Philip Hensher: I always knew that pottering was good for you

I welcome the justification of something which to those around me seems like total time-wasting

Tuesday 01 January 2008 01:00

You can drop all those wonderful new year's resolutions to go to the gym more often, to ride your bicycle round the park five times a week, to fetch the rowing machine down from the attic, to take to sit-ups and abdominal crunches and meals consisting entirely of raw carrots washed down with turnip juice. Forget about them. Science, it seems, is not on their side.

Scientists from the University of Missouri-Columbia have discovered that a totally sedentary lifestyle leads to the build-up of fat in the body, the failure to create a crucial enzyme which breaks down fats to the point of shutting down altogether. If, however, you get up from your sofa and wander around from time to time, standing up and undertaking small trivial tasks, the difference to your health is enormous.

There's not such a big gain, these wonderful scientists have discovered, if you go beyond pottering about and start going to the gym. And, they might have added, there is no danger of wrenching your ankle on the Stairmaster, being showered with sweat from the neighbouring running machine, or picking up some repulsive virus from the insanitary fug which one always suspects hovers above communal Jacuzzis.

Pottering about, in short, is the thing which we should all be doing. More pottering! It seems mildly extraordinary that every single aspect of our lives is now being quantified, its benefits and dangers analysed and presented to us in the form of advice. Prepare to receive government guidelines on the recommended daily levels of pointless pottering; indeed, as I write, there must be some ministerial body drawing up recommendations about the balance between pottering and economically useful activity.

As a compulsive potterer myself, I welcome the justification of something which to everyone around me has always looked like total time-wasting. I have a number of pottering opportunities constantly on the go. For instance, I've been collecting the lovely Everyman complete Wodehouse, the spines of which are in a broad range of different colours. Should one group them according to colour, so that they run through the spectrum? On the other hand, a lot of Wodehouse comes in groups. Should all the Jeeves books and all the Blandings books stand together? Or perhaps one should group them in chronological order would that be more interesting ...

There are now more than 50 volumes in the series on my bookshelves, and, at a rough guess, I've changed my mind and reorganised them about seven times now. It drives my boyfriend absolutely up the wall every time I start eyeing them.

Books are a prime opportunity for pottering; others are the framed photographs of family and friends wouldn't it be nicer to bring the one of Conrad my greyhound back to the front again? Perhaps this one might look better at the other end of the desk...

My all-time favourite potter, though, is through the kitchen cupboards. It has to be saved up for a special treat, because it wouldn't do to be too familiar with the contents. The joy of it is in the discovery of long-forgotten surprises that bottle of Peyraud bitters I bought in Texas 15 years ago and use three drops of once a year.

Even better is the examination of the use-by-dates on dry goods. In my kitchen, a tin of dry mustard or a bottle of cochineal can turn out to be a decade or two past its best-before, though I don't know what's supposed to have happened to cochineal in 20 years, or how you're ever supposed to use the stuff up.

On one never-to-be-forgotten occasion, a tin of treacle claimed to have died a death 25years before, and was still perfectly all right. Happy afternoons pass in what turn out to be fat-burning exercises, peering at the bottom of 20-year-old jars of juniper berries before shrugging and putting them back in a completely different order.

There's nothing here as practised or as devoted as a hobby, which seems highly purposeful by comparison. The pleasure of the day-long potter, extendable in extreme circumstances over surprisingly large geographical areas, is that you know from the start that nothing at all is going to be improved at the end of the exercise. It is just moving things around, getting up and sitting down again.

Though we potterers of the world are quite pleased to have our habit recognised as beneficial and even praiseworthy, let's face it: we were going to carry on anyway. And what the scientists of Missouri-Columbia don't try to analyse is the unfortunate side-effect of pottering.

The fact is that even though pottering increases the potterer's well-being and healthfulness, it is guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of his nearest and dearest to boiling point. How many fits of apoplexy have been brought on by the mere act of observing someone rearrange their collection of plastic pots? The garden shed was surely invented for the sole purpose of concealing the infuriating sight of another person's leisurely pottering.

But now that we have the scientists of Missouri-Columbia University on our side, let us not allow ourselves to be talked out of our devotion to pottering. And now, it strikes me, I have a very important sock drawer waiting to be reorganised.

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