On One's Hobby Horse

4th October 2013

Clare Finney explores the unexpected difficulties encountered in trying to maintain a healthy work-life balance

One minute I was happily hammering out a passage of Debussy, the next I was subject to a hammering of a different kind: the kind that an angry downstairs neighbour makes by whacking a broom on the ceiling. I paused momentarily, and checked the score. “Well it can’t be my playing,” I shrugged, and picked up where I’d left off. The hammering intensified. I stopped. It stopped. Dismayed, I took the (rather forcible) hint. Bumping into my adversary in the corridor the next day, it was difficult to know which of us was the more embarrassed: being Englishwomen, we clearly weren’t prepared for open confrontation, and as I fell over myself to apologise – “I’m so sorry. Debussy is difficult. You should never have been subject to it…” – she was equally contrite: “I’m so sorry. But it was 6am.”

It was a valid point. My decision to return to the piano after nearly eight years – during which time I had left education and entered full time employment – had left me with two choices: practice before work, or after; and, given that the latter would entail a significant loss in pub time, I chose to renew my old school-habit of playing before.

Now, of course, 6am in a detached house in Northwood is not quite the same as 6am in a second-floor flat in central London. I’d heard that amateur pursuits could prove difficult in later life, but it wasn’t until my contretemps with the neighbour that I appreciated just how hard it would be. Hobbies, while often solitary pursuits, can nevertheless be hugely intrusively: no one wants to hear something they haven’t sought to hear, smell something they’re not ultimately eating or stumble across your muddy bike in the hallway. Even a beautiful end result doesn’t always mitigate its by-products: I have a friend whose talent with some oils and a canvas is inspiring – yet when all her housemates want is a cup that’s not been used to wash brushes in, it’s difficult for them to fully appreciate her still lives.

Another friend, a vet, tells me about her manager’s habit of arriving at the operating table straight from tinkering with his latest kit car, his hands smeared with petrol. Occasionally, there appears a stray spanner inside his veterinary coat pocket – a disconcerting spectacle for any pet owner, and positively terrifying when they’re male and all they’ve bought Charlie in for is ‘the snip’. “He could at least wash” she moans – but he’s immovable on this, and on the garage tools. If he’s to maintain a veterinary practice and complete his Mk11 GT40 he claims that some things are simply going to have to give.

This brings us to the most lethal of barriers to an amateur indulgence: time. It’s always an issue, but with hobbies it’s all the more pertinent because the activities are so easily axed. If you don’t work, you don’t get paid. If you don’t catch up on the latest episode of Girls you’ll be a social outcast. But if you skip piano practice? Well, you’ll just take longer to master Valse Romantique.

The decision is yours; but because it’s yours, not your parent’s or teacher’s, it requires willpower, something most 9-to-5’s obliterate. So-called self-help books suggest goal setting – yet when you’re grown up, you find that even goal posts can be moved. Helping a friend choose a wedding gift in Liberty’s the other day, she confessed, “I was going to paint them something – but you know what it’s like when you finish work, someone mentions The Shakespeare and by the time you get to the easel you’re not as sober as you might be…” “You end up with a Picasso and paint all over the dishes?” I suggested. “Precisely. Oh dear, how did you know?”

Time and space are limited, so you find some where there isn’t any. You make some time and space where you shouldn’t, and you intrude. Do people with good jobs and social lives have hobbies? To be honest, when I started to research this piece, I thought not. Then I googled, and found that, far from being the sole preserve of the mediocre, having an amateur pursuit was something many of the world’s most successful people swore by.

Designer Paul Smith is into photography – so much so that he’s recently started shooting his own ad campaigns. Claudia Schiffer collects and paints insects to focus her mind on detail. Amateur triathlete Jane Eggers (no, me neither – but she founded a major cruise website and is now vice-President of a major software provider) calls activities that require focus and discipline ‘forcers’ because they require smart time management, as well as being a healthy distraction from the daily grind. How do they do it? Once again, the answer came, not from self-help books, but from individuals such as these – and, as ever, from my mum.

“If you want something doing, ask a busy person” my mother regularly tells me – her point being that if you are in the habit of making time to do something, you always will. In her case, this comes from obsessive time-keeping: clocks could be set by her bedtime hour, reading hour, running hour and working hours. Yet what if you don’t want your every waking moment to be scheduled? What if you can’t plan the day’s events? What if, in fact your life is as erratic, unpredictable and intense as Alan Rusbridger’s?

An amateur pianist of several decades standing, Rusbridger is much better known as the editor of the Guardian. Yet when, earlier this year, he released a memoir about juggling the recession, the Arab Spring and the Levenson enquiry with learning Chopin’s 10-minute long Ballade in G minor, it sold in its thousands. Why? Because it proved to amateurs of all creeds that it could be done.

Rusbridger’s determination to master this most challenging score as well as a 24-hour news cycle led to many a hilarious moment: cue drunken duets with foreign secretaries and catching five minutes on the grand in a hotel in revolution-torn Tripoli. Yet, as he himself observed, “if you can [take up a musical instrument again] and edit a national newspaper, I’d be interested to know what your excuse [for not doing so] is.” His descriptions, in note-by-painstaking-note detail, of how he went about his goal – 20 minutes practice a day when he could grab it, interviews with professionals, and determination – are an inspiration; while the subtitle, ‘an amateur against the impossible’ speaks volumes about the futility of the amateur’s ambition, the title itself is a philosophy amateurs of all creeds can abide by: ‘Play it Again’.

In other words, keep trying. Just not at 6am.

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