René Goscinny was a genius at satirical stereotype. His Asterix volumes, memorably illustrated by Alberto Uderzo, took aim at some of the familiar perceptions of people in Western European nations and beyond.
Though perhaps considered a little too close to the bone to be originally published in 2020, even 7 or 8-year old Mark could recognise the satire. If anything, they were a good indication and early guide to the idea of stereotypes and how ridiculous they can be. This was identifiable in Goscinny’s version of the British stiff upper lip that I could recognise as humorous without it being distinguishable in the British people I knew. It was even my first introduction to the Brits strange lust for "warm beer."
However, 55 years on, there are elements of the British characters that Asterix met that are still recognisable today. I can quote the scene directly from the excellent 1986 film adaptation that sees the British warriors stop fighting at precisely 5 o'clock for teatime and the moment the café owner exclaims “Sorry we are closed for the weekends.”
"I say old chap, it's getting on for time."
In recent years, in areas not far from my home, a chain of barbershops has been popping up in most local towns. At first I couldn’t quite figure out the reason for their rapid success that saw just one group managing to dominate the local market.
Soon the secret to their success became apparent. It was an idea so far-fetched and incredulous that nobody had considered it before. It went against everything Goscinny had said about the British
They were open.
They were open after 5 o’clock on weekdays until late. They were open all day Saturday. They were open Sundays – and full. Full of school children and adults alike, whose only free day of the week happens to be Sunday; the ideal day for a haircut for many, whilst every local competitor was firmly shut. They simply moved from town to town, spotting the weakness in their competition who may as well have been laying down arms at Julius Caesar’s feet.
It is something I have touched on briefly before and it is rarely off my mind. Whilst a YouGov poll a couple of years ago suggests that only 6% of the workforce recognises 9-5 as the working week (and looking at the reasons behind this it is skewed to those who include checking e-mails out of office) part of that 6% seem to be local independent businesses. Though I would still rather use the local butcher’s or greengrocer’s or wholefoods shop for my grocery shopping, the fact is that all those local to us are not open when I can get there. They restrict their hours to the 1960s view of British work and align themselves with office workers, meaning that supermarkets still take most of my paycheck. I want to begrudge them that but ultimately I respect the fact that they are actually open to do business with. It isn’t a moral choice – it is the only option.
"Oh no question, old thing, we're off for two days."
I’ve left the writing of this post until the end of January to be sure that I don’t upset the apple cart too much in reference to the pub industry. I thought about it a great deal over the Christmas period, a prime time for public houses of all types to rake in the cash; exploiting the much maligned group of once-a-year drinkers. Yet this year more and more seem to be shut, not just Christmas Day but Christmas Eve night, Boxing Day and the days followings.
And I was slaughtered for suggesting this was foolish, even though I was only half serious. Like high street shops opening to utilise the Boxing Day sale rush, I couldn’t understand why small businesses wouldn’t want to take advantage of this busiest time of year. But of course, suggesting such radical thought makes me selfish and “uncaring of worker’s mental wellbeing.” Aye. Okay.
Which is why I take slow sips from my cup of tea when those same pubs/bars that were shut late December start the year with the wonderful TRYANUARY spiel. Support your local business. Support the Beer Industry. A pub isn’t just for Christmas. No, true, but you weren’t open at flipping Christmas time were you when I was there to support you so what do I possibly owe you now?
Attempted visits to a few local micropubs have found them closed at 8pm on a Friday evening. My favourite local bottle shop would be used much more by myself if it wasn’t for the fact it isn’t open most evenings and is closed Sundays.
Business models are built on sustainability. If trade is good in the traditional British working hour – and those are the hours the business owners want to work – then, of course, I am not critiquing that. I am not suggesting that businesses should change their hours to suit me.
But I look at that successful barber chain and wonder why so many businesses work within the mental restraints of British society, rather than excelling outside of the 9-5. There is money to be made that can be racked up and totalled and could provide the possibility of a more relaxed time later in the year, whether that is over the Christmas period or avoiding the pleading cries of quiet trade during January.
People have family to attend to. People have every right to enjoy the privileges of running their own business. Many do so that they can control their hours, have a degree of order to their lives and work around other aspects of the daily routine. I'm sure many have given thought to this before - city centre pubs that rely on travellers, for example, I can understand having Christmas off.
I understand. But if I ever do decide to open a small corner greengrocers I sometimes dream about then I'll be open until 10 on weekday evenings and all day Sunday. Come and buy your fresh vegetables at a convenient time.
sorry - we are closed on the weekends."
Readers from our nation’s capital may be surprised by some of the words here. On my infrequent visits to London I often find myself musing about its vast difference to the North. Indeed, on my last visit in June 2019 I stayed in the centre of Hackney. As I strolled down Amhurst Road to the Pembury Tavern on a Sunday evening I walked passed all manner of businesses, not only open but busy and thriving - including another barbershop.
It was no surprise to then see the pubs and bars equally buzzing, the “Pembo” almost uncomfortably so, on this Sunday evening. With the entire area still a hive of activity, every business was benefiting from the vibrancy. People could nip out for pet food or to get their nails done or to have a few pints of Railway Porter as if it were a Thursday afternoon. This should be the norm everywhere.
There is also the safety factor, with more people on the streets then being out is more comfortable. In contrast, it can feel eerily dangerous to even take the dog out in all the northern areas I’ve lived in over the years. Almost all businesses are closed and the pubs are quiet to parallel with it. Even cars are few and far between. Quite often on a Sunday evening, when the roast dinner is finished and the Strictly results show has come to an end, we'll pop to the pub for an hour to bring the weekend to a close. It is baffling that the choice of places to indulge in is so limited at this time. Curtains twitch as locals strain to believe that somebody has dared to ignite a car engine post church service time on a Sunday.
Early 2020 has claimed a few small independent businesses in my area, as well as hearing similar things happen to places where friends live. Each time I find my first question being "What were their opening hours?" Nearly half the time they existed within Asterix's Gallic view of us and I find it such a shame. As a nation, I wish we could live outside of societal norms, rather than accepting our lot in life with a spot of marmalade and a cup of hot water. No milk in mine please.
These are general thoughts about business and attitudes in this country. I do not need individual businesses explaining their reasons for their own opening hours. This isn't about you. Thanks.