TERRY PRONE: Inventors of key artefacts of living ought to be loved and remembered

Sir John Lubbock invented the bank holiday. Let’s have a small respectful silence for Sir John, writes Terry Prone

ONE of the great injustices of history is that the names of those who invented the really significant artefacts of living have gone unrecorded. Nobody knows who came up with the scissors. Nobody can tell you who invented the paper clip. But chief of those worthwhile artefacts with an unknown inventor is the bed.

Nobody knows who moved us out of hammocks and off the floor by developing the most wonderful item in anybody’s home, which is unfair. The inventor of the bed has made such a difference to human happiness, not to mention procreation, they should at least get a knighthood and some of us would be pushing for a sainthood for him or her.

On the other hand, we do know who invented the bank holiday. It was Sir John Lubbock. Not a name to conjure with, these days, but let’s nonetheless have a small respectful silence for Sir John, because up to his time — the second half of the nineteenth century — we had no bank holidays.

We did have feast days. Depending on where you lived in Europe, you might be lucky and have as many as 30 saints’ days and religious festivals as holidays, during which, in reverence to the saint named in the day, you could eat yourself sick, drink yourself comatose and generally have a great time.

Then came the bad news. Government, back in the day when the electorate was not a real and constantly present danger to them, decided to cut back all these occasions of sin and celebration to four. That was in 1832.

Inventors of key artefacts of living ought to be loved and remembered

The public were reduced to May Day, All Saints’ Day, Good Friday and Christmas Day. Social history is remarkably quiet about how the peasantry took this diminution in their licensed fun. But you can figure they were about as happy as dead slugs.

Then along came Sir John. In 1871, he introduced the Bank Holidays Act 1871, which specified that citizens wouldn’t have to make payments or to do work on one of these bank holidays. In other words, the gift he was giving ordinary people, and would keep on giving them, was freedom to party.

The English people were grateful. Really, seriously, understandably grateful. So grateful, in fact, that for a while, bank holidays were called Lubbock’s Days. Only for a while, though. As any seasoned politician knows or should know, voter gratitude has its shelf life, and it’s a short shelf life.

Nobody today feels a warm rush of love for the Liberal politician, except perhaps me.

I love bank holidays. It’s like mitching from school only legal. Because bank holidays are often wrapped like a lagging jacket around a weekend, we get a bunch of free time handed to us: three Lubbock’s Days in a row.

Now, many people take that time and do adventurous things with it. They kayak. Or take part in sailing races. Or climb hills. Or run 10Ks. Me, I knit.

Now, this is a new old thing for me. Knitting was one of the few things I learned in primary school, and is probably the only thing, other than times tables learned back then that has stayed with me.

When I discovered this wonderful craft as as kid, I took it on like a new religion. So eager was I to evangelise, I even converted my father, who was so overwhelmed by my conviction that it would change his life that he allowed me to teach him how to do it, and for a few weeks, after tea, the two of us would sit together in the sitting room in a mad parody of domesticity, knitting like maniacs.

He was slower and more careful than I was, though. He knitted as if something could go seriously wrong at any moment and that no recovery would be possible, which lent his knitting a tight tension.

My mother, who had nothing but contempt for craftwork (“if a machine can do it faster and cheaper, let it”) had nonetheless announced that I had a beautiful relaxed tension, a compliment — like the Leaving Cert — of which you can be privately proud, but about which nobody ever asks you. So in all of the decades since, I’ve never had the chance to boast about my beautiful relaxed knitting tension.

I knitted everything. Beautiful tiny baby clothes. Mittens. Socks. I even got creative and knitted a ballerina with a tutu, which my mother saved between tissue paper. I was never quite sure if she saved it as evidence of creativity or craziness, but the key thing is that she saved it.

Later in life, knitting, for me, went intermittent and large. Intermittent because I got too busy for it. Large, because I started to cheat, knitting using needles roughly as large in diameter as the handle of a sweeping brush and wool as thick as a hawser.

Inventors of key artefacts of living ought to be loved and remembered

The combination allowed me to produce hats and scarves that sure as hell didn’t need assertiveness training. Family members who wore them admitted that they were warm in cold weather, but did give them the look of a small animal being scrunched for eating by a woolly boa constrictor.

I stopped altogether about 20 years ago. But a few weeks ago, one of the men in my life got nostalgic about the fawn scarf I’d knitted him and said he’d love another one. I sprang into action and went off to buy needles and yarn.

The humiliating bit was discovering that needles no longer come in enamelled grey. You can get bamboo needles or sparkly metal lads. It was all so disconcerting that when research came out a couple of days later saying we’re all boggled, these days, by the level of choice facing us, I had a gotcha moment.

The other disconcerting thing was that the This is Knit shop was filled with young people. I’m sorry for the ageist assumption, but I was sort of expecting little old ladies, and little old ladies were there none, except for me. I whispered my surprise to Maureen behind the counter, and she went wide-eyed with surprise.

“There’s even a knitting club in TCD,” she said reprovingly. That clinched it. Clearly, if applied physics undergraduates are gathering together to produce green jerseys — or, indeed, jerseys of any colour — I was locking on to a trend. I still needed to be careful of the radical changes in the craft, though.

In the old days, for example I would just buy pure wool and feel good about it. Maureen indicated that it was my choice, of course (always a dead giveaway that the customer, in this instance, is arseways) but suggested that if I were knitting for people with sensitive skin, they might find pure wool a little scratchy.

Perhaps a little added alpaca? I thought an alpaca was a kind of an ostrich, but I went with alpaca. As a result, this weekend has been a sensual delight with a vague sense of achievement attached. Fair dues to ol Lubbock.

And, of course, to the nameless hero who invented knitting.


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