No hobbies or interests: Where is the new generation of modelmakers and coin collectors? Traditional British pastimes are under threat, says Helen Fielding

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'FIVE years, six months in the making,' says the man in the anorak, '. . . 76,478 matches, each individually stained . . .' then - whump - a giant trainer appears from the sky and squashes his Empire State building.

It is an advertisement in cinemas for British Knights trainers, part of a series showing bizarre set-ups that would be considered 'naff, boring or irritating to 15-19-year-olds,' according to Nick Webb of Leagas Shaffron, who made the ad. 'Kids today want to be entertained. Our research showed the entertainment they enjoy is watching things get smashed.'

Not an obscure message, then. Hanging around in trainers is cool: hobbies are naff. Hobby, anorak, trainspotter, have all assumed derogatory connotations in trendy circles - 'sad', obsolete, out of tune with the times. To absorb smart media messages today, is to assume that the age of the hobby is gone. But of course it isn't. It's just that the world divides into those who do have hobbies and understand and those who don't. 'Favourite subject of occupation that is not one's main business' is the OED definition.

Collecting purely for financial gain doesn't count. A hobby has to have a built-in element of apparent pointlessness. It exists for its own sake. Collecting things, any things (air sickness bags, bits of barbed wire), doing jig-saws, joining societies (the Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) Appreciation Society, The Muzzle Loaders' Association), may be increasingly ridiculed, but as much a part of real life as ever.

'Thirty per cent of the population are willing to describe themselves as collectors,' says Susan Pearce, Professor of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester and currently completing a survey, 'Collecting in Contemporary Britain'.

Sales of Corgi Classics model cars have increased by 30 per cent in the last year. Argus specialist publications currently have 13 magazines for modellers on the market. Any newsagent bears witness to the continuing rash of special interest magazines - at least three for cross-stitchers alone. For the non-hobbyist the question is, why? Why train spotting? Sausages? Why matchsticks?

In a small upstairs room in south London, Reg Nash, 77, retired shoemaker, spends up to 10 hours a day making matchstick models: 'It's not the model itself. Once it's finished I've lost interest in it. It's to do with creating something and patience.' (Three months per model is the average.) 'It's in the genes. I suppose it's partly escape. And it's my way of saying I'm clever, I'm different.'

Modelling is for 'loners' he claims. But it doesn't have to be so. There's a whole modelling parallel universe out there - you can go to swop meetings, take the magazines, correspond. Len Wilson, designing matchstick model kits for 21 years, has a stash of letters and photographs from grateful customers. 'It's brought me so much pleasure . . . satisfaction . . . in such a nasty world.'

Dr Michael Argyle, author of The Psychology of Happiness understands. ''Happiness is caused by: one, satisfying work; two, satisfying leisure; three, a strongly supportive social network, and four, being extrovert and positive. The easiest one of these to do something about is finding satisfying leisure.'

Most people fall into a specific hobby by accident, he says. 'The usual reason is being invited to join in by a friend.'

Some years ago, Stephen Jarvis, bored with his life and job, decided to try out a different leisure pursuit every weekend and has since produced The Bizarre Leisure Book which is funny and full of insight into, for example, the man who leaves the video recorder on all day, just in case former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis should chance to appear.

'Time and time again I have been told of an event in childhood that sparks off a lifelong interest,' Jarvis writes. 'Obviously, though, there are also cases where a chance occurrence in later years, perhaps something as simple as looking down and seeing an object on the pavement - can start a fascination.'

He was thinking about Brick Collecting here, and the chap who, yes, got taken by a brick lying on the pavement and never looked back. But George Savage, who collects model cars, confirms the importance of nostalgia. 'It helps you relax if you link into things which are part of your childhood.'

Professor Pearce says: 'I can quite happily sit just looking at my collections. They define identity, areas of the home, relationships. My guess is that collecting hasn't altered much at all this century. It's a European and North American thing - because we have a deep seated relationship with the material world.'

Why do some people collect and not others? Is it in the genes? Is it a class thing? A gender thing? An age thing? 'Social class isn't what matters,' she has found. 'A, B and Cs collect in exactly the same way. Gender is important, but interestingly, although hobby magazines and markets suggest that men collect more than women, in fact they both appear to collect to the same degree but in different ways. Men have their objects separated and collected in a specific place, whereas women live with them and spread them around.'

But surely age and the technological revolution must be a factor? Although Professor Pearce maintains 'age affects the type of objects collected, not the collecting itself', the business end of the modelling and collecting world bemoans the competition from screens and buttons.

Argus Publications have been targeting schools with handouts, extolling the virtues of modelling as opposed to watching things being zapped. Corgi have recently introduced a new range of models aimed at teenagers. 'We're trying to shake off the anorak image,' says a spokesman. The National Philatelic Society has a constant, but ageing membership, with little new blood to take on the mantle. And as for matchstick modelling, Len Wilson says: 'We're not getting the younger people any more. We appeal to the library ticket people not the people who watch television.'

But there are rays of hope. Reg Nash recently hooked his grandson, Mark, 13, on a matchstick model of Big Ben. 'I don't talk about it that much at school,' says Mark. 'There are a lot more of the people who like to just sort of hang around in the evenings. But there's a separate group who like to spend time on their own and collect things and make things. I don't think I'm that unusual.'

Dr David Weeks, at Edinburgh University, maintains that there is a type who collects. 'They have a higher IQ, an initially rigid moral code, and active fantasy life, difficulty dealing with irony and satire and barbed humour. They're scrupulous, perfectionist, conscientious, inclined to be obsessional.'

'Nonsense,' says Professor Pearce. 'It's not a suitable subject for formal psychological analysis.'

Stephen Jarvis's view is that the technological revolution is not taking over, but spawning its own rash of hobby variations: the Narrow Bandwidth Television Association, the Test-card Circle, the Street Lamp Interference Data Exchange. 'Certain people will always see things that others don't see. There will be kids out there having an obsession formed at this very moment by something in a video game.'

No doubt in years to come, the British Knights Trainer Squashing the Matchstick Model Commercial Appreciation Society will be just one more group for the rest of the world to accuse of wearing anoraks.

(Photograph omitted)

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