Sir John Lubbock, later Lord Avebury was the formidable Victorian politician who was responsible for steering the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 through parliament, granting the people of Britain several additional days of rest each year. They were, for some years known popularly as ‘Lubbock’s days’, perhaps as a mark of respect for the battle he fought in getting the act through parliament; one of many such reforms he organised which changed the lives of ordinary working people in Victorian Britain.
Our cousins in Europe have a far more relaxed working calendar than Lubbock could even have dreamed of. This is perhaps down to two principal reasons which set us apart. The first of these is religion. The majority of mainland Europe is, at least in name if nothing else, a Catholic people, and thus the major solemnities and feast days of the Church have been, for a very long time granted as national holidays. The extent to which these days are observed in terms of church attendance is obviously not what it was and I would not need much persuading to understand that this is in decline.
However my own travels, and reports from friends in Italy and Spain reveal on the part of shop traders a reluctance to do business on such days, excepting perhaps those outfits that are geared towards tourism. Generally cafes and restaurants remain open (in comparison to the pre-Thatcher British town centre which I am told resembled a ghost town on bank holidays). Southern Europeans have an unfortunate reputation of work-shyness which does not help the cause for bank holidays, difficult as it might be, it would be lovely to believe that the steadfast observance of major feasts and national holidays in these countries stems from a stubborn devoutness of faith or a belief in the sacredness of the traditional holiday day. One does not easily take away something well established from the Italians; regardless of whether or not its original intention has been obscured.
…panic and haste do not rule the lives of men…
Religious traditions aside there is, as I suggested, a second principle that makes us Britons different from our neighbours; our very nature itself. The southern European man has always struck me as a very relaxed fellow. Nowhere on an English summer’s day, from Chipping Camden to St. Neots would one find a group of hairy chested, gold encrusted middle aged and elderly men sitting around a bench enjoying civilised conversation on a weekday afternoon. (I do not think, in the kindest possible way, that the jobless of our depressed towns and cities fit into the same mould.) Yet these people seem to exist everywhere in southern Europe, regardless of class or region. This is just one example I cite to attempt to portray my principle that our European neighbours are a far more relaxed people than we are. In a hot climate, panic and haste do not rule the lives of men. Perhaps our climate makes us different; it is hard to put a finger on the cause, but the Europeans are generally very much more relaxed than we are, unless, of course, they have been upset or offended. It is then, that our roles are reversed. The siesta has never been a part of our culture, (although our hard working wartime Prime Minister found it rather beneficial) yet even in the twenty-first century is still firmly established in southern Europe. There is a strength of resolve, a steadfastness and a stiff upper lip for which we are popularly known, qualities which may or may not be in decline, that is a debate for another day, however there is no reason why these good qualities should affect our ability to relax properly. Somehow, we lack that ability, and we have a lot to learn from Europe in that regard.
England on a Sunday, or on a bank holiday is sadly another of those things that is not what it was. Relentless consumerism and competition between retailers in an increasingly difficult age for high street retailers have trumped those which were once our days of rest. Consumerism continues to live up to its name. It has consumed the minds of our people to the extent that values of self preservation, rest and recuperation, and spending time as a family are going out the window faster than the autumnal window displays that make way for gaudy Christmas scenes.
…There are few experiences that bring my spirit from its glorious heights to its gloomiest depths…
The retailers themselves were the first to fall in love with the prospects offered by an extra day of trade each week. Now, I dare say the very people who, at the time spoke over Sunday luncheon of the despicable nature of the thing, have fallen into the trap of “its convenient” or “I try not to do it too often”. Almost none of my well schooled, well spoken, and presumably reasonably well brought up friends and acquaintances of my own generation (and perhaps even my parents’ generation) would think twice about popping out on a Sunday or bank holiday to buy skiing equipment or stock up at the Chinese supermarket. However the majority of these people, when arriving on the subject at dinner or over drinks would speak of “what a shame it is to have lost our Sundays to consumerism” and how “it really ought not to have started in the first place” . The reality is, that it did start, and it will be very difficult to reverse. Presumably the value to retailers is vast. There are few experiences that bring my spirit from its glorious heights to its gloomiest depths more rapidly than stepping out onto the Brompton Road after a gloriously gilded Sunday Mass, the organ roaring away in the background, and seeing the hoards of shoppers bustle and collide their way in and out of Horrids, as I have taken to calling it, bags in hand. A literal example of the sublime to the ridiculous. I wonder how these people live, and what pleasure they find in their time off, how strong their family relationships are, and if they really appreciate the time that has been granted to them. I feel worse for the poor shop assistants who work against their will on Sundays and bank holidays. Even the most illustrious of retail establishments, holders of royal warrants have fallen into the same decline. As a former shop assistant in a very grand establishment I have had some experience of the same being forced upon me against my will, and my resistance, to my shame, fluctuated. Somebody with the strength of Lubbock, who was ennobled in recognition of his hard work for our nation needs to stand up and help us all back to a recognition of the importance of our rest. My sheltered Catholic upbringing and comically antiquated nature make me too easy a target for those coalition cronies who would disagree with me. Those things not important. But the importance of rest, the importance of family, and the importance of self improvement through self preservation reach deep into every home and every beating heart of our nation, regardless of faith, class and lifestyle. The sooner this is realised, the better.