Four unusual hobbies

A while ago, over a period of a few months, I happened to come across a whole set of activities which are quite different from the normal day to day of society. It’s difficult to describe what they have in common, so I’ll tell you about them first, and try to explain it after.

  1. Urban Exploring

    Spelunking is historically done in natural caves, but those all seem a bit prissy and green to these modern city people. Instead they break into ruined hospitals, brave university steam tunnels, explore abandoned sea forts and numerous other places.

    Most have a law abiding ethic – trespass is the only crime they commit. Instead they look after the places that they go. Learn about them and document their history. Take only photos, leave only footprints. People all over the world self-organise and do this. Slightly illegal, slightly dangerous, but fun, new, real.

  2. Space Hijackers

    These “anarchitects” came to fame in 1999 with their Circle Line Party. It looked like an ordinary tube train, but between each station 150 normal looking commuters suddenly burst into life – sound systems, disco lights, refreshments and dancing – only to go quiet again at the next stop.

    They’re organised, with a secret mailing list and forum, and I like to imagine there’s an artist’s studio where they hang out somewhere in East London to hatch plots and build radio-jamming two piece suits. There’s a new Singapore branch, trying not to let the wait until 2010 for the Singapore Circle Line to be built hold them back from other projects.

    Not sure exactly what they do yet? See if you can learn to Spot the Hijackers.

  3. Confluencing

    These guys have arbitarily picked some random points on the earth (those with exact integral longitude and latitude) and are collaboratively visiting all of them, taking photos facing north, south, east and west. Scroll round the huge worldwide map for the results.

    This may seem a bit fluffy after urban spelunking and space hijacking, but rest assured if you pick the right points you can fall out with border guards and have to work out a way to enter a military base (they were only allowed to photograph facing north-east).

    Confluencing reminds us that here are lots of spaces in the world in between the tourist attractions, and our normal daily routine.

  4. Guerilla Gardening

    So, what you do is you enter somebody else’s property without their permission, and plant seeds. Maybe put daffodils in an unloved corner owned by the electricity company, or turn a dis-used lot into an allotment for the year. For bonus points come back again and again to water and prune your plants, or to defend them against slugs and to eat your harvest.

    This is great, because although it is illegal, it is indisputably good. It subverts property rights (by questioning your right to own land you do not tend) and makes the world prettier at the same time. So much so, that this year it’s gained enough mass media coverage to be in danger of stopping being hip. But heck, if it takes Richard and Judy to get advertising account planners to illegally water lavender in their hundreds, then I’m all for it.

So what’s the interesting link between all of those? Here are some things they have in common.

  • They’re all (at least partly or potentially) illegal, and yet they’re reasonable things to do. They’re in those edge spaces where the law has grabbed too much territory, where things which are fun and good and life affirming aren’t allowed.
  • They can be done by anyone, without a big central organisation. Sure, you have to be able to afford to buy the compost or the GPS device, but that’s about it.
  • There’s no commercial gain involved, no consuming of goods or services.
  • They reclaim space as public space. More and more of our land and world is controlled and limited. Property rights work and make sense, giving us private space. But excessive control of shared spaces impoverishes us all.

What other things can you think of that are like these four? (Answer in the comments below)

28 thoughts on “Four unusual hobbies

  1. Another one is those people who enter public art galleries and add works of art of their own. One particularly famous recent guy was the chap who put military hardware over a large beetle, mounted it in a case and put it in the New York Art Gallery I think? But I had a friend who knew some people who were working on vegetable based art that they were installing in art gallery toilets. Democratisation of valuation of art?!

  2. and one that’s much more in the spirit of your original postings, ‘BookCrossing’, which personally I think is really great:

    BookCrossing is defined as the practice of leaving a book in a public place to be picked up and read by others, who then do likewise. The idea is to release books into the “wild” to be found by other people, often strangers. The analogy is with the ornithological practice of ringing birds to track their movements.

  3. Not off hand like that but sure with some thought and contacting friends could come up with something. I suspect it’s something would have to produce a few ‘demo pages’, maybe a 1 page summary and then tout it – what do you think? Have a few others that spring to mind immediately without digging too deep, and sure others would come up. Again with some luck and playing on contacts would be great if could get coverage on BBC online or somewhere high visibility to solicit hobbies from others, so the book bit would essentially be the role of playing editor and writing up in an entertaining way.

