Sunday, busy Sunday: As MPs vote on a Bill to extend shopping on the sabbath, Jojo Moyes asks what remains of the traditional rest day

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A LIVING room in an English town in 1958. There is silence, followed by a deep yawn. Tony Hancock sits with Sid James, who is reading the papers.

'Ah dear . . . ah dear, oh dear . . . ah dear me . . .' says Hancock, eventually adding: 'What's the time?'

'Two o'clock.'

'Is that all? . . . I'm fed up . . . Ooh I do hate Sundays.'

With a few words in this famous sketch, Tony Hancock offered his view of the British Sunday: a boring day with little to offer and nothing to do but 'wait for the next lot of grub to come up'.

John Major's nostalgic vision of rural England, in a speech he gave in April, may correspond more closely to most people's rose-tinted view of the traditional Sunday, however, with its peaceful image of 'old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist'.

Next Wednesday, politicians will vote on the shape of our future 'day of rest'. The Sunday Trading Bill will determine how many and what kind of shops will open, and it may speed Sunday's eventual transformation into just another day of the working week.

But how far has it changed already? For the majority, the 'traditional' Sunday, with a morning church service followed by a Sunday roast dinner attended by all the family, has long been nothing more than an Ealing Studios film image. Changes to the family structure and longer working hours have gradually eroded what was left.

Sunday services and even the roast are in decline, and the increasing number of shoppers and motorists suggests that Sunday is moving out of the home. For many people the 'day of rest' now takes place in the wipe-clean environment of a restaurant chain, followed by a look round a DIY store.

According to Church of England figures, Sunday attendances have dropped by almost a quarter to 1.13 million in the last 20 years. Figures for the Roman Catholic Church show an even sharper fall, with attendances down at 1.26 million in 1992 compared to nearly two million in 1970.

So what are people doing instead? The families that are still spending Sunday together appear to have substituted shopping baskets and dining out for the collection plate.

Figures for meat consumption indicate the first casualty of the change. According to the Meat & Livestock Commission, sales of joints as a percentage of beef purchases have dropped from 34 to 31 per cent in the last 10 years.

'This is partly due to changes in society,' said a spokesman for the Commission. 'The traditional nuclear family is declining and people's cooking habits are changing.

'People want less and less to spend two hours in the kitchen, and would rather have a pork chop that can be done in 15 minutes. The nice big 5lb roast has gone the way of so many good things.'

Many households now choose instead to eat out on a Sunday, taking advantage of the increased availability of 'pub- grub' lunches.

Food franchises such as Harvester have equipped their public houses - traditionally the male Sunday escape route - with restaurants and 'family areas'.

Other companies tapping into the 'family Sunday' market include the home furnishings chain Ikea. Its five branches across the country each offer a playground, supervised creche, video room and large restaurant. Much of its financial success can be attributed to its shrewd transformation of shopping into a 'family event'.

Ikea recognises that shopping is already a popular Sunday afternoon leisure activity, regardless of the Sunday Trading Bill. An increasing number of supermarkets, superstores and stalls are now staying open. Safeway, for example, opens 280 of its 361 branches across the country every Sunday. It says it is responding to demand.

A recent Automobile Association survey showed that 19 per cent of motorists regularly drive to the shops on a Sunday.

Although no figures exist for Sunday traffic levels, the survey showed that the majority of AA members used their car on Sundays, and the Royal Automobile Club says Sunday traffic is increasing.

In Croydon, south London, for example, there is already enough traffic surrounding the retail giants Ikea, Habitat and Furnitureland to cause Sunday traffic jams as motorists jostle for spaces in the car parks.

'You can't get in there,' said Liz McCarren, a housewife from Carshalton, London. 'It's always like that.'

Appearing to vindicate the view of retailers, she said that convenience overrode any moral misgivings about Sunday shopping for many women.

'It doesn't worry me at all that it's Sunday - I think all shops should be open,' she added. 'I've got two small children and it means somebody else can mind them and I can go shopping.

'In an ideal world it would be a nice thing to have a 'family day', but people's lives aren't like that any more.'

The extension of shopping hours means that in some areas - such as Hampstead in north London - Sunday has become the most profitable day of the week for smaller traders.

The consumerist nature of Sunday is heightened by the number of people selling goods from the boots of their cars. The Local Authority Co-ordinating Body on Food and Trading Standards estimates that approximately a million people attend Sunday car boot sales.

This increased activity has not spread, however, to British Rail, which has been cutting Sunday services for years and closed a further 50 stations on Sundays just two months ago.

For those who enjoy team sports, Sunday fixtures are especially important. According to the Football Association, there are now about 15,000 Sunday League clubs in England alone, involving some half a million players.

'Prior to 1955 the FA didn't permit players or clubs to take part, because of Sunday being a day of rest,' an FA spokesman said. Due to overwhelming demand, however, the FA relaxed its position and in 1964 went so far as to introduce the Sunday Cup.

Cricketers on the village green are as much a part of Sunday afternoons as they were 200 years ago; in the season, approximately a quarter of a million people don their flannels every week.

'Every leisure activity in the country takes place on a Sunday,' said David Pipe of the Jockey Club, which is campaigning for Sunday racing. 'It's a day when people have to close their gates because there are so many people. If you think about it, all the major events take place - golf, rugby, cricket. The only sport left is racing.'

Three Sunday race meetings had taken place so far, Mr Pipe added, and any opposition was over employee issues. 'The bishops don't have a problem with the idea of Sunday on- course betting. There were three private members' bills in the Commons a few years ago. I don't think there's any opposition to this on moral grounds.'

Yet in some parts of the country, Sunday does still exert a strong moral hold, especially in areas of Scotland and Wales.

According to the Lord's Day Observance Society, this becomes truer the further north you travel.

'On some of the Western Isles, such as Stornoway and Harris, they won't take a bus ride or watch TV on a Sunday - they tend to cut everything off,' said John Bowmer, the society's spokesman.

Restrictions rested on the notion of what was 'work' and should therefore be left until Monday, he said.

'Their Sunday is very strictly observed. Some may cook a Sunday lunch - others feel that it is an unnecessary form of work.'

This pattern was also true of north and west Wales, according to Tecwyn Vaughan Jones, a specialist in Welsh traditions at Cardiff University. 'Thirty years ago, all work including washing and food preparation was done on a Saturday. People wore their best clothes on Sunday and attended three chapel services throughout the day. There were no children playing - some were not even allowed out of the house,' he said.

But sabbatarianism is becoming increasingly rare, even in Wales.

This may be a relief for some people. Renate Olins of London Marriage Guidance said that some traditional family Sundays had been 'claustrophobic'.

'Families were expected to be at home. They were pushed together in the house and over lunch. This could be a terrible strain - especially on the mothers. A lot of people used to dread Sundays,' she said.

The downside of losing the tradition was that people lost the sense of order that a family Sunday could bring, she added. 'People knew where they stood. Now there's a sense that we've always got to be doing something. We're so frenetic.

'But there's still a depressing quality to Sunday for a lot of people because they dread going back to work on Monday.'

Or as Jimmy Porter put it in 1956, in John Osborne's Look Back in Anger: ''Nobody thinks, nobody cares. No beliefs, no convictions and no enthusiasm. Just another Sunday evening.'

(Photograph omitted)