with espionage.
Their case wasn’t helped by the fact that the Greek authorities found it hard to believe that plane spotting was an actual hobby.
Then again, great things may come from strange and private passions. Many 19th-century scientists and inventors were essentially hobbyists — ‘scientist’ wasn’t really a job in those days.
How much of Charles Darwin’s work — a lifetime of collecting, cataloguing and obsessing — would be dismissed as a pointless hobby if it were applied to some less well-directed end?
Is it the object of one’s obsession that makes a hobby weird, or the relentless way one pursues it? Perhaps the best way to judge if your hobby is weird is to ask yourself whether you’d feel comfortable listing it in the ‘other interests’ in your resume.
There is, of course, something perversely noble in a truly original hobby, in a single-minded devotion to something that no one else is remotely interested in.
Nothing is more irritating that when an unattractive hobby — playing the ukulele, say, or arson — becomes fashionable.
The great trick in life, of course, is to make your hobby your job, but even in those rare cases another hobby will often rise up to claim your free time. I speak as someone who is lucky enough to write for a living, and I’m sitting here in front of my computer with a banjo on my knee.