The Gift That Kept Giving
Colin Payne on why sometimes you need to choose your hobbies wisely
Some hobbies are exciting, adventurous and thrilling. Sexy even. Hurtling down Kilimanjaro on a mountain bike, wearing no more personal protective equipment than a light smearing of factor 10 on your bare chest, adrenalin coursing through your veins. That’s a hobby. Sprinting over the line in Sydney, after completing your maiden triathlon, overcoming adversity and exhaustion to achieve a goal. That’s something to be obsessed over. Or perhaps laying the final tile upon the roof of the home you have built yourself as you escape the rat race, applying newly learnt skills and passions to a practical end. That’s spare time well spent. However, searching eBay in a quest to obtain ‘Reading at home’ to complete the 1952/53 season is probably not up there.
People don’t collect things anymore. Or, to be more precise, young people don’t collect things anymore. As hobbies go, collecting is the preserve of the middle-aged man. It’s for baby boomers and the products of Generation X, from a time when everyone collected something.
I fell into football-programme collecting, in the way that I fell into collecting myriad other things throughout my life. If I had five of something, I owned those five things, if it went up to six it became a collection. Programmes were ideal. Firstly, they related to football, or Watford more specifically. It gave games a greater meaning than just the match. I started to hoard them almost as soon as I started going to games. Through Timothy Charlesworth at school, whose dad conveniently was a programme dealer, I was able to buy bundles of them and at not a lot of expense. At games, the 28-page booklets would be tucked into the waistband of flared jeans, khaki army trousers, and later Sta-Prest tonics, protected under a coat, to save them from the elements, and me from harsh ridicule and judgement.
As the hobby grew, it began to serve another purpose. In a chaotic teenage life a little order was needed, or maybe I just liked lists, but I delved into the realms of cataloguing and recording. Perhaps envious of trainspotters’ ability to ‘cross things out’, I ticked off the teams I had from a Sunday newspaper’s league tables, then later, as that failed to meet a need, made exhaustive handwritten pages in a long-lost notebook. The programmes themselves would be repeatedly rearranged on a shelf in chronological and then alphabetical order, and then back again... and again and again. It was the gift that kept giving.
Needless to say it has been a hobby I’ve dipped in and out of, usually and logically in direct correlation to my commitment to Watford Football Club. The passion for programmes has waned, withered and peaked again, just as my attendance at Vicarage Road has waned, withered and peaked again.
The modern age has, as the modern age always has, been both a blessing and a curse relating to my hobby. It became easy to buy programmes. It became too easy. The online marketplace destroyed the thrill of the chase, the excitement and anticipation. Everything is a click away. The mundane became dirt cheap, and the exotic ludicrously expensive. The quest to ‘complete’ suddenly was a simple task, now dictated by money rather than dedication. Whereas in the sixties Watford had a programme collectors’ club, populated by spotty urchins with National Health spectacles and woollen bobble hats, today the grown-up versions flick endlessly through eBay listings. There used to be multiple ‘huts’ around Vicarage Road, lights to teenage moths eager to supplement collections and spend paper round wages. Now only Doreen soldiers on in her corner of the Rookery. Bill’s Portakabin has passed into folklore, quite literally, through Olly Wicken’s Hornet Heaven series, yet it really was a place of wonder.
The obsessiveness has only grown – no sane person should ever spend over a week of their life scanning thousands of programme covers to include in an Excel spreadsheet, creating a formula of cross-referencing that will never be needed. Yet it’s fulfilling a need, for its own sake.
Writing this, my motivations have been questioned, yet not enough to re-evaluate my life choices relating to hobbies. I realise that the need to ‘complete’ is still there, as each home game I continue to buy those overly large rectangular insights into where a multi-millionaire wants to go on his holidays. I have to. I’ve tried to stop, but always end up going back!
I know that it is partly OCD, although the rest of my life seems to say differently. I only have to look back at how sad I felt when the shape changed for 2021/22 after over thirty years of being pretty much uniform. Or how badly it hit me the season they decided that it was perfectly reasonable to switch between portrait and landscape covers, as if that was acceptable. Or the campaign the glossy covers featured nothing but the club badge and match details on the front (which really worked for me), except for the last game of the season, when it didn’t...
And so the programmes pile up. Having every home one since 1957 is really a burden, rather than something to treasure. When will I stop? How can I stop? I’m too far in.
I’m too old to mountain bike down Kilimanjaro, too fat to do a triathlon, and no one who knows me would trust me up a ladder to build a house.
So onwards we go.