The many faces this blog has already taken on are perhaps some testament to my peripatetic nature. I’ll pick up a new hobby, do it like a crazy person for about six months, then get all demoralised about the fact that it’s not a career, and I therefore prefer to stop doing it rather than not be able to dedicate my whole life to it. If I can’t be the best I can be, I won’t do it at all – which is pretty stupid.
The whole idea of dedicating time to an activity that has no goal except the pleasure of performing it is anathema to our performance-based society. If you are passionate about something, it has to have an aim. You can’t do it for its own sake, because people will start drawing unfavourable conclusions about your personality. If you’ve no interest in pushing yourself forward, you must be a very complacent person. The Mr Bennett of modern life, sitting in his library and letting life happen; a throwback to a bygone age, in which a degree in Philosophy was viewed as an achievement, not an excuse for drinking all afternoon.
People have hobbies because they are trying to prove their ambitions are greater and more varied than office politics. Maybe they are just proving it to themselves, but at any rate the people I know who get obsessed with time consuming hobbies seem disappointed with other aspects of their lives – as indeed I am. The hobbies I get really obsessed with are ones that combine the outdoors, and difficult skills that only ever result in fleeting moments of mastery. Succeeding seems like the ultimate freedom from the cares of the world.
My longest-lasting obsession so far was rowing, which I did for nearly four years at university, and it took over my life. I would be up at 5 am to cycle to the river, get on the water for 6 am (bit of boat/kit faff included), off the water for 8.30 and cycle back to just make a 9 am lecture – except that being an arts student, I usually skipped the lectures and went back to bed, in order to have enough energy left for a 5 pm training session in the college gym. I stuck to that schedule 6 days a week for the eight weeks of each term, and then usually slacked off during holidays because I was busy waitressing or working in factories or whatever other totally unconstructive way I earnt money.
In the end I was pretty good at rowing, won quite a lot of races, made a lot of good friends, and have abiding memories of sheer joy at being out on the water, loving the feeling of strength and freedom in the water. There was one early morning in particular that stood out, that one completely perfect moment that made all the missed academic work, and all the pain worthwhile. Racing was never really worthwhile, not even winning – you just raced because it was the only way you’d ever be strong enough to get to those moments of perfection. It was extremely cold, there was mist over the fields at Godstow (a small village near Oxford), and it rose off the surface of the still-dark water, giving the scene a rather forbidding air. The geese by the side of the river were slowly waking up. I have some idea that I was in the front of the boat – unusually, since I was mostly bow. We were doing one of many set-pieces that are intended to build up stamina and are used a lot to try out different race plans. After two short strokes (called “draws”), three longer strokes (which I think in our race plan we called “build”), we were supposed to lengthen for five strokes, focussing on pushing through the water in perfect time with each other all the way through the stroke, before moving into regular race pace and hopefully maintaining the harmony. That particular morning was only the second time we had practiced that plan. As we moved into the last of the lengthening strokes, I could feel the way the boat was moving completely smoothly through the water. There was none of the jolting that happens if the stroke pair (i.e. me and the girl in front of me) place their oars very slightly earlier than everyone else, and none of the untidy tipping from side to side that happens if people do not complete the stroke and move the oar at exactly the same height. The water was rippling past us in a clean cut, as we gathered increasing pace with every stroke. I felt as if I was merging into everyone else, and had that confusing impression that the back of the girl in front of me was actually my back, as I mirrored her movements down to the tap of the elbow and flick of the wrist that completes each stroke. It only lasted perhaps another ten strokes until someone presumably messed up a stroke, but it in many ways the best moment of my life, with the possible exception of a five-minute stretch halfway up Kilimanjaro. The feeling of completeness is hard to describe in both cases. When rowing, I was at one with the water and my crew. When walking at altitude, I was probably on an oxygen-starved high that combined with just the right amount of fear.
When I started working in London, it was clear that it’s not possible to hold down a regular job, and get into any decent rowing team, so I’ve not set foot in an Empacher since (not that our club stretched to quite such fancy boats).
In 2007 I picked up running again, after four years of doing no exercise at all. After a lot of time spent in the gym, was fit enough to start entering easy 5k races, progressing to 10k cross country quite quickly. It never seems like a hobby though, since it’s mainly an overall means to better fitness. I also turned 30, and perhaps that is when I really started casting around for things to do that would stave off what I viewed as inexorable senescence. Skipping over a rather obsessive period in 2008, when all I thought about was nutrition, in 2009 I booked a trip with friends to Kilimanjaro, which started me on the whole idea of hiking and climbing – and the total inability to walk past an outdoor shop without going in and buying something that might come in useful one day, but spends most of its time in the bottom of a kit bag.
In 2010, I started another new job, went up Kilimanjaro, went to India for the weekend for a friend’s wedding, did a creative writing course (clearly not very successfully), and went for a beginner’s climbing course at the Castle sometime over the summer. My sister had taken me a few times and she seemed keen for me to learn. Initially, it was something I did when I got around to it, and not even with any particular enthusiasm. Since it takes a fair amount of organisation (getting the equipment together and persuading someone else to belay you), I didn’t do it more than once a week at most. I joined the climbing club at work, but then became preoccupied with the new bike I had bought. In September I broke my wrist when I fell off it going down Holland Park. This put a stop to all activity for six weeks, and I mainly sat around in orthopaedic consultant’s waiting rooms, and then in a physio’s waiting room, feeling very sorry for myself.
The moment of the accident was the first time I have felt like I was staring death in the face, and it seems to have kicked the developing “live while you can” concept into overdrive. All I want to do is be outside, doing stuff – any stuff, really, but the more walking, swimming, cycling or climbing it involves, the better. I am almost desperate to see all the remote landscapes the world has to offer before I die. Preferably mountainous ones, but wide plains, beaches and forests are too easily dismissed.
My trip to the Pilbara desert in Western Australia in December gave me a huge desire to be better at everything to do with navigating harsh, inhospitable terrain. It was a pretty easy trip, apart from the heat. As we wandered through the huge red gorges of iron ore, I wanted more than anything to climb up to the top of the gorges, rather than just splash about in the water at the bottom – although that was pretty fun, given it was mostly 46 degrees. Australia being as rule-bound as it is, canyoning would have entailed a pretty complicated process of obtaining a licence from the national park authorities.
So now my whole life is being taken over by climbing; I don’t want to spend too long in the shower because it’ll soften my hands and increase the peeling of the hardened skin I need; I keep looking for information online on how to improve, and in particular want to know whether really good female climbers have ever had the kind of fear of falling that stops me from progressing along a route.
One day, I want to get to the top of something really, really hard, and I will not stop trying until I’ve at least attempted it. Maybe I’ll then switch over to more mountaineering. Mont Blanc, Mount Toubkal, Mera Peak, Island Peak, Cho Oyu, Ama Dhablam, Mt Mckinley, Aconcagua, they are all doable, and don’t require quite so much focus on weight. I have spent too much time in my life making far too little effort. I don’t want to die wondering what I could have done.
- The Climb (esquire.com)
- Kilimanjaro Diaries – Nairobi, Kenya (travelpod.com)
- Boat Race 2011: Genuinely extraordinary race – at least for Oxford stroke Simon Hislop (telegraph.co.uk)
- When Should a Hobby Remain a Hobby? (thesimpledollar.com)
- Row, Row, Row Your Boat (tomatopips.wordpress.com)