Another summer closes, another long Labor Day Weekend.
I have just been reading that a famous painting by John Singer Sargent, an American living in Britain a century ago, is being auctioned by a men’s club which needs the money but won’t admit it.
It is an excellent painting of a man once famous but now almost forgotten outside one ethnic group and one nation’s political historians.
That is a shame.
This is the guy that created the weekend for his own benefit and, therefore, for ours.
It is hard to imagine the positive effect it has had on mental health, economy, and culture.
So to appreciate it, imagine it gone
and we all had to work on Saturday. Every
And now that you have that in mind – athletic games and the society around them, soccer, beach trips, sleep – isn’t it very odd that actual religions haven’t grown up around this guy? Really, for inventing the weekend, I’d probably be willing to sacrifice a large animal. And then eat it with salad as I contemplate joining the volleyball game.
We take long weekends for granted now, but really it was only one hundred years ago in the world’s most powerful nation that the actual weekend came into being. It was not a new concept, having been bandied about in various forms by proto-labor organizations; it was not one requiring great thought to see the benefits, although even mediocre thought was not an attribute of government, then or now. It just required doing it. And in the early part of the 20th Century, one British guy did.
Know who he is? You should, don’t you think? There was someone who actually invented the weekend, who gave it shape and made it law. It was not his intent that it would become the quintessential ingredient for the creation of leisure for everyone, not to say a leisurely society the whole world emulated. Nonetheless he understood the value of leisure and the rejuvenation aspects to it. He worked hard, he played hard, and he envisioned a more logical division of time for himself. Since society in the world’s greatest Empire hung on his doings, the effect was enormous. Not to the upper classes, who lived pretty well anyway, but to the service classes that suddenly had significant concurrent hours off each week because the aristocracy was partying elsewhere.
Imagine life today if you had to work fifty to sixty hours in six days. And on the seventh - even if you were not convinced the first day of the week was really the seventh for religious, argumentative, or logical reasons - you rested. Rather, you went to church with the wife and kids. Wasn’t that relaxing? Eh? Church with the wife and kids? Eh? Every week? No vacations, then, guys. On the up side, you didn’t have to compete with women who could do your job better.
Of course, things had loosened up some. Parliament liked to party, and so Saturday was only a half day for them, which meant that it was only a half day for the various shops and services that catered to them when in session. This had taken a while to catch on but it had.
And their Lordships and the MP’s could simply NOT be expected to work without surcease for six whole days (you, on the other hand were a different matter; it was good for you to work….), so they voted themselves a half day on Wednesdays as well, giving them ample time to tie one on and still be sober enough to sleep through each other’s speeches on Thursday. And of course, many of the shops closed on Wednesday afternoon because there was no point in being open. The ripple effect this caused within the economy probably was not extensive, but it was not unnoticed either.
But British Prime Minister Arthur James Balfour, who was a great athlete (he rowed around the Hebrides in his youth and later, no longer able to play squash at the level he wished, changed enthusiasms and invented the phrase and popularized the game “lawn tennis” and helped create what is now Wimbledon), a respected religious philosopher, a devastating and feared debater (“…if he had a little more brains he’d be a halfwit…”), and chronic holder of one or two of the world’s most influential offices, loved above many things the game of golf. Specifically, the game of golf as played in Scotland. Absent the technology, it was not possible for even the Prime Minister of King Edward to train up to St. Andrews Saturday afternoon, rest, play some golf on Sunday – which may not have been allowed then – and be fit as a fiddle for Monday at Westminster. There were other courses, but still….what to do?
Tradition was only of middling importance to Balfour, which made him as an insane drug addict to the court of Edward VII.
His idea of a wild party would sometimes be to gather folks to discuss religious philosophy or science.
In a social class known neither for scholarship nor empirical experience in the real world, he might as well suggest a weekend of macrobiotics and math.
But he was serious.
He gathered a group of like-minded aristocrats around him who were named The Souls by the monarchy because that was a common topic of conversation to them.
Sometimes it was otherwise, of course; being the most eligible bachelor in the world for much of his life, his unmarried status caused comment. Not one to play for the crowds, it was many years before his extensive and overpowering political attributes came to the fore in Parliament, where his languid, nearly supine posture while inhabiting the benches - and rather prissy façade - earned him many canards, including “Miss Balfour” from the press and his peers. His later stern and violent control of Ireland erased much of that – he was called “Bloody Balfour” by the aborigines – along with trickle down gossip that he was the friend and ‘companion’ of some of the great beauties of his day, primarily the Lady Elcho, one of the exceptional three Wyndham Sisters of great renown back then. He liked women smart as well as lovely, which cut down the pool some, but he apparently did very, very well since the death of his original love in the distant past.
