Do we need: Bank Holidays?

A day off and you're a happy citizen? To parents they mean hours in traffic. To the unemployed they're a sick joke. To many others they're just hard work. Hugo Barnacle asks ...
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It is well known that the later Roman emperors were in the habit of using bread and circuses as ploys to keep the population tractable and docile, and to divert attention from the obnoxious reality of the corrupt, despotic state. More often overlooked is the caesars' fondness for declaring public holidays with the same end in view. Each new incumbent added his own festive date to the calendar until it reached the point where any probationary emperor who failed to do so faced the prospect of immediate overthrow by a rival with a surer knack for giving the people what they wanted.

And, of course, once granted, public holidays are taken for ... well, for granted, and it is almost impossible to revoke one except by replacing it with another. The tally therefore tends to increase, though the people's gratitude and loyalty show no sign of increasing with it. Civilisation is a recent development, humankind evolved in very different circumstances, and somewhere deep in their hunter-gatherer souls the people know that their time is rightly their own and that in giving them a day off - one whole day, wow - society is only returning the paltriest fraction of what it took away in the first place.

In fact, the more time off that people get, the more they seem to feel the pull of their freebooting, gone-fishing, footloose ancestral past, and the more grudgingly they return to their civilised, co-opted, beehive existence between times.

By the turn of the fifth century AD the Roman Empire was observing something in the region of 115 public holidays a year. Shortly afterwards it collapsed. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, one is tempted to conclude: the one thing follows from the other. Goths, Huns and Vandals were rather more orderly and urbane than legend has it, but they did not down swords and form horde-jams to reach the seaside every time it turned out nice on the anniversary of some nebulously recollected national or religious occasion. They kept on with their conquering. They loved their work.

In 1897, the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, Britain held sway over a fifth of the world's land surface and a quarter of its population. Britain's foreign trade exceeded the combined economic might of France, Germany and the United States. The day of the Jubilee saw the New York Times boast on America's behalf, "We are a part, and a great part, of the greater Britain, which seems so plainly destined to dominate this planet."

The Victorians took four bank holidays and, where possible, two common- law holidays a year. We have since added New Year's Day, May Day, and two extra days when Christmas and New Year fall at weekends. Doesn't sound much. But once those 104 days of weekends - a concept foreign to our forebears - are added in we have reached Roman levels of idleness. And that is without counting the usual month or so's sunbathing leave. It will have escaped no one's notice that our influence and prestige have declined even faster than Rome's.

It is also doubtful that we actively enjoy our bank holidays as much as the Victorians did. They prized their scarce leisure time, and a mere bank-holiday works outing to Margate or Blackpool could be one of life's climactically happy moments. Not a few marriage proposals would result from these excursions and the mood they engendered - meaning, in turn, that not a few of us are here because of them.

Modern Americans still work hard and play hard. They have more public holidays than we do, 11 to our nine, but they treat them with far more ceremony because their job contracts usually allow them only another two weeks' annual leave. Latin countries such as Italy (10 days), Spain (11) and Portugal (13) also take more national breaks, and observe them with a certain fiesta spirit, in their case not because of the Protestant work ethic and the sense of a hard-earned release from striving, but because of the decent climate and the love of celebration.

These Mediterraneans, however, are people who even regard Sundays as fun. The British Sunday has improved somewhat from the state of sheer existential horror that characterised it until a few years ago, but it is still liable to be spent in a kind of slack lassitude accompanied by dark thoughts of Monday. Something of the same gloom hangs over our bank holidays. A week in advance, TV and radio presenters start trotting out the ritual non-joke, "Bet it pours", and on the day, to make absolutely certain they fail to enjoy themselves, people get into the car, head in the same direction as everyone else and sit in traffic jams even more depressing than the workaday rush hour. They resemble caged wild animals which, when released, can do nothing but pace up and down the same stretch of ground, having forgotten what freedom was.

Who benefits from these exercises? The banks, possibly. They are able to hold off clearing cheques for even longer than usual because a non- working day doesn't count towards clearance, and since clearance is a euphemism for borrowing the customers' money and lending it out on the side to earn interest which the customers never see, bank holidays appear to be very aptly named.

Children do not tend to value bank holidays very highly, since the dates nearly all fall during the school holidays anyway. For the rich, who are infantile in so many ways, the case is similar: their lives are one long holiday anyway. The poor cannot afford to take much advantage of any supposed festival, the lonely and isolated are made to feel more so, and the idea of a day off for the unemployed is laughable.

The water and power industries still have to remain in full swing, the phones have to work, and the broadcasting schedules have to be filled to give the people something else to grumble about once the traffic jams have dissolved. The emergency services are if anything busier than usual, partly because licensed premises - once they open - are busier than usual too. Increasingly the newspapers print bank holiday editions. It all takes work (damn it).

Still, coppers who spend today on traffic duty are better off than their predecessors were. In the 1900s the men of the Metropolitan Police had to threaten strike action before they won the right to a six-day rather than seven-day working week. They succeeded because they were organised and united. Britain's 2 million domestic servants at that time went on making do with a six-and-a-half day week at best, if they were lucky and had liberal-minded employers. No wonder leisure has become less of a treasure since then.

It is not simply that we have more than we know what to do with now, or that we lack the ability to be lazy. We have gained enough free time to make it seem no longer special, and more than enough to trigger our why-bother instincts so that we begrudge the time we give to our employers. Already by 1941, under the most urgent spur to action, Britons were taking 10,000 man hours to produce a Spitfire when the Germans could knock out a Focke-Wulf 190 in 5,000-odd.

Conceivably that was down to old-fashioned craftsmanship, not tea breaks. But in 1974, when the Heath government imposed a three-day week to ease the fuel crisis caused by a quadrupling in the price of oil and a simultaneous pit strike, a funny thing happened. The country's industrial output stayed the same, because, it emerged, workers and managers alike had only been doing three days' worth of useful work in the average week even when they were on full time.

We seemed then to have no sense of fulfilment in work, and that does make it harder to find much fulfilment in leisure either. The eventual, vengeful Thatcherite solution, de-manning and mass unemployment, was of course no solution at all. Job insecurity only makes us more grudging. Those banks, hanging on to your pay cheque for two extra days over Easter while their staff are off, have plans to give thousands of said staff a rather more lasting, not to say permanent taste of economic inactivity in the next year or so. Many other businesses plan the same. The staff know it, and despite prevailing orthodoxy they do not find the idea terribly motivational or inspiring. The bank holiday assumes the uncomfortable air of a rehearsal for redundancy.

In the age of full employment, the Fifties and Sixties, at least one group of people, or should we say two, observed bank holidays with uninhibited gusto. What actually made the mods and rockers stage those spectacular pitched battles on the sea front at Brighton and other resorts was and remains fairly obscure. The medieval notion of misrule, a cathartic indulgence in completely loony behaviour on certain agreed days of the year, may perhaps apply. But after a few years of saturation media coverage, self- consciousness set in and the custom died away. Bank holidays have never been marked with quite such a definitive throwing-off of shackles since.

Thinking of battles, the Government proposes, from time to time, to replace the "socialist" May holiday with Trafalgar Day in October. Might I point out to them that some of us would rather have Waterloo Day in June; because the weather might be kinder, because Wellington was a better man than Nelson, and because it would remind that ineffable prat Portillo that the British Army's greatest action was fought in defence of Brussels.