Independent Decade : Mammon, the new God of Sundays

The weekend
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The Independent Online
"Nowhere to go, nothing to do, just sitting here waiting for the next lot of grub to come up." Tony Hancock's vision of the great British Sunday half a century ago has changed to a startling degree .

Yesterday, Hancock would have struggled to finish the newspapers before nipping up to Ikea for a quick shop, stopping off in the pub for a pint and putting a bet on the 3.30 at Newmarket.

John Major's ideal of old maids cycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist had been under fire before 1986, but in the last 10 years our concept of the weekend has altered dramatically, as the remaining vestiges of the 1780 Sunday Observance Act have been picked apart, one by one.

While our Sundays have changed, so have Saturdays, which now take Sunday's place as the day for lounging around and recovering from the vicissitudes of the week, before the 7pm dash to buy lottery tickets. Indeed, the National Lottery Live has become the weekend God-slot.

Reflected in this is the growth in the Saturday newspaper, which 10 years ago was regarded as a publishing graveyard. It was The Independent which first put forward Saturday as an alternative to the Sunday titles. Since then, the other papers have followed suit, snowing readers under with lifestyle, review, motoring and property supplements.

Was it the shops that killed off Sunday? Not completely. Working women played their part, as did growing car ownership and declining religious observance, although Church of England figures show only a slight decline in attendances over the last 10 years, from 1.167m in 1986 to 1.081m in 1994.

But shopping did have the single greatest effect. Stores had been breaking the Sunday trading laws for years, but the repeal of the 1950 Shops Act survived 26 previous attempts at reform, before finally falling victim to Mammon in 1994. Then, its main effect was the proliferation of out- of-town shopping centres, likes the massive MetroCentre in Gateshead, and Lakeside at Thurrock in Essex.

Even before the Sunday Trading Bill passed through the Commons with a majority of 404 to 174, nearly two out of three adults did shopping of some kind on Sunday. Now there are three times as many Sunday shoppers as in the early 1980s.

Pub hours were the next target, with Michael Howard finally agreeing in 1995 that it was a bad idea for drinkers to have to down their pint hurriedly at 3pm and wait until 7pm before they could legitimately sup alcohol again. Particularly as so many pubs could now show Premier League games on satellite television during the afternoon. Sunday horse-racing and betting were also made legal in the same year.

Still, the pattern of the British Sabbath has remained largely unchanged. The Sunday lunch is still a regular feature in more than two-thirds of households, although since the BSE scares, the roast is less likely to be beef. In Hancock's day, as now, the second most popular pastime was visiting or entertaining relatives and friends. Almost precisely the same proportion of the adult population - around 20 per cent - visit a pub or go out for a drink.

However, for any would-be Puritans who long for the return of such days, when all drinking, feasting, games and enjoying yourself were banned without question, there is still one pursuit that the Lords refused to make legal last year, when it came up for review: public dancing.