Leisure gets serious

Gifted amateurs who pursue a hobby to a professional standard are having an increasingly important influence on everyday life. James Burleigh and Tom Pettifor report on the revenge of the nerds
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The Independent Online

Amateur enthusiasts - for years derided as anoraks and trainspotters - are emerging as an important new social group whose skills could be in great demand in the future, a report to be published tomorrow says.

Amateur enthusiasts - for years derided as anoraks and trainspotters - are emerging as an important new social group whose skills could be in great demand in the future, a report to be published tomorrow says.

"Pro-Ams" - amateurs who pursue a hobby or pastime to a professional standard - are "a new social hybrid who force us to rethink the way we think about work and leisure time", according to the report from the independent think-tank Demos.

The report - The Pro-Am Revolution - claims this new breed of enthusiasts is involved in "serious leisure" which needs specialist knowledge and a major time commitment. As people live longer and enjoy an active retirement or downshift in the middle of their career to improve their quality of life, "serious leisure" will become a growing part of our lives, predict the report's authors, Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller.

Mr Leadbeater said: "Their activities blur the traditional definitions of professional and amateur."

The report cited hip-hop music and The Sims computer game, among others, as products which were driven by "innovative, committed and networked amateurs working to professional standards".

Another example cited was Linux, the computer operating system started in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, a computer student at Helsinki University. Mr Torvalds posted the source code for his new system on the internet and asked fellow software enthusiasts to criticise, propose improvements and modify it. The response was massive, with many getting involved because the spirit of problem-solving appealed so strongly. By 2004, about 20 million people around the world were using a version of Linux.

In what some might see as the ultimate revenge of the nerds, the report predicted that Pro-Ams "could have a huge influence on the shape of society in the next decade".

The report added that, as an increasing number of people have more time, money and inclination to find their own path to self-fulfilment, they will turn to Pro-Am activities.

It stated: "Knowledge, once held tightly by professionals and their institutions, will start to flow into networks of dedicated amateurs. The crude, all-or-nothing categories we use to carve up society - leisure versus work, professional versus amateur - will need to be rethought."

However, Frank Furedi, a sociology professor at Kent University , warned that any elision between work lives and hobbies could have a detrimental effect.

By formalising any hobby, he said, it loses precisely what was so appealing about it in the first place.

"By its very nature, a hobby is something to engage in wholeheartedly outside of the restrictive parameters of work - it is an escape from the controlled nature of the work environment," he said.

"To strike any balance between work and a hobby is very difficult because, by formalising a hobby into some sort of work framework, you would most likely lose what was so appealing about it in the first place."

The Pro-Am survey of 2,189 adults, conducted by Mori last June, revealed that Britain is a nation of committed enthusiasts.

When presented with 20 popular categories of hobby or pastime, more than half of regular participants in most categories said they had "good skills" and that figure rose beyond 75 per cent for some activities.

The survey suggested that 18 per cent of Britain's adult population are Pro-Am gardeners, 6 per cent are Pro-Am photographers and 2 per cent are alternative therapists.

Traditionally committed amateurs have made a significant contribution to society, from lifeboat crew to the Samaritans, but these new Pro-Ams are making an impact in less traditional disciplines, such as astronomy.

The report used the example of how the Pro-Am astronomers Ian Shelton, Albert Jones and Robert McNaught each provided crucial information which helped to broaden professional scientists' knowledge.

After they focused their telescopes on the Tarantula nebula on 23 February 1987, from as far apart as Chile and Australia, each of the trio independently provided data which helped professional astrophysicists prove a long-held theory into how stars explode.

The authors concluded that the Government should invest in hobbies as a way to build communities and suggested a programme for 16-21 year olds who want to spend a year on social Pro-Am activities, organised jointly by the Department for Education and Skills, Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Trade and Industry.

TOBY RADCLIFFE, City trader and amateur triathlete

Toby Radcliffe spends long hours in the office working for a City trading firm. But when he's not working he puts all his energy into training to be a Pro-Am triathlete.

As well as training for three hours every day, Mr Radcliffe travels around the UK and Europe to compete in triathlons. Next year he'll take part in Iron Man competitions involving 4km sea swims, 100km cycle rides and 40km runs. They include international competitions in Florida and Austria.

His friends have had to get used to him being "pretty brutal" with his social life so he can fit in the 20-odd hours of training a week.

On top of the cost of equipment ("a fortune" he says), there's specialist gym membership and travel to competitions.

