Wednesday, 23 April 2008

I Never Liked Sundays

I was tempted to title this post 'Sunday, Bloody Sunday', but imagined it would attract readers seeking out something on Northern Ireland (Bloody Sunday was on 30th January 1972 when 13 civil rights protestors were shot dead in (London)Derry by British paratroopers) or the song by U2 about that incident. At present I have nothing to say about those. My posting today is more broadly about my experiences of Sundays, especially in the 1970s and 1980s and also to reflect on the difference between the UK experience and that in other countries.

As a child I always thought it was unfair that you got only two days off from school or work and on one of those days, Sunday, there was absolutely nothing to do. The only shops open were newsagents and they closed at 12.30 and petrol stations which in those days only sold petrol, oil and some sweets. The swimming pool similarly was just open until lunchtime. Everything was closed and the only thing of interest was to walk to said petrol station to buy some sweets or do what adults did which was walking around the closed shops of the high street staring through the windows at house prices. The highlight of such a walk was when we reached the closed newsagent which had shelves of toy animals in its window and we would stand looking at them as long as we could. In those days there were only three television channels which basically on Sunday had nothing on for children. There would be religious programmes and then politics programmes and a very dreary serial in the late afternoon which was usually only comprehensible to older teenagers and usually featured Victorians, presumably to remind you that in fact Sundays could be even more dreary than the ones you were experiencing. There was often a Western on mid-afternoon and that could be reasonable. The introduction of three programmes raised a little bit of hope: 'Antiques Roadshow' (from 1977 to now), 'Life on Earth' (1979) and 'Tales of the Unexpected with Roald Dahl' (1979), though that third one was only allowed for older teenagers because some of the stories were scary. Nature and science programmes like 'Survival' and 'Horizon' and the occasional history programme 'The World at War' or 'Chronicle' were also of interest to me, but again they were terribly worthy and educational and not entertainment.

Looking back I still feel discomfort at all the tedious hours which passed with my brain atrophying for want of stimulation. Of course the lack of entertainment meant that your parents could force you to do chores, and I have already written on the back-aching hours I was forced to work in their garden without any payment and told to be grateful for the food I received. In some ways I was lucky. With few elderly relatives and a family who were no interested in religion I was spared the burden of having to sit through church services and go to overheated rooms where smelly old women would clasp your face and their stinky dogs would jump up at you. It is unsurprising that in such circumstances coming around every week, that dreadful day, that children turned to vandalism and glue sniffing. No-one seemed to have any recognition of how scarred mentally they made their children. You squeezed entertainment out of anything, the car ride to Granny & Grandad's was more interesting than being there. I was blessed with a good imagination which saved me from insanity as I escaped into a world acted out by lego characters, but most people were not so lucky and the best was a trip to the park to go on the swings (of course in those days much more of a health hazard as they were set in concrete). Of course, in the UK it rains a lot so on many Sundays there was not even the option of the park.

Once I turned 13 work became an outlet. First a Sunday newspaper round. They were so understaffed that I would do three rounds over a 3-mile radius and it would take almost to lunchtime to complete. Then of course I would be worn out from shifting the heavy bags and getting up at 06.30 and could sleep well into the afternoon so eating up more of the dreary time. Then I worked in a petrol station, taking the afternoon shift deliberately. It could be dull, but occasionally incidents occurred like having to help start a car or a dog escaping or something and you could usually guarantee attractive women stopping at the petrol station to buy milk having coming semi-clad (typically just in a man's shirt) from a sexual encounter (there were a lot of flats for single people near the petrol station) or men usually also accompanied by very tarty women in souped-up or customised cars charging up and down the empty roads to relieve their boredom. Such sights of the alluring opposite sex are enough to sustain a teenage boy for quite a while and generates conversation with workmates too. So, ironically, not having a day of rest and working was a better way to struggle through Sunday. Similarly in teenage years, school homework could occupy hours of the day. Once I went away to study Sundays were saved by being hung over from Saturday and then going to the Film Society movies in the evening. By then you could go to the pub too (though they used to only be open 12pm-3pm and 7pm-10.30pm on Sundays).

