Monday, August 23, 2021


  I have a hobby, one which is hard to define, and seems difficult to explain. Its core is doing things on a whim, to pick a place almost at random, almost with no planning, and with freedom to do so, allows me to venture to a suburb, a village, a town centre, somewhere unknown, somewhere new, with fresh-eyes watching the new surroundings in a role positioned between an off-brand Poundshop version of Louis Theroux and a local government inspector tasked with photographing the least connected, most disparate travel guide in existence. My hobby is, on the face of it, the hobby of travel. "On a whim" is its guiding principle, and beyond Google Maps, there is no true guide to where I go, and what I do.

Except that is inaccurate. For over a decade now I have groundhopped, picking different venues almost every week to visit to watch, broadly defined, semi-pro or amateur football games. Football is not the core reason for travelling. I have no football brain, no innate ability to discuss tactics, dissect goals, suggest who should play instead of a star player, an injured alternative, or a new signing. My football brain is a narrow, shallow channel of selected highlights, woven together within a hyperactive montage of otherwise long-forgotten moments. For over a decade, at mostly amateur and semi-pro level, my memory has only known the non-league game, and perhaps has known to avoid remembering every last second, for the game at non-league level has far less intrinsic value, far less of a lasting legacy, that to remember everything would be to waste precious resources. 

Except that is inaccurate. I do remember when a decent ball was squared into the box and fired at the 'keeper, and can see a fuzzy green-grey memory somewhere of this, but the details are hazy, the specifics lost to time. It is one moment, innocuous and work-a-day, something that happens at every match, at every level, at every pitch, ground, and stadium, at every place where football is played. I can recall that hazy, fuzzy, half-forgotten pencil sketch of a memory, and can recall other fragments of time in similar ways:  a memory drawn by distance which could have been at Lancaster, or Dulwich, or Rhyl, or Bootle, or Southport, or Preston, or Armthorpe Welfare, or FC United of Manchester, or Wembley FC. What I know with more accuracy, with more certainty, is how easy it has been to pick a place, to find somewhere new, to take a train with barely any fuss or faff, to make new memories of stadia, grounds, pitches, fenced-off parks, and to turn each one in time into anecdote, into hazy memory, into a story, for later use. 

For we should, as a population, be more proud of the ability to walk into a railway station, pick a place to travel, and cost notwithstanding, visit that place without much in the way of barrier or restriction. The cost of UK rail travel is preposterous, a pornographic celebration of profit over personal freedom, with prices apparently chosen on their own whim, for their own narrow, shallow reasoning. We should, could, ought to be proud, of how boarding a train is so easy, picking a destination is so easy, travelling is so easy. 

Except that is inaccurate. People of a certain political persuasion are no fans of the freedom to travel, the ability to follow one's "whim". Hobbies are difficult to justify to these people, who see no intrinsic value, who see no profit, who see no end point, in the ability to switch off the 'work mode', and turn on the 'holiday mode'. Hundreds of years ago, before our own births, our parents' births, even our grandparents', the otherwise anonymous marks on the map of English coastal towns grew into destinations, into resorts, into end points on maps, where nascent railway companies provided for places to alight, places to visit, places to turn hard-fought workers' rights into the freedom to make tonnes of money. People of a certain political persuasion could argue no more, rehash no more losing arguments, trying to win back what they had lost, as workers were finally given the freedom to take leave, the freedom to have holidays, and weekends, and journeys beyond their immediate surroundings. The right to not work was created, and has been retained, and remains today.

Except that is inaccurate. The freedom to...and freedom from...we enjoy has always been fragile, and hard-fought, and hard to fight for, and easily restricted and difficult to lock-in, to secure, to retain. Hobbies make no sense to people of a certain political persuasion. If your day out turns no profit, makes no personal financial gain, what was it for? If your visit to a town leaves you out of pocket, leaves you scrabbling for loose change, leaves you with only memories, fading, fuzzy, half-remembered, couched in anecdote, you have surely been of no intrinsic financial value to capitalism, and have wasted time, effort, and money. Hobbies, the mere act of setting out without the intention to make money, only spend it, causes these people to wrinkle their nose. 

My hobby is not centred on football. It is not really centred on travel, either. It is centred on curiosity, perhaps. The will of human nature to explore, to adventure, to wander. To take a train beyond my immediate postcode area to visit the country, to ostensibly focus on watching amateur football, in a makeshift, tumbledown 'ground', or in a field behind a leisure centre, or wherever it may be, and before watching the match, there would be a cafe somewhere near the railway station, where I have never met the owner, who has never met me, and will never again. And somewhere near that cafe will be a pub, where I may drink something I've never had before, and will never again. And after one pint, because timetables are tricksy mistresses, I may board a bus I've never boarded before, and had to focus on Google Maps, to check a blue-blob avatar of me on the bus, to follow streets I've never seen before, on a route I'll never use again, at least not in the same direction. 

This combination of pieces of my attempt at a pyschogeographic jigsaw could easily be dismissed, pushed off the table, disallowed, discontinued, by the attitudes of people of a certain political persuasion, who dislike the freedom to spend time away from the office, away from the factory, away from the garage, the supermarket, the ward, the wherever we may work, those of us who have to scramble for leave requests, holiday booking forms, clumsy in-house websites with clunky calendars, or badly designed apps, or carbon copy paper with counter-signatures. Travel is not accepted, universally, as something workers and the working class should enjoy as a right, as a freedom a freedom to...It is fragile, as all workers' rights tend to be, as all workers' rights have ever been. Travel was not supposed to be for the masses, in their packages, in their millions, in their endless countless sprawling crowds, with the freedom to take time off work, to relax, to switch-off, to disconnect. 

I have a hobby. It requires taking a train (mostly) and a bus (sometimes) to unfamiliar towns, suburbs, villages, to get to a stadium (rarely), a ground (mostly), a field (sometimes), to watch football, mostly amateur, often semi-pro. It has taken me, on a whim, to Burnley, and to Wembley, and to Dulwich, and to Berlin, and to the fringes of the city of Glasgow, and to the Cumbrian coast, and it's taken me to Llay on the outskirts of Wrexham, and to Kinmel Bay adjacent to Rhyl, and to Denbigh and Mold, and to Bamber Bridge in the Lancastrian commuter belt, and to Aintree to watch Bootle, and to the outskirts of Bradford for FA Cup Qualifiers, and to Hemsworth for an "international" game between Yorkshire and the Isle of Man, and it has taken me to Rochdale, Oldham, and Blackpool, and may yet take me further, and beyond, and closer to home, and unknown places yet to appear as possibilities and opportunities and chances. 

I have a hobby which exists only because of my personal freedom to....and freedom from...and because, so far, touch wood, people of a certain political and economic persuasion, people of a certain world-view, of a particular attitude, allow such whims to be entertained, permitted, conducted. My hobby has no intrinsic financial or economic value, other than the amount of money I hand over to the railways, and to non-league sides, and to pubs, and to cafes, and to newsagents, and over and over, and on and on, and such and such. A net loss, every weekend, a net loss only to me, and me alone. The freedom is mine, and it is fragile, and is at the whim of those above me, those beyond my pay-scale, those beyond the ballot box, those who decide, and choose, and consider the bottom line, which is this blog's bottom line, which is where this journey ends.