He was an odd duck. He is reported to have stymied himself as a large estate’s staircase split in two and offered a choice. He was there for some time as if he could not decide which flank to take. Queried, that proved indeed to be the case. He felt, he said, that there should be a logical reason to take one over the other. He was, at the time, in the Cabinet.
He solved for himself the problem of anti-Semitism in the days of cheery public expressions of such within Europe’s upper classes by the insertion of logic. During the Dreyfus debacle across the channel he said, when questioned, the fact that Christ was a Jew pretty much wrapped the matter up for him. The implication to his Christian questioners (and readers) was pointed and painful.
Like his uncle and predecessor as Prime Minister, the venerable and brilliant Lord Salisbury, Balfour reserved serious thought for serious matters only. Salisbury, once given the choice of two men of similar name for a religious post, appointed the one not requested by the Archbishop of Canterbury. When this was brought to his attention, Salisbury essentially shrugged and said his choice would probably do just as well. History does not record the truth of his claim, which may be all the proof needed for his non-interest in it. His later choice of an actual buffoon as Poet Laureate and successor to Tennyson was explained by saying the man “wanted it.” The Queen shrugged with him. Eh.
Thus genetically enabled to solve his golf crisis and the predictable public huffing, Balfour looked at Wednesday afternoon and Saturday morning and switched them for the coming Parliamentary session. While not the same as suggesting there would now be Leisure Friday at Court and women could wear slacks while chewing gum before the King, it seemed a blow to the nation that liked (and likes) to think it has always done things a certain way for good and moral reasons. True or not.
Balfour’s strike against tradition meant the delicate English House of Lords and the Members of Parliament were liable to be at work for five days straight, but would have Saturday and Sunday off.
Balfour could train up to St. Andrews Friday night and be ready on the links for (if he played his cards right with the authorities) maybe two days of golf.
At a time when society slavishly followed Society, the logic and enjoyment this caused the common people dependent upon the Parliament’s sittings was substantial.
People could – gasp! – sleep in Saturday morning
with no loss of pay.
A day without church or work. Every week
It must have seemed heavenly. All because Arthur wanted to play golf.
Although extremely well read and by nature compassionate, he had of necessity limited his fields of view and had many areas of ignorance. To his credit, he knew it and saw no embarrassment in admitting such and learning. Balfour as Prime Minister once asked a peer to explain to him what exactly a trade union was. But with no known thought, really, for the common man, Balfour’s love of golf and the concept of the extended weekly break, the man changed the world for the better. It isn’t fair to the Labor movement to be this glib, but Arthur James Balfour, who didn’t need to work, created the greatest paradigm shift in the culture of the West in the last one hundred years.
I’m serious now. Think of the implications to Democracy of the Weekend. Common men needed to rest and have an enjoyable home life and a stake in the establishment. It also allowed them time off to think and plot, traditionally a nightmare to governments of unsure support. Balfour felt England and all it represented then secure. As an admission that democracy worked and was stable (hardly an uncontested view, then), this was huge. What comes close in lasting importance?
Nonetheless, one hesitates to attribute much to Balfour, the great political equivocator who may have been the most brilliant man ever to hold the world’s most important office of his time. He could see the many sides to a question, which slowed his responses and made him less effective than he might have been. Even more than the Declaration which bears his name and led to the legal existence of Israel, the weekend – as a fact, a concept, and implication about how folks would live their lives from then on… - is a pretty important achievement. Certainly a lasting and increasingly popular one. If nothing else, he deserves some commemoration. Perhaps something sponsored by the athletic, beer, recreational, and service industries that benefited even more than the average Tommy and Joe (and Hans, Diego, Boris, and Chiang….and, later, the world’s Janes). Oh, and the kids that could know their father better, and those lovely lazy days families spent in each other’s presence talking. Face it, the picnics after church couldn’t do it all.
He remains one of history’s enigmas, though. He never left an autobiography, in a time when it seemed everyone did, and what we do know comes to us by way of a devoted niece, anecdotes in the diaries and biographies of others, and the recent publishing of the exchange of letters with Lady Elcho, an event which would have appalled them both. And not just for the violation of their privacy (never mind her husband’s).
"I am more or less happy when being praised, not very comfortable when being abused, but I have moments of uneasiness when being explained." No celebrity since has put it better.
Much of this is from memory, and surely most comes from Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, a favorite book.