A damp bank holiday weekend and the motorway is filled with three lanes of traffic, each moving at no more than 20 miles an hour. Among the cars and lorries, there are man caravans and camper vans, people searching for a bit of happiness, a bit of fun. A prayer said to have come from the wall of an inn in Lancashire seems apt:
Give us, Lord, a bit o’ sun
a bit o’ work and a bit o’ fun;
give us all in th’ struggle and splutter
our daily bread and a bit o’ butter.
Give us health, our keep to make
an’ a bit to spare for poor folks sake;
give us sense, for we’re some of us duffers,
an’ a heart to feel for all that suffers.
Give us, too, a bit of a song,
an’ a tale, and a book to help us along,
an’ give us our share o’ sorrow’s lesson
that we may prove how grief’s a blessing.
Give us, Lord, a chance to be
our goodly best, brave, wise and free,
our goodly best for ourselves and others
till all men learn to live as brothers.
It is a picture of contentment with the ordinary things of life – a job and laughter and food on the table, and a few shillings in the pocket and the company of friends for songs and stories, and a book to read so as to be quiet at times – and maybe a trip out on a bank holiday. It’s not all ale and jokes: there’s a wish for an understanding of sorrow and a wish to be a brother to all whom one meets.
An idyll of rural England? It finds resonance in A Month in the Country, JL Carr’s brilliant evocation of the summer of 1920 in a small village community. Tom Birkin, an atheist through his experience of Hell on the Western Front, comes to the village for a summer’s work restoring a wall painting in the parish church. He falls into company with the chapel people of the north of England village, because they are the ones who show him warmth and generosity. One Saturday, he finds himself with them as they travel on horse dawn wagons for their Sunday School treat:
There was a throaty smell blowing off the bilberry shrubs and withering heather when we disembarked on a sheep-cropped plain high up in the hills. There was no shelter from the sun, but it was dinner-time and the women and girls unpacked hard-boiled eggs and soggy tomato sandwiches wrapped in greased paper and swaddled in napkins. It was Mr Dowthwaite (for you laboured for your prestige amongst the Wesleyans) who built a downbreeze fire of twigs and soon had tin kettles boiling. Then he struck up the Doxology and, when we’d sung it, we settled to some steady eating.
Afterwards, most of the men took off their jackets, exposing their braces and the tapes of their long woollen underpants and astonished their children by larking around like great lads. The courting couples sidled off, the women sat around and talked. So eating, drinking, dozing, making love, the day passed until evening came and the horses were led from their pasture. Then, as the first star rose and swallows turned and twisted above the bracken, our wagons rumbled down from above the White Horse and across the Vale towards home: the Sunday-school Treat was over.
The unalloyed pleasure captured by the prayer in the Lancashire pub and Carr’s Sunday school treat, aren’t they our bank holiday dream?