Of course we were the last of the generation to go through that experience. In 1981 ZX81 home computer was released and the even better ZX Spectrum in 1982 which sold 2 million. There were other home computers from Apple and Acorn amongst others. There were of course home consoles for lucky children and things like 'Pong' had been available to play since 1972 (on the Magnavox Odyssey), this took off even more with the Atari console of 1975 and especially the one of 1986. Anyway, for the first time these things meant there was entertainment on tap for children. Of course these were mainly middle class children with parents who were not intimidated by the technology so there was a sharp class divide between those still stuck in the tedious 1970s style of Sundays (and there was that annoying clutch of parents who would not even have a television in their house, seemingly unaware of how much that made their children despised by others) and those who were moving into the more exciting shiny mid-1980s Sundays. This increased greatly with the introduction of video cassette recorders in the mid-1980s which freed us from the restrictions of the television schedule. As with the home computers, you now had entertainment on tap you no longer had to worry that a Sunday lunch would overrun or you would not get home from Granny's in time, it was all safe and it was there. You could even save up your favourite programmes during the week to watch on Sunday or even rent some movies! The dreary Sunday was finally being killed off. I forgot the eruption of car boot sales too, another 1980s innovation, an opportunity to spend the morning either selling off your own tat or buying someone else's another step forward in condemning dreary Sundays.

The big change came in 1994 and I think it is what has actually stopped me commiting suicide on a Sunday. With the Sunday Trading Act 1994 all shops could open at least 10am-4pm or some similar pattern like 11am-5pm. Pubs stopped closing in the middle of the day and you could pass the time shopping for DIY items or videos or CDs or clothes or even food and Sundays at last became what they should really be, very much like Saturday. Given that most of us work 5 days out of 7, why should one of those off days be even more dull than a work day? In Iceland, so I have heard, they used to show no television programmes on a Thursday to encourage families to talk to each other. I could cope with that as at least you know Friday and Saturday would follow. As for families talking to each other, this was another factor, with bored moaning children and bored parents, Sunday was always the day for family arguments. Anyway, I am happy for children growing up now that one of their days off is not a tedious burden. With so many children's channels and very cheap DVDs (you can get loads for £3-4) there is so much entertainment out there that the dull Sunday is banished. Their parents can even take them to a pub for a meal on a Sunday, another good thing as it gives the cook of the house (still often the mother) a day off whereas before she was often burdened with producing a huge meal that everyone felt obliged to attend but no-one would actually enjoy every week.

Of course on the spectrum of Sunday experiences Britain has come a long way. At one end of the spectrum are countries that were even worse, such as Belgium where shops were traditionally closed both Sunday and Monday and Germany (though this is shifting) where all shops closed at noon on Saturday (except the first Saturday in every month when they stay opened to 4pm) so there were dull Saturday afternoons to get through as well as Sunday. I remember walking around the centre of the city of Koln (population over 1 million) in 1989 on a Saturday and it was so deserted, a few people, no cars except police cars it looked like a post-apocalypse movie, you expected zombies to appear around the corner. Well the only zombies were teenagers desperately seeking an ice cream parlour that was open. At the other extreme I talk to people from Arab states who complain that British shops are not open to 10pm every day of the week, including Sundays and even Australians bewildered when they turn up at Asda (a supermarket) on a Sunday at 5pm and find that its closed. The majority of the British population wants more shops open for longer on Sundays:

So the UK is not at the far end of the spectrum and maybe it never will be. However, I am heartened that I have seen such a shift in my own lifetime and children of today do not have to endure the Sunday after Sunday after Sunday of the kind that were inflicted on me in my youth. It still hangs like a cloud over me and it is uncomfortable to think of how many hours of tedium I suffered on Sundays of my childhood.

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