It was when the doctor suggested I carry an EpiPen in case I went into anaphylactic shock that I began to ponder the obsessive nature of hobbies. I had never thought beekeeping would come into the category of daredevil activities. Hang-gliding, perhaps, or scuba diving, but not pottering around in my garden. However, my love of bees is so strong that, although stings can swell in an alarming way, I am reluctant to give up my hives. I’m not alone: a friend of mine who had to stab himself in the thigh with an EpiPen now has four hives.
These magnificent obsessions seem to increase with middle age. I often wonder what my 18-year-old self would make of my bedside table. Beside the novels (that hasn’t changed), the political biographies (gathering dust) and beekeeping magazines, there are three huge bibles of baking. Cooking has always been a passion of mine, but I have now been swept along by the new mania for cake making.
Over the years, I have tried to channel my inner Mary Berry, but with limited success. My ganache has separated, my sponges have sunk and my meringues result in large dentistry bills. My friend Lizzy, a domestic goddess, agreed to teach me to make a tart, but, back home, as my pastry shrank and crumbled, I realised I would need remedial crimping lessons.
As for piping icing, I realised we were in trouble when, mid swirl, the saintly Lizzy asked: ‘Are you sure you’re right-handed?’ That reminded me of an old family joke about my father’s time in the army. During some training in Morse code, he attempted to send a message. The sergeant’s reply was: ‘Use the other foot.’
Even my mother hasn’t been able to help me. Recently, in her kitchen, I attempted a Victoria sponge. When we checked the oven after 25 minutes, there were two eggy volcanoes; I had used the wrong quantities and plain instead of self-raising flour. But I refuse to give up, and my cupboards are filling up with new tins and meas-uring spoons. Because that’s the other attraction of a hobby-the kit (evoking another army expression: all the gear and no idea).
For men, cycling seems to bring out the same level of compulsion. The nickname mamal-Middle-
Aged Man in Lycra-may be a bit cruel, but it’s based in fact. We once had an editor who, wearing the tightest of Lycra shorts, would insist on long editorial meetings as we averted our gaze.
My other half, thankfully, has eschewed the body-clinging outfits, but shows an Imelda Marcos tendency when it comes to buying bikes. He’s up to eight now, including one I’ve dubbed Too Good To Ride. This gold racing bike seems to exist purely so he can lift it with one finger to show off the lightness of the frame.
Cycling is certainly in fashion with politicians, although they must live in fear of being caught jumping a red light or having a row with police officers. Many are keen to talk about their hobbies to prove that they have a life outside Westminster. Ken Clarke and Michael Portillo are keen birdwatchers, which is fairly safe, but others can be tricky. Ed Balls was foolish enough to mention that he had passed his Grade 1 piano, so, at an LBC interview on the economy, he was presented with a keyboard and forced to play one of his exam pieces. His painful efforts made the evening news.
I’m now fascinated by people’s secret hobbies. On a train, I sat next to a colleague, a man res-
pected for his acute political analysis, who played Grand Theft Auto on his laptop, relishing pounding people to death with a baseball bat-in a virtual way the whole trip. My hairdresser has confessed his love of gilding candlesticks. But you do have to tread carefully. When I said to my husband that I might write about his hobby of watching Chelsea play, his look of horror was comical.
‘Hobby?’ he roared in the tones Lady Bracknell reserved for handbags. I should have known better. This is a man who puts a football scarf around the television set to watch Chelsea away games.
Carla Carlisle is away
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