Longer opening hours change the unspoken rules for living
If you buy a drink in an English pub, you order it at the counter and pay there and then. Puzzled Americans are sometimes left unattended at pub tables ignored by bar staff. Puzzled Spaniards may be surprised that they pay on the spot rather than when they’ve finished their drink.
Such unstated things rule our lives. There are precious few instructions on how to buy a bus ticket in London, for example. Last time I was in Brighton I was delighted to find that you could pay on the bus. In France, if you forget to composter a train ticket, by pushing it into the automatic punching-machine before boarding the train, you’re in for a fine.
In this realm of unspoken custom fall changes in Sunday shop opening, which George Osborne is to extend. It is not so much that longer hours prevent people from going to church (though poor old checkout staff must labour at their electronic mills), it is more that the whole meaning of Sunday undergoes a shift.
Sunday is not the Sabbath. The Sabbath was the seventh day, on which God rested having observed that everything he had made was good. Sunday is the first day of the week (no matter what your diary says). Christians keep it holy because it is the day on which their Lord rose from the dead. That is why they celebrate their central cult act each Sunday: the Eucharist.
In the history of Christianity there has been no general attempt to replicate the Sabbath on Sundays. It was not a day when your ox and ass or servant were forbidden to undertake all work. On the whole, English and Welsh people have fewer oxen and servants in their households now than they did in the past. In London, servants are bought in, for the purposes of cleaning and child-care, by the day, from the pool of foreigners willing to do such work. They are seldom wanted on Sundays, for they are not made part of the household or family, as they were in the days of Parson Woodforde or Samuel Pepys.
Attempts to impose sabbatarian inaction on Sundays succeeded best in Scotland. Yet in Scotland, with its own laws, the opening of shops on Sundays was not illegal, as it became in England and Wales. In the year that The Daily Telegraph began, 1855, there were repeated riots in Hyde Park by the many who objected to the closing of pubs on Sunday afternoons, since, they said, working people had nowhere else to seek leisure (whereas, gentlemen’s clubs were open on Sundays at that time).
This was part of the creeping sabbatarianism that flowed and ebbed in the 19th century. In 1881, the sale of alcohol on Sunday was made illegal in Wales, a prohibition that lasted until 1961, when counties were given referendums to decide if they would stay dry. Private clubs (yacht clubs that never went to sea, golf clubs that never shouted “Fore!”) got round the ban. The train to Machynlleth was a last resort for the thirsty of Aberystwyth.
In England, if It Always Rains on Sunday (1947, for which James Boswell painted the poster art) is to be relied upon, women spent Sunday mornings cooking dinner (lunch) and men went to the pub (open at noon). Even so, anomalies abounded, since Sunday street markets throve. Catholics went to Mass before the pubs opened; Nonconformists went to chapel before the Sunday roast. There was a good deal of snoozing in the afternoon.
Today, London (a different country from the rest of the United Kingdom) seethes with shoppers on Sunday afternoons. It is a pleasure to go abroad for what was once seen as a scandalously louche Continental Sunday, which now seems a peaceful and family-focused day of rest.
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