The single 26-year-old Londoner said: "I started three years ago when I wanted something challenging to do. Now it takes up a lot of my spare time. I spend two hours a day in the gym and my holidays are taken up travelling to events around the world.

"I don't go out for drinks after work and get an hour in at the gym before I go in. I'm hoping to do well in the competitions next year."

ISABELLE TAYLOR, Accountant and yoga teacher

Isabelle Taylor, a former accountant, started yoga 16 years ago and now it is her life."I have done loads and loads of yoga over the years," she said. "When I first discovered it, I was doing so much I found it difficult to juggle with my job.

"I was cycling all over London, doing four classes a week, and all my holidays were yoga retreats. I would practise daily on my own. There wasn't much thought of doing anything else in my spare time, just yoga."

Now 41, Ms Taylor is among a growing band of people "downshifting" in mid-career. She now teaches the hobby she loves. "It was scary thinking of giving up my job and losing my salary but things just fell into place" Now she plans to open her own yoga retreat in Spain.

CLAIRE FALCON, Communications executive and amateur singer

Claire Falcon's passion for singing remained after she sang in her college choir at Cambridge.

She now sings for the London choir Vox Cordis, rehearsing as a group once a week, practising at home and giving ten public performances a year.

The choir is led by an underwriter who studied conducting at university and also includes the tenor Mark Wilde from the English National Opera.

They raise money for charity by performing across the country.

Ms Falcon, 29, who is married and runs her own communications business in Maida Vale, said: "It's not just about going along and singing some notes from a sheet. You have got to be musical and be able to interpret the music and sing properly.

"While at college I would practise three or four times a week and most people have sung in college choirs.

"After university I joined a choir in Cambridge but it wasn't well organised so I gave up on it.

"If you have been trained to sing in an university choir you have to sing in a similar kind of established group otherwise it's not rewarding. You have to put in the effort to get something out of it.

"I decided that if I was going to do it I would have to do it properly, and then I found Vox Cordis four years ago.

"We are totally amateur in the sense [that] we don't make any money out of singing."

BEN TUXWORTH, Charity manager and amateur builder

Ben Tuxworth has always been a dab hand at DIY, so when the chance presented itself, he and his wife, Wendy, set about doing what they'd always wanted - to build their own house.

"I didn't just want to do the kind of self-build where you hire someone else to do it for you. I wanted to get down and get muddy doing the stuff I love," said Mr Tuxworth.

His day job is as a senior manager at a sustainable development charity and his employers allowed him to take extra leave of six months so he could complete the project - a large ecologically sound family house on the outskirts of Cheltenham.

Mr Tuxworth, who has two children and describes himself as a practitioner of "advanced DIY", has built loft conversions and kitchens in previous family houses and continues with his hobby of making furniture. He said: "Building a house was something I've wanted to do for a while - almost a life-long ambition.

"I worked as a carpenter for a year but found it extremely hard to make a living. Despite becoming disheartened with the professional side, my love for DIY stayed with me and I continue to use my spare time building and fixing. I'm currently working on building a kitchen table out of timber left over."

ANDREW GREENWOOD, Graphic designer and amateur astronomer

By day Andrew Greenwood is a graphic designer for a small Macclesfield-based firm. But by night, Mr Greenwood, 31, is a Pro-Am astronomer and chairman of the Macclesfield Astronomical Society, which meets monthly.

His passion for astronomy has taken him all over the world, including to Turkey and South Africa chasing solar eclipses. He owns three telescopes and devotes three evenings a week to studying the night sky. He also updates the Macclesfield Astronomical Society website and lectures on the subject.

"Astrology is something I've been interested in since I was a child but I have been a serious astrologer for seven years," he said. "Because professional astronomers only have limited time available to use telescopes they rely on amateurs to provide them with accurate information."

Mr Greenwood and his fellow Pro-Am astronomers have been recognised as making a contribution to our understanding of the universe. A leading campaigner against light pollution, he recently submitted a report on the subject to a House of Commons committee. "I would love to be a professional astronomer but that requires a PhD and qualifications that I don't have. I'm just passionate about communicating how exciting astronomy is and I love doing it."


Angling: There are an estimated 3.3 million fishing enthusiasts who spend £3bn on tackle, licenses and bait annually.

Gardening: The Royal Horticultural Society has 350,000 members, but the 2002 Social Trends Survey revealed that 23 million people garden.

DIY: Some 21 million Britons spent a total of £5.3bn on DIY in 2002. There were 200,000 related injuries that year.

Astronomy: The British Astronomical Association has about 3,000 members with many local and regional societies.

Dan Frank