Childhood, Hobbies, and things that are Mildly to Moderately Interesting

by Elias Blum

There are certain things that I’m passionate about. Things that have, for many years now, dominated my scholarship and research, my reading, my writing, my teaching, my public engagement, and much of my professional work.

Most of these passions have a constitutional core. So much of my life and work revolves around constitutional theory, comparative constitutional law, constitutional history, constitutional design, civic engagement in constitutional processes, and so forth. In a typical working weekday, I probably spend upwards of twelve hours reading or writing about constitutions in one form or another, or doing administrative or communication work that is somehow related to constitutional design.

When I’m not thinking about strictly constitutional matters, I’m generally thinking about law, politics, political ideas, public administration, policy and social issues in one form or another. My most eager, sometimes all-consuming concern is for the development of an intellectually credible and electorally attractive form of 21st century Social Democracy. I want to help build a new Social Democracy that draws fully and freely on Aristotelian, Christian Democratic, Civic Republican, Left-Liberal and Ecologist ideas, rooting Social Democracy in a clear moral commitment to the Common Good. Only such a renewed Social Democracy – rejecting dull ‘Fabian managerialism’ and the impersonal rigor of ‘Utilitarian statism’ – can convincingly challenge the hegemony of neo-liberalism,  oligarchy and austerity, and can produce practical, viable policy proposals to share the wealth more equally, to lift up the poor, to provide genuine economic security for all.

One could say that I’m obsessed, and perhaps I am. Certainly, I feel that the practical study of constitutions – and of the politics of the Common Good – is something that the world needs and benefits from, and that I am called to do.

All this started more than twenty years ago. One day in Lower Sixth, a teacher set us the essay question, ‘Should the British Constitution be reformed, and if so how?’ That question sent me to the dusty parts of the library – and I’ve pretty much been there, trying to answer this question and all of the many other related questions that came after it, ever since.

However, during the last seven weeks since my daughter was born, I’ve hardly thought about constitutions. Some days, I haven’t thought about constitutions or politics at all. I’ve also done next to no reading on the subject. It’s been very refreshing.

Instead, I’ve been thinking a lot about childhood. I had, in many ways, an idyllic childhood – a Boys’ Own childhood – of the sort that probably wouldn’t be permitted today. I spent many happy days camping out in the fields, making dens in barns, clay pigeon and target rifle shooting, fishing, sailing, swimming, rowing, cycling, hiking up mountains, building radio control model aeroplanes and model boats, tinkering with early home computers, acting, and generally doing all sorts of active, creative, messy, educational things.

That isn’t to say I haven’t had other hobbies and interests since then. Far from it. As an undergraduate I continued with drama, fencing and sailing. In the navy I took up rowing and clay pigeon shooting again. Even when doing my PhD I managed a few banjo lessons, and I had the folk club and the real ale appreciation society (SNP branch). Since moving to the Netherlands I’ve started swimming regularly and doing amateur dramatics again. I’ve even started to develop a minor interest in American Football, and of course I now have my model railway.

But in recent years extra-curricular activities have seemed like illicit indulgences in a terribly earnest grown up world – a world of proper jobs, of sudden trips to Iraq, Ukraine or Myanmar, of mortgages and life insurance and publishers’ deadlines. Once one is not only a fully fledged adult, but also half way into middle age, is there still any legitimate purpose to such seemingly pointless things? In a world where there is so much to be done, can a mere hobby ever be good stewardship of precious time, energy and resources?

Having a child has made me think again about these things. Over the last seven weeks, in reflecting on childhood and in taking a break from my usual preoccupations, I have realised that my need for a balanced, grounded, rounded life is now probably stronger than ever. Play, which is so essential for a child’s development, is also healthy for an adult’s well-being.

At the moment I am on paternity leave (two months paid: thanks, social democracy!). In between the usual routine of looking after a baby, I have had the time to step away from the constitutional coal-face and to reflect a little on life, to take stock of where I am, who I am, and where I’m going.

This process of reflection has reminded me of the importance of having a varied, balanced life, with interests and activities outside of work or immediate household duties. It is perfectly ok  to read a book that’s not about constitutions and to spend time, between bottles and nappies, thinking about different things – things that might not be ‘core’ interests and passions, but might be described as ‘peripheral’ ones.

These peripheral things are those that I find mildly to moderately interesting, fun, diverting or pleasant. Not things that I would dedicate my life and work to, but things that, nevertheless things that I quite like – things that add pleasure, interest, richness, breadth and depth to life. I would not want to spend 12 hours a day thinking about or doing these things, but I might like them enough to spend, maybe, a half day a month on them when the occasion arises, or an hour a week if the mood so takes me.

Mainly for my own reference, I thought it might be fun to make a list of these things, so that I can remember amongst the busyness of life to spend a bit more time, now and then, doing, learning about, experiencing or enjoying them.

  • Food (cooking and eating), especially Scottish fusion, traditional British, Italian, Greek / Eastern Mediterranean, Spanish, Mexican, Iranian and Indian.
  • Cheese – all sorts of types of interesting, weird and wonderful cheese, preferably with a glass of port.
  • Real ale: golden session ales, interesting micro brews, IPAs, porters and stouts.
  • The social history and sociology of the pub.
  • Pub games, especially skittles and pub quizzes.
  • Live music, especially bluegrass and folk.
  • Playing the banjo (badly).
  • Model railways, boats and aircraft.
  • Rowing, sailing, and canoeing (although I haven’t tried any of these for many years, and I suspect I am less willing to put up with the cold and discomfort than I once was).
  • Cricket (watching / listening), especially Test Match Special on the Radio.
  • American football (watching), especially university football, and especially if the Edinburgh Predators, Stirling Clansmen or Glasgow Tigers are playing.
  • Medieval European history, including the history of the Crusader States.
  • Alternative history fiction, fantasy fiction, utopian fiction (reading and occasionally writing).
  • Poetry.
  • Swimming.
  • Hiking / Rambling.
  • [Probably more, but that’s all I can think of for now].

I’m going to try to make more room in my life for these things.