I am sure I speak for us all when I say, whither Bank Holidays? I say this as one who actively enjoys the moveable feast of Easter and harks back with some nostalgia to the mobile shindig of Whitsun. It will come as no surprise to you to learn that my Easter Sundays are typically spent re-creating a school of poetry in boiled-egg form for an edible diorama. This year I had a go at The Movement, expertly wielding the Sharpies to caricature Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, D J Enright, John Wain, Elizabeth Jennings, Thom Gunn and Robert Conquest with a bonus egg for J D Scott, before my Man soft-boiled them all to the peak of perfection. Following that marathon egg-fest, the irony was not lost on me that a movement was not something I was likely to experience for the next few days.
I am well aware that my fellow-citizen, the hard-working man (or woman), flat-capped, hobnail-booted and rolled sleeves, enjoys a Bank Holiday. It’s a time when the hard-working woman (or man) can sojourn to the seaside for a well-earned roll-mop herring and ice-cream or simply prop up the bar at their sawdust-floored local for a pie, pint and punch-up. We think of Bank Holidays as a Victorian social innovation, a right, given to the hard-working man (or woman) by the satanic owners of the dark satanic mills. However, what the hard-working woman (or man) may not realise is that just like my Man’s soft-boiled eggs, Bank Holidays are a relic of Britain’s Imperial Past, of this country’s mastery of Soft Power. For while regular feast days, race days and market days have been a feature of the yearly round for centuries, we do not find them being enshrined in law until the latter part of the Nineteenth Century. And what, I hear you ask, was the reason for this sudden codification of the occasional four-day week? It was the Scramble for Africa.
The Scramble for Africa marks the point in this country’s history when we realised that it was time to get serious about nation-enslaving, resource-grabbing Imperialism. Time was when it was enough to post a few benighted sailors off in a clutch of leaky ships armed with some muskets and a couple of cannons and ask them not to return until they had secured some Spanish doubloons (although no one was quite sure what a doubloon was), a new vegetable, a sparklingly innovative way to give the working man (or woman) cancer, and a patch of land which could be shaded in pink. However, by the 1870’s, it was clear, even to the Eton-Educated wonders who inhabited the Foreign Office that the old ways were not working. Slavery, one of the lynchpins of the British Empire had been thoroughly discredited, if not actually eliminated. Moreover, a few upstart non-British countries had decided that having an empire might be a good idea and were busy recruiting their own moustachioed psychopaths and building their own gunboats. Large swathes of the map were being shaded in colours other than pink, and it seemed that sheer thuggery and cruelty were no longer the magical keys to territorial acquisition they once had been. There were whisperings in the oak-panelled lavatories and pristine ceramic boardrooms of the FO of a new way to create and maintain influence over Johnnie-Foreigner, Charlie-Chieftain, Samuel-Sultan and Colin-Colonist, something called ‘soft power’. Suddenly, building an empire was all about the brochure.
So it was that Civil Servants sidled up to poets such as Kipling, composers such as Elgar and artists such as Leighton and Alma-Tadema, wondering if they would not mind knocking up a few pieces which might make the British feel good about being British and everyone else start wondering what was so great about these chilly, rain-soaked islands. For the first time British Imperialists started analysing other Imperialist models. Spain, it was noted had been Top Nation for a while before Britain had leaped athletically on to the apex of the podium, in fact pretty much all of America (including even the confected name of the continent, it was noted) had been a Spanish or a Portuguese possession at one time or another. The Spanish were not noted for their propagandist poetry, stirring tunes or harking-back-to Roman titillating painting, so what, they mused had made the Spanish so successful? It seems that one Civil Servant in the FO had been to Latin America recently, on a bid to sell railways to Argentina, and had noted that the Hispanic peoples did seem to have an awful lot of holidays. In fact, if you wanted to you could take the Monday after pretty much any Sunday off from work, such were the sheer number of Saint’s Days peppering the Papists’ calendars. Surely, he pointed out, everyone likes a long weekend. Let’s select a few Anglican Feast Days, staple on an obligatory Monday and add that to the whole British Empire marketing package. There must be so many countries where no working woman (or man) has had a day off in years. A soft power brochure was designed, cunningly disguised as the souvenir programme for one of Queen Victoria’s many jubilees, and the British Empire’s generous public holiday schedule was printed in a neat table on the back. By the time the Empires of Germany, Belgium, France and the Netherlands had realised the FO’s subtle ruse, the Scramble for Africa was over. More of the continent was shaded pink than any other colour and it was just about time for the First World War.
This week’s Workshop is poised between the public holiday overload of Easter and the looked-forward to early May holiday, which replaced the Whitsun, another itinerant moveable feast in 1972, and welcome. A Monday to a Pitshanger Poet is rarely entirely a holiday, there is always the consideration of what one is going to take to the group the following evening to remove some of the lustre. This week Nick Barth led out with the experience of being thrust deep into a machine and being made to listen to its music. John Hurley has been thinking about odd tales from his past, together with a heap of praise for the NHS in general as he recounts a night in A and E in Ealing General. Roger Beckett is a true poetry inventor; this week he brought a piece he must have created some years ago featuring a one-sided conversation between Saddam Hussain’s publisher and the dictator himself which had more than a bit of Bob Newhart about it. Martin Choules completed the evening in fine style with an entreaty to the young to get out of the house and do a bit more wandering from an older character whose wandering days are over.
I would argue that it is the curse of a poet to never be able to take a holiday. To have a mind like a poets’ is to be at risk of inspiration striking at any moment and needing to rush from the room for pen and paper to scribble down the mots juste which have just popped unbidden into the old bean. I would not deprive the working man (or woman) of a single day, however much they seem to clutter the calendar up at this time of year. I recall riding in a Volkswagen Beetle Taxi in Mexico City one afternoon, on my way to the airport, as a matter of fact. The driver engaged me in conversation, reminding me that this was the very day the Mexicans mark their independence from Spain.
‘Where are you from?’ he enquired,
‘Britain’ I replied
‘And when is your Independence Day?’
I had to have a think about this; ‘It was around the 15th of September, 410 AD, when the Emperor Honorus rejected the Romano-Britains’ appeal that the army be returned from its futile war with the German Tribes and as a result the last Roman Magistrates were expelled from our islands.’ I said.
‘Do you have fireworks?’
‘Of course,’ I maintained.
Which diverting experience got me thinking – our Imperial past may have enslaved many people, caused untold misery and wiped cultures from the planet but at least the now-independent nations have been able to add a well-earned public holiday to their calendars.
If you have been, thank you for reading.