D J Taylor: Bugger Bank Holidays!

Oh, the queues, the barbecues, the B&Qs!
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The Independent Online

Seventy years ago this month, solitary amid a London seething with King George V's Silver Jubilee celebrations, George Orwell set about planning a Bank Holiday jaunt. Having borrowed some money from a wealthy friend on the Saturday night, he took a Sunday morning train down to Brighton "for the first time in my life" and spent a self-absorbed day and a half picking bluebells and hunting out birds' nests in the fields beyond the shoreline. Then, on the Monday afternoon, came the problem of negotiating a passage home. "The crowds in Brighton weren't so bad," he reported to a friend, "but of course it was an awful business getting back ... the train being so packed that people were hanging out of the windows." Even to a professed man of the people, keen on communal diversion and the sight of the populace out enjoying itself as it saw fit, a Bank Holiday could come as a bit of a strain.

Seventy years ago this month, solitary amid a London seething with King George V's Silver Jubilee celebrations, George Orwell set about planning a Bank Holiday jaunt. Having borrowed some money from a wealthy friend on the Saturday night, he took a Sunday morning train down to Brighton "for the first time in my life" and spent a self-absorbed day and a half picking bluebells and hunting out birds' nests in the fields beyond the shoreline. Then, on the Monday afternoon, came the problem of negotiating a passage home. "The crowds in Brighton weren't so bad," he reported to a friend, "but of course it was an awful business getting back ... the train being so packed that people were hanging out of the windows." Even to a professed man of the people, keen on communal diversion and the sight of the populace out enjoying itself as it saw fit, a Bank Holiday could come as a bit of a strain.

Lighting upon this passage for the first time in one of Orwell's letters, I experienced a righteous twinge of fellow feeling. As a child, as a teenager, deep into an adult life strewn with children and familial obligations, I regarded Bank Holidays with an almost pathological horror. Growing up in the Norfolk of the 1970s, with two working parents who appreciated the occasional day-trip, a Bank Holiday produced only one response: the compulsion to "go out" somewhere. Weather (rarely promising) or infant protests were as nothing: the urge was as primeval and unstoppable as the pulse which drives a lemming over the edge of a cliff.

And so, sandwiches packed up in their Tupperware boxes, mackintoshes lying folded in the car boot, we would arrange ourselves across the back seat of my father's ancient Hillman and be driven off to picnic in some wind-scorched cornfield or behind a chilly dune abutting the grey North Sea, dabble our toes in a few inches of ice-cold seawater or take afternoon tea in some fly-ridden eaterie in Sheringham High Street. Even now, three decades later, the experience sticks in my head as a compound of wasp-stings, discarded apple cores, skinned knees, the Top Forty playing on Radio One and, as neither my brother or sister were good travellers, the smell of vomit. As a forty-something parent I sympathise profoundly with my parents' desire to give their children what they imagined to be a good time: then I regarded it as a savage intrusion on my liberty.

Adulthood laid bare the historical process which had set these dismal afternoons in train. Like much else in our national life, the Bank Holiday proper was a Victorian invention. The idea was not new - the average bank in pre-Victorian times closed its doors to the public for as many as 17 days a year - but it took the legislators of the 19th century to streamline, regulate and codify the system. Factory Acts and a new-found insistence on public amenities - parks, pleasure gardens and cheap transport - did the rest. By the 1890s, the Bank Holiday excursion - the "special" train conveying its throng of wide-eyed day-trippers from northern industrial towns to the seaside resorts of Blackpool and Morecambe - was a recognised part of the socio-economic landscape: a licensed saturnalia, in which the citizenry was encouraged to let its metaphorical hair down for the weekend before returning, refreshed and presumably grateful, to the drudgery of office, factory or foundry.

Thus transformed into a part of the Victorian moral project (a happy worker being a productive worker and so on), the institution rapidly became a symbol of the classic late-Victorian divide between democrats and elitists, those who thought public holidays a fine, egalitarian innovation and those who considered the sight of the Great British Public out enjoying itself only slightly less distasteful than an invasion of Goths. To H G Wells, a Bank Holiday was a heaven-sent opportunity for the downtrodden draper's apprentice to cast off his shackles for the day and disport himself on the promenade at Hastings.

George Gissing's great late-Victorian slum novel The Nether World, on the other hand, carries a terrific chapter entitled "Io Saturnalia" which tracks the progress of a newly married working-class couple, Bob Hewitt and Pennyloaf Candy, as they go to Crystal Palace for the day, quarrel, fight, and eventually crawl back to dingy Clerkenwell to enjoy a wedding night punctuated by the skirling of a drunk in the room next door.

"That's mother," Pennyloaf sobs. "I knew she wouldn't get over today. She never did get over a Bank Holiday." Mrs Candy, Gissing thoughtfully glosses, has recently taken the pledge. Unhappily she has not at the same time removed herself to a country where there are no beer shops and no Bank Holidays.

These intimations of disquiet resound through modern literature. Generally speaking, in an English novel, Bank Holidays mean trouble. Think of the opening chapter of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock ("Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him'"), with 50,000 people serially decanted from the Victoria train and trouble ahead!

Remembering those infant stake-outs in early-Sixties Great Yarmouth (where I was once wheeled away in a pushchair by my grandmother as Mods fought Rockers on the seafront), the dreary evenings spent loitering in some Oxfordshire pub while the rest of the cricket XI finished their drinks, or the smoke-filled forenoons of London SW15, with half a dozen noisy barbecues taking place within a radius of 20 yards, I always took the Gissing line.

Without sounding like the worst kind of puritan nay-sayer, what, in the 21st century is the point of a Bank Holiday? In a world of rapacious Victorian mill owners, where shop-girls slaved for 16 hours a day and the average domestic servant was allowed an afternoon off a month, there was some merit in offering the population a day out of time to spend as it chose. A century or so later we inhabit a landscape at once ordered and constrained by leisure, to the point where leisure is sometimes seen as the purpose of life, hedged about with Brussels directives to take time off, clamber up from the desk and stride out into the sunlight.

And given all this extra, state-sponsored free time, exactly what do we do with it? Why, we clear out the local Tesco's supply of barbecue equipment, render the M25 impassable in our eagerness to "go" somewhere and spend even more time lying about than we would ordinarily. "John is down the fun pub/ Drinking lots of lager", as Damon Albarn remarks in Blur's "Bank Holiday". Well, John probably spends enough time in the fun pub as it is.

Even as I write this I can hear the traffic beginning to concertina around the outskirts of Norwich, drivers and passengers desperate to ransack the local Waitrose for six-packs and henges of burger buns before speeding home to ponder the delights of the TV listings guide. And where will tomorrow morning find me? At my desk, reviewing Professor John Carey's new book about the arts. There is, after all, no pleasure on earth like that of working while the rest of the world idles.

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