In 1994, after 26 previous attempts to relax our Sunday trading laws, the Sunday Trading Act was passed. This decreed that shops of more than 280 square metres could open for six hours. I paid little heed at the time to the hand-raising and polemic that surrounded the decision. Eventually, the stillness usually associated with Sundays dissipated, and every shopping day rolled into one. The sad thing is that, it all happened so slowly, I barely noticed. And I was too busy shopping to care.
John Lewis was one of the few shops to resist Sunday trading, but even it eventually gave in, starting from 1996 with its Cheadle branch. The flagship Oxford Street store held out until October 2003. Last summer, the Department of Trade and Industry rejected calls from other large shops to further extend the hours they could open.
When I was a young child, before my mother and father started their own business, which meant working 363 days a year, we would go to church on Sunday, then my mother would rush home to finish the roast and my father would take us to Kensington Gardens to play on the swings. On the way home, he would buy a block of raspberry ripple ice cream for after lunch, and two copies of Teddy Bear magazine (necessary because my sister would not let me share hers). As we walked down Queensway, all the shops would be shut, save for Bobby's (the newsagent), where the aforementioned treats were sold. Sunday was an exciting and special day simply because not very much happened.
I was reminded of this feeling, which I'd quite forgotten, when last Sunday I strolled, with my daughter in hand, down the rather long high street in the Suffolk village of Long Melford. There were no chains there, just one intriguing little shop after another - the best of which was Lady Jane's Department Store, housed in a rather handsome Georgian building. Through the windows, I could see merchandise that I couldn't get closer to, inspect or buy. This happened in shop after shop, and everything looked all the more enticing and intriguing because I didn't have instant access to it. As I pressed my nose up against the glass, I realised that, having lived in London all my life, I hadn't needed to press my nose up against a shop window for a very long time. I felt sad.
There was something so self-possessed about all those shut shops. They weren't all pleasing. And much as they no doubt needed custom, they need rest - and need it more - at least one day a week.
One of the things I love about Christmas is the collective slowing down, that feeling almost of bunking off from life. No one else does very much, so you feel you can switch off, too. It's a little pit stop in a big year of action.
I now realise, too late, of course, that this was what I loved about Sundays. They were like Christmas every week.