    We have one going, the ‘Not the source of the Thames’ society. Inspired by the fact that not one of us knew the source of the thames one day, we decided to form a society to determine the source of the Thames. However instead of using conventional techniques the idea is to find it by a process of elimination (you’ve helped out on this quest Francis!) Having eliminated all geographical non-sources of the Thames, we will, by a process of elimination, know where the source of the Thames is.

    Quite a secretive bunch, the ‘Not the source of the Thames society’ have a website, but rather than give the URL, it’s probably better to provide a starting list of URLs that are _not_ their website, and then we leave it as an exercise to the reader to continue this list until they will locate the society webpage by a process of elimination.

  4. OK couldn’t let this lie -more to follow but will keep quietly collecting them here and who knows, maybe we can do something with them!

    Some ‘extreme sports’:

    Yak skiing –
    this “implausible extreme sport” involves going at rocket speed uphill attached by rope to a yak charging downhill.

    Base jumping is one that fits more legitimately with your initial criteria I think, jumping off things traditionally considered maybe too low to the ground (or too high) to be jumping off safely:

    A nice hobby that I think sprang up first on Dartmoor but has now gone international:
    Originally called letter boxing:

    This has kind of evolved into geocaching:

    Still the same idea though – people hiding small boxes at locations and leaving each other clues etc. Letter boxing is really fun – there’s a few pubs in Dartmoor you can go to and find guestbooks full of clues and puzzles leading you to different letterboxes, and of course once you find a letter box there’s normally a ‘guestbook’ with it that’ll contain pointers to others. You sometimes see patches sown onto people’s backpacks down that way if they’ve managed to collect so many hundred of the things.

    In fact, there’s lots of fun to be had tracking these different weird occupations around wikipedia – for example led to ‘phototag’ – is the original idea on which BookCrossing is based. The difference is that PhotoTag uses disposable cameras which are passed on to friends and strangers and then returned to the original releaser when the film is used up. The photos are then uploaded to the PhotoTag website.

    This one is fun too: Puzzlehunt

    A live puzzle game where teams compete to solve a series of puzzles in a site or multiple sites. Groups of puzzles are connected by a meta-puzzle, leading to answers which combine into a final set of solutions.

    (seems a bit more mainstream!)

  5. What about ‘flash mobs’? Kind of in the same spirit although potentially more edgy!

    A flash mob is a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, do something unusual for a brief period of time, and then quickly disperse. They are usually organized with the help of the Internet or other digital communications networks.

  6. Been meaning to add this one for a while – on the ‘urban exploring’ theme, there are some fantastic catacombs beneath paris, and all sorts of people who explore them – allegedly no complete maps available anywhere but partial maps passed on between people, secret entrances in people’s cellars, etc. All fantastic stuff, not least the cinema they discovered down there recently:,,1299444,00.html

  7. I need a hobby for a character in my crime novel – it adds depth of character. He is a mildly reclusive American living in LA. Not weird or “off the planet”. Collecting baseball would be too ordinary. I need one that is masculine, plausible and unusual. Any suggestions? Is there a list of hobbies somewhere?

  8. Obscurists are an international organisation devoted to being obscured by things, with competitions, awards, conventions they are even putting obscurism forward as an Olympic event.

  9. I once had the honor of meeting “the Orange Man” (a former philosophy professor who’d got beaten up and thereafter spoke slowly – at the rate of approximately one word per minute, allowing time for thought between words). His hobby (besides drinking gallons of carrot juice each day) was to surreptitiously plant orange tree saplings in regional parks and on other public lands, and to offer them, free of charge, to people who were leaving their churches on Sundays. I also had the priviledge of seeing his room. It was nearly wall-to-wall with orange tree seedling, with several bunches of saplings leaning against the walls, and a few avocado plants just beginning to grow – a side line, I presume. An early introduction to the world of unusual hobbies.

  10. Hi Francis,
    Thanks for sharing these unusual hobbies and starting an intriguing conversation that continued over the years. If you’re still into this theme, I invite you to have a look at the European Award for Lifelong Passions – a prize aimed at collecting and rewarding people who pursue unconventional hobbies (we call them passions). You can find a number of bizarre activities on our Facebook page – and of course, we’ll be very thankful for any contributions that come to your mind. Have a good read!

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