‘What are you sinking about… ?’
When he first suggested Mayday as the internationally recognised signal for a life threatening emergency Frederick Stanley Mockford was thinking about the French.
He was an air traffic controller at Croydon Aerodrome. It was 1923. And since most of the air traffic he controlled was flying between Croydon and Le Bourget it seemed obvious to simply corrupt the french ‘m’aidez’ into a universally acknowledged call for help.
And then to repeat it twice to make absolutely sure you’d been heard and understood.
If the threat to your plane or your ship is not immediately life threatening, by the way, you’re best advised to transmit ‘Pan-pan’ (from panne, a breakdown). And if you’re reporting a hazard or just a change in the weather then you needn’t bother either corrupting or repeating the french. A simple ‘securite’ will do.
But if I were to, pardon the expression, ‘say zis only once’ then, of course, I wouldn’t be signalling a life threatening emergency at all but most likely just talking, or thinking, about yesterday.
It’s a day well worth talking about and thinking about too. In fact it’s one of the most widely celebrated days of the year and a public holiday in some sixty-six countries around the world.
It’s the day to dance round the Maypole in England and the Rhineland. The day to drink sima and eat doughnuts in Finland. The day to give lily of the valley to your lover in Belgium and France. And the day to give your oxen the day off in Romania or to light fires to ward off the snakes in Bulgaria.
In Saint Andrews students run naked into the sea at midnight and in Edinburgh young women climb Arthur’s Seat to bathe their faces in the morning dew and guarantee lifelong beauty. Though it has to be said that I was born in Edinburgh and I’ve yet to meet one who ever appears to have done so.
But which May 1st are we celebrating? And whose? The Gaelic Baltaine or the Floralia of Ancient Rome? Walpurgisnacht or The Feast of St. Joseph The Worker?
Since the beginning of time, or, more accurately, the beginning of its measurement against the Gregorian calendar, May1st has marked a third of the way through the year. And up here in the northern hemisphere, at any rate, the beginning of summer. A day not just of ancient religious and cultural importance but one of more recent, and dare I say it, current, political significance too.
For the student of history or politics the origins of International Workers Day are not easy to untangle but they’re certainly interesting to think about.
At the second congress of the Second international in Paris in 1891 May Day was first formally recognised as an annual day of international demonstrations to commemorate the anniversary of the Haymarket Demonstration in Chicago five years earlier when police fired on demonstrators, killing four of them, after a bomb was thrown into police ranks.
The Haymarket Demonstration had marked the culmination of a widespread campaign for workers’ rights in the US in the1890s. Specifically the eight hour day movement which sought eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation and eight hours for rest.
Fearful that May 1st was now as likely to be used to commemorate the violent events of Haymarket as much as the achievements of American workers, Labor Day as promoted by the US Central Labor Union and the rather Pythonesque sounding Knights of Labor was quickly moved to the first Monday in September by President Grover Cleveland in 1887.
But whilst the Americans now celebrated their workers on their own, or with the Canadians at least, in early September, many Russian workers risked arrest by joining illegal demonstrations on May Day for some twenty-five years before the first officially sanctioned event in 1917.
In 1955 with the cold war at its height, and the May Day parades in Moscow now as much a display of the formidable military might of the USSR as its non existent workers’ rights, Pope Pius XII took a leaf out of President Cleveland’s book and quietly moved the Feast of St. Joseph, the patron saint of workers and craftsmen, from March 19th to May 1st.
Allowing the world’s faithful, and its Italian faithful in particular, not just a legitimate excuse to carry on parting but a divine right to do so without being seen to be entertaining any potentially dangerous sympathies.
In the UK too the significance of May Day requires, as do so many things on those islands, some care whilst reading between the party lines. Britain’s May Bank Holliday falls on the Monday following May Day and was introduced in the dying days of James Callaghan’s Labour Government in 1978, or not quite a hundred years after its adoption by the Second International.
Intending it to ‘reward the workers for a long winter of toil’ though was, at best, an unfortunate irony given the ‘winter of discontent’ that immediately followed and ushered Margret Thatcher into power. And that perhaps goes a little way to explaining its rather confused significance in British culture. Mostly celebrated as it is by buying home improvement materials in out of town superstores. Or sheltering from the rain while trying to light a barbecue.
Surprisingly it survived Thatcher’s attempt to abolish it in 1982 although the now dissolved Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition have recently proposed that it be moved to October ‘in order to prolong the tourist season’.
Oh, and renamed ‘UK Day’ to celebrate ‘the best of British’ at the same time. England’s Morris Dancers aren’t happy. Though oddly I suspect the Scots might be.
May 1st you see is also the anniversary of the coming into effect of The Act of Union which joined the two countries together in 1707. And if, as seems increasingly likely, a majority of them vote for their leftist National Party rather than any of the increasingly centre right unionist alternatives on offer next week then an October ‘UK Day’ or rather ‘rUK Day’ south of the border would leave May 1st free for the Scots to celebrate International Workers Day with everyone else.
But whether May 7th 2015 proves the life threatening emergency to the UK that the shriller voices of the British media predict or just a change in the weather is a subject we’ll come back to very soon. I promise.
For now, I guess, which May 1st you celebrated and why has as much to do with your attitude to organised labour, and by extension your attitude to international capital, as anything else. Twas ever thus.
So yesterday I celebrated mine appropriately au Laboureur before joining the parade to Place Ste. Catherine. And there we ate frites and we drank beer and we sat in the sunshine beneath banners proclaiming: ‘U Verdant Beter. Vous Meritez Mieux. You Deserve Better’.
Mayday. Mayday. Mayday.
Sink about it.