Monday 31 August 2015

Time for a campaign for Real Bank Holidays

Well, I may not have quite recovered from the end of my summer holidays, but I am at least pleased to be blogging again, which I am starting again for the autumn herewith - and, since it is Bank Holiday Monday, it may be time for a re-think about bank holidays.

I have a personal reason for doing so. The man who invented them, Sir John Lubbock, was my great-great-grandfather, and - partly because of that - I know that he had two motivations for coming up with the idea.

The first was that, as Darwin's next door neighbour, his pupil and his collaborator, he believed that evolution had a political edge. Society was evolving and it was up to politicians, or so he believed, to help the process along. But how could society evolve if people never had time to better themselves?

Other countries had saints days which gave people a bit of time off.  Not so in dour, Scrooge-infested England. It was time to intervene.

The second source of the idea was his profession. He was, like his father before him, a banker. He knew how much the banking system underpinned the rest of the economy. A law requiring businesses to shut down for a few days every year was unlikely to have an effect. But you didn't need to be so controversial. All you needed to do was close the banks.

The first August Bank Holiday therefore went ahead in 1872, and there were extraordinary scenes at the London railway terminals as the crowds overwhelmed the trains available to take them to the seaside.

“The passengers were packed on decks and paddleboxes like herrings in a barrel, and so great was the hunger of the crowd on board one of the vessels that the steward declared himself to be ‘eaten out’ in ten minutes after the vessel left Thames Haven,” said the News of the World:

"Margate Jetty was simply blocked so far as to be impassable, whilst thousands of excursionists who came down by rail wandered along the cliffs. How many may have gone down is impossible to say. The people arrived at Cannon Street and Charing Cross for Ramsgate at 8am and it was 10 o’clock before the surprised but active officials of the South Eastern could accommodate all their customers.”

Nothing was ever quite the same again, though the queues at railway stations have given away to exhausting queues around the M25 as people struggle to get away on a Friday afternoon for their extended weekends. Lovers escape by car. People propose to each other on bank holidays. People ignore the weather in their determination to have fun – and, often, they never forget it.

Now that a new tyranny is emerging which keeps us hard at work, at jobs we despise, because we are so heavily in debt to our landlords or mortgage providers - and especially now the government seems set on overturning the Sunday trading laws which protect small retailers against the privileges of the big ones - maybe we need to go back to the 1870s. And think again.

What would Lubbock do now to give people a bit of time off? Bank holidays don't really work in quite the same way because, these days, banks never sleep.

Once you put it like that, the answer is obvious. The equivalent now is not so much to close the doors of the banks for four days a year - it is to close down online banking during the holiday.

That refers back to the original idea. It would certainly shut down the economy, but it clearly isn't without difficulties. The question is - how would you close the payment system everywhere, except for the transport system? There you have me - I don't know the answer: perhaps it would encourage the use of electronic pre-paid purses for transport on bank holidays. What would you suggest?

Even so, bank holidays have become a key element of English culture - they are English saints days, in a sense, based on the worship of spare time. This isn't quite how I put it in the entry on bank holidays in my new book How to be English, but - now that spare time is an increasingly scarce commodity, except for the ultra-rich and those who retired in the days of final salary pensions - it ought to be an issue again.

Is it time for a Campaign for Real Bank Holidays?

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