Banks vs Saints
Commonplace Newsletter #79
As I write this it is Bank Holiday Monday. It’s also the beginning of the Muslim festival of Eid. These two coinciding together made for a startling contrast as I took my morning constitutional through my city. I couldn’t help but notice the two events and try to see if there was anything to be gleaned from them. Firstly, my route into the city took me past the mosque and so there was a persistent slow trickle of foot traffic being drawn towards that place of community and worship. Young families, the elderly, children- observant Muslims of all ages walking in groups in their festival finery. All of these walkers seemed happy in spite of the oppressive greyness of the sky and the lingering threat of an imminent downpour. Now contrast this with the English Bank Holiday observers- as I drew closer to the city centre- mostly culturally Protestant by law of probability but the majority most likely agnostic and atheist materialist consumers. Not that they would explicitly advertise themselves as such, but it is always more instructive to define someone by what they do rather than what they label themselves as. A consumer by any other name still spends a lot of free time shopping.
And so as I walked and approached the city centre proper, I encountered many more of these consumers. And why wouldn’t I? Every single shop and amenity barring the library (the one place I wouldn’t have minded visiting) was open for business, in spite of the fact that today was supposedly a national holiday. Which made me wonder what on earth had happened to the spirits and good sense of my fellow countrymen. Why was one holiday still meaningful while the other was evidently defined as merely a day of not going into the office?
Now, the structural conventions of essay writing would say that, given what I have written above, that I should now backtrack to wistful memories of Bank Holidays of yore- buckets and spades, tuppenny arcades, bunting and bread pudding and roast beef and a Moore era James Bond playing on one of the few terrestrial television channels. A simpler time. You know the drill. But that would be largely a falsehood because as the song says ‘life’s what you make it’ and I can’t see how these nominal Mondays off could ever have held much true meaning for people.
Even the name Bank Holiday is a tell. Sure they have wormed their way into actual, real, still meaningful days of celebration- technically Good Friday, Easter Monday, Christmas Day and Boxing Day are Bank Holidays- but the stand-alone Bank Holidays, The Early May one of today, the Spring one that falls in late May or early June, the Summer one of late August all strike me as cheap, ritual-free appeasements. See, when we were actually Christian as opposed to merely ‘officially’ Christian we had Saints Days- scores of them each year, filled with feasts and lessons and ritual and meaning- but now that we worship the banks and money and consumer goods all we get in turn is a token number of Bank Holidays, those mere days off whose only meaning and significance is the 24 hour postponement of the 9-5 grind and the prospect of getting in some shopping, some drinking, and if we are really lucky the opportunity to inflict some mild sunburn on ourselves.
You could say that I overstate the case given that I have the detachment, the privilege of no longer having to endure the 9-5 grind myself (as I write this I am four months into a hopefully lifelong spell of living by my pen as a professional full time man of letters. And I am eternally grateful to every single supporter who has kindly thrown some coins into my proverbial hat). There’s some truth to this. I could have every single Monday off if I wanted. In fact I usually do, preferring to do the bulk of my work over the weekend and then take off days in the week when the beaches, bars, bookshops and cafes are noticeably quieter. I remember the day in and day out of honest to God work, I really do. But all my old jobs were variations of bar work, kitchen work and care work and so I invariably worked Bank Holidays anyway. Like I said, on my walk earlier all the shops were open. There were plenty of uniformed and name tagged people around hanging up clothes and hawking shoes and pouring coffees and flipping burgers. For them today was busier than a regular Monday.
So what’s the point of this? Appeasement, or at least that’s my theory. I’m no historian but I should imagine that being forced incrementally from an agrarian, Saints Day filled life of self-sufficient toil to that of being an urban, slum-living, 12 hours a day working miner or labourer or factory hand would be a little, shall we say, jarring. Perhaps enough to make the peasants, stripped from their ancestral land by either force or the false promises of the Industrial Revolution feel a bit rebellious. I know I would be. Hence the Bank Holidays.
‘We’ll take your 100+ Saints Days from you and in return give you 10 Bank Holidays on which all that really happens is the banks (which is to say us) close, with all other off days being at the discretion of the business owner in question. And if that doesn’t sound reasonable may I remind you that there is always the Workhouse for you to fall back on.’ It all sounds very Dickensian to me, but I can only assume that some variant of this lopsided offer was taken.
And so here we are today- detached from the Saints and the seasons, detached from much of the fruits of our labour as we increasingly have been since Blake’s dark satanic mills first belched out their apocalyptic black smoke at the periphery of the green countryside. I won’t make the Romantic error of saying there is nothing redemptive or beautiful or joyous about the present world but how can one see the paucity of our (top-down) days off as anything other than a pacifying joke. How can anyone see the shuffling zombie-like gait of those who head directly to the shops on one of these rare state sanctioned days off as anything other than a tragedy.
Perhaps I’m the only one who feels this way. Perhaps it’s a lost cause, this battle for less work and more life, more leisure. Perhaps then this is a job for Saint Jude, the patron saint of difficult cases and thus of hope. The fact his feast day is on October 28th is something I had to look up, of course. But still, as much as we ignore them, or forget them- or rather are made to forget them- the old feast days remain, waiting to be rekindled and reclaimed. Because whatever your views on religion, surely feasting and commensality and drink and dancing and reflection are more meaningful than this endless, pointless grey day consumerism. Right?
Until next time,
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Didn’t realise this, but now I understand how I missed these weekly essays. Happy they are back, great stuff!
Hey Tom, really glad to see these back. I remember reading my first weekly Newsletter On Walking and haven't missed a publication since. Not coming from a religious family, your book is my own kind of bible, as funny as that sounds. It helps remind me of what really constitutes the good life and even how to live a good life and what's important (though I know you're reticent to dish out life advice!). Really enjoying your podcast with Craig. I now definitely need a vinyl player. And the Omnibus on a Sunday morning beats the hell out of any weekend newspaper. Keep up the good work mate. Cheers, Tom