In a sweet spot

A celebration of the glorious world of observation hobbies.

What an absolutely delightful video!

Why do people love plane, train and bird spotting? This was the question posed by the BBC’s The Why Factor podcast. The topic has come up in my classes and students tend to be baffled. A case in point is trainspotting. The first confusion arises with the Danny Boyle film. Once we get past that, they really do struggle to get the idea why people would go to a station to watch trains and record the number of each railway engine you see.

One thing I learned from the podcast was that this hobby is not confined to the UK. In Japan trainspotters are called tori-tetsu. The Washington Post had a fascinating feature on the country’s vibrant trainspotting subcultures. There is one enthusiast who has devoured 660 volumes of train timetable books dating back nearly four decades. He uses the latest one to plan imaginary journeys. The article describes the different subcultures:

…But there are also nori-tetsu, people who enjoy travelling on trains; yomi-tetsu, those who love to read about trains, especially train schedules; oto-tetsu, the people who record the sound of trains; sharyo-tetsu, fans of train design; eki-tetsu, people who study stations; and even ekiben-tetsu, aficionados of the exquisite bento lunchboxes sold at stations.

And that’s not even getting into the subcultures of experts on train wiring, the geeks who intercept train radio signals or the would-be conductors.

 It’s not just planes, trains, and birds that people like to behold. Humans are fascinated by the natural built worlds, and actively seek out buses, butterflies, canals, football grounds, storms or even whales. These types of pastime are known as observation hobbies.  Wikipedia has 16 separate pages in this category.

In the programme we hear about Noel Marsh-Giddings, who has a YouTube channel called InflightVideo, where he shares full length flight videos:

Every moment of the flight included from terminal to terminal making this the world’s longest aviation video – so sit back, relax and enjoy the longest flight in the world!

Alas, the 18-hour video didn’t work on my computer and I was deprived of the pleasure.

One famous case is that of the British plane spotters arrested in Greece. There were in fact 12 Brits, as well as two from Holland. Eight of them were found guilty of espionage and sentenced to three years in jail. The rest were convicted of aiding and abetting and received a one-year suspended sentence. Finally they were able to get their convictions overturned. You can hear their account of their ordeal in an interview they gave to the BBC. If there was ever a case of cultural misunderstanding, this was surely it; plane-spotting was almost unheard of in Greece

What motivates people to engage in such activities? The first thing is to say that the devotees are heterogeneous. Observation hobby covers a multitude of sins. It is all too easy to fall into stereotypes. In the programme they talked about an interest in quantification. They went on to mention obsessionality, perfectionism and a preference for systems. It has echoes of the work of world authority on autism, Simon Baron-Cohen, cousin of Sacha. In his book The Essential Difference Baron-Cohen posits that in general, men are better at systematizing (analysing and exploring systems and rules) while women are better at empathizing (identifying with other people’s feelings).

Personally, I don’t want to pathologise these activities. If it is something that gives you pleasure, what’s the problem? There is no doubt that at the extreme end they can be harmful. It should never be the organising principle of your life. There can be the danger of going overboard. In particular the quantification element can mean you have to see and log everything. What I did notice from the podcast is that many of the hobbyists spent larger amounts of money. Then again, if they can afford it, it’s your business.

I do think it is good to be passionate about something. And I can listen to someone talking about anything if they can transmit their enthusiasm. There is also value in celebrating the mundane. That’s why I love the BBC’s Boring Talks podcast. So, let’s celebrate these hobbies. If it’s what floats your boat, why not?  It gets you out of the house. These days we all have so much stuff, many of us are looking for images and memories. What’s more you can become an expert in your field.

I will finish with an example – Lester Drake’s Football Pirate is a Facebook page where you can you can see give photo accounts of a fan’s footballing adventures in Spain, England and beyond. It is not just about football – it’s a window onto the world.  I love looking at the photos of obscure football grounds. I celebrate those people who get enjoyment out of life in unexpected places. There is surely enough misery around already.

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