What the recreations section of Who's Who reveals: From "general beard maintenance" to zymology

Simon Usborne finds out who prefers golf, sex and shopping

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The Independent Online

Fingertips crackled with journalistic potential yesterday as I looked up Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet in Who's Who in search of their lesser-known hobbies. After gardening, cycling and other anodyne pursuits, shadow Chancellor John McDonnell's notably lists "generally fermenting the overthrow of capitalism". As Jezza revealed his final appointments, what other unexploded biog bombs still lay buried between some of the dustier pages on The Independent's bookshelf?

Spoiler alert: none at all. Not even a low hum of intrigue. McDonnell's is the longest entry – he also likes a bit of dinghy sailing and football refereeing – but highlights among his new colleagues include chess (Angela Eagle) and fishing (Owen Smith). Yawning would go under my entry. Credit at least to Gloria De Piero for bringing some fun to the table with karaoke. She can organise the Christmas party if the Party survives until then.

Beyond the austere walls of Westminster Palace, however, a day spent browsing Who's Who and its 33,000-plus names is occasionally more entertaining. Since 1849, people deemed worthy of recognition have been invited to appear and sent a form requesting details of family, education, career and publications. The "recreation" category is for many respondents an invitation to add a bit of colour to their entries (others, including Corbyn himself, ignore it altogether).

Barry Humphries of Dame Edna fame lists "kissing, inventing Australia, painting beautifully", while the writer Tim Lott includes "navel gazing and fence sitting". Hugh Bonneville "enjoys getting cross about health and safety". Professor Martin McKee, a specialist in tropical medicine, likes "complaining about politicians, running through airports, damage control on daughters' credit cards" and the children's author Philip Ardagh enjoys "general beard maintenance". The actress and singer Ruthie Henshall replied: "I'm a mother of two small children – recreation, what's that?"

The Who's Who website allows all manner of filtering, revealing that the most popular recreation is golf, which features in more than 12,000 entries, followed by gardening, music, reading and walking. Notably in a book that still serves as an establishment Rolodex, the eighth most popular recreation is shooting. But it's when you reverse the order that things get interesting again. By number of mentions (one), and alphabetically, Kenneth Enderby, the late general manager of the Runcorn Development Corporation, has the most obscure hobby: zymology. That's the chemistry of fermentation, something John McDonnell might relate to (for the record: foment and ferment can be interchangeable in some uses, so step away, pedants).

A senior editor at Bloomsbury, which now publishes Who's Who, says that the team only queries entries under "recreation" if they spot factual errors. "It's going to be in the public domain so we don't want anything illegal, and I can't think of an example of anybody who has tried to include anything that shouldn't be there," the editor adds (confidentiality is a big deal at Who's Who, so she asked not to be named).

Sure enough, juvenile searching in the database draws mostly blanks. No "drugs" or "adultery" or "war crimes". A search for "vice" pulls up only Paul Latham, the chief operating officer at Live Nation, the global ticketing and music company. His recreations include "vice in Miami, punting ponies and Hooters and Tilted Kilts", two bosom-oriented restaurant chains (aka, breastaurants). Fancy!

Novel pastimes can be less surprising when you study the rest of the entry. Colin Divall lists "building Wimborne Station at 1/76th scale", which sounds niche until you note that he is a professor of railway studies at the University of York. Some of the older entries are most intriguing (when people die they are shuffled off to Who Was Who). Major General John Burton Forster, who died in 1938, enjoyed "big-game shooting in the Himalayas; accompanied by his wife, has shot even in Ladak and Western Tibet, where three empires meet; painting, yachting, ornamental turning".

Dead or alive, only three people list sex as a recreation. They are Richard Bellamy, a professor of political science, Professor Peter Goodfellow, a scientist (his entry: "Soccer, science, sex") and Julie Burchill, who lists only "sex and shopping". Choices are not fixed, happily, and entrants can amend their details in each edition. All eyes on McDonnell come December. His career section will be updated for him, assuming he's still shadow Chancellor, "but it will be interesting to see if anything else changes," the editor says.