The Book of Days
In the autumn of 1793, a group of French intellectuals, the Comité de l’Instruction Publique, attempted to reset history. Led by the polymath Gilbert Romme, they were chemists, mathematicians, astronomers and balloonists. Though they were scholars, the Revolution to which they belonged was not just one of the mind. Half of Paris’s prison population had been slaughtered the previous year, and heads had been rolling in the Place de la Concorde thereafter, including that of the former king, or Citizen Louis Capet as he went to his death. Facing revolts from the streets and provinces, and foreign invasion, the revolutionaries reasoned there was no turning back, becoming increasingly radicalised and paranoid. If the Ancien Regime was not completely replaced, they would all take their place below Madame La Guillotine. So, the committee set out to overthrow time, in the form it had been measured for hundreds of years.
…….The citizens of France had followed the Gregorian Calendar, and before that the Julian Calendar, for so long it became synonymous with time itself. Dates, months, seasons and years were all wedded to their names, to the extent they seemed natural, God-given, unchangeable. The faithful were, however, mistaken. The measuring and naming of days was a construction and therefore subject to decision and contingency. If the power was sufficiently absolute, a ruler could alter the manner in which past, present and future were seen. The revolutionaries knew this because it had already happened numerous times. The old calendars had followed models where the days were named after planets of the solar system. Months were named after Roman and Greek Gods (Janus, Mars, Maia), annual rituals (Februa or Lupercalia), and numbers that no longer fit because of previous revisions (December meaning tenth for instance). Time was a palimpsest. Avid students and admirers of the Roman Empire, the committee knew that not only was tinkering possible (Quintilis changed to July in honour of Julius Caesar for instance) but also radical restructuring, with the Julian Reform of 45 BC and the Christian Anno Domini reset of 525. The baptising of the new conception of time was given to the poet Fabre d’Eglantine. He recognised, wisely, that even though they were disposing of the old faiths in favour of Reason, the citizens of the Republic needed iconography and myths, and any attempt to impose ‘abstract, dry, prolix and confused’ ideas would never take root. He chose to base the year around agriculture, far from the celestial gods, instead focusing on the nourishing fruits of the soil and those who worked it. And there is a logic to such worship, given how reliant we are upon farmers and their harvests.
…….The year would begin then not on New Year’s Day but in autumn with Vendemaire, the grape harvesters’ feast. There would follow Brumaire, the month of fog; Frimaire frost; Nivôse snow; Pluviôse the month of rains; Ventôse of the winds; Germinal, the month of spouting buds; Floréal flowers; Prairial meadows; Messidor harvest; Thermidor warmth; Fructidor fruits. Each month was personified by an idealised female, derivations of the new secular goddess of Liberty. To replace Catholic saints’ days, each day in the Republican calendar was dedicated to a specific agrarian feature, from the grape of the first day to the basket of the last. Extra days of the year were set aside as festivals in honour of virtue, talent, labour and so on. They were called Sansculottides in honour of the street-fighting shock troops of the revolution. Yet the workers were cheated by this new calendar constructed in their name. The day of rest was no longer every seven days with the Sabbath but rather every ten; the first sign that the citizenry were not in charge of anything, beyond the symbolic veneer of democracy, and, in fact, one elite had simply usurped another. The various competing groups of this fledgling establishment were already beginning to turn on one another. The Terror would begin in the month of meadows, on the day of Chamomile and, sure enough, the revolution would consume its own.
…….I can’t remember precisely when I began to write the Book of Days but its contents dated back to 1 January or 12 Nivôse. The day of Clay. I had long been obsessed with old obsolete books. This might seem an affectation but my interest was sincere, born from growing up as a voracious reader but one, due to modest circumstances, for whom access to books was limited. I read what I could find and salvage, all of it outdated – guides to vanished countries, redundant technologies, memoirs of forgotten figures. A fascination with literary detritus persisted and instead of contemporary novels, I withdrew into books no one else read anymore – Robinsonades and penny bloods, bestiaries and breviaries. At some point, I chanced upon medieval Books of Hours, illuminated manuscripts that in their own devotional Christian manner attempted to restructure time around rituals of prayer, contemplation, the honouring of saints and remembrance of the dead. Each was a year contained in a book, with illustrations from feudal life, personalised for each wealthy reader. They did not survive intact into the modern age other than as artefacts from a time when church bells governed rather than factory clocks.
…….There was however one descendant – the Book of Days. Though they sometimes included saints, often because such tales tended to be enigmatic and gruesome, these were largely secular almanacs, reflecting the modern mania for collecting and cataloguing. The first I encountered, as a boy, was a ragged Chambers book from the 1860s barely held together at its spine. It was called The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar: Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities and Literature, and Oddities of Human Life and Character. In the first three days of the year alone, there were tales of spectral bridegrooms, strange lights above Tuam, the peaceable death of Dr. Guillotine of Paris, the ancient idea of unlucky ‘Egyptian days’, a false prophet dancing around the body of one of his wives, Sainte Geneviève and Cicero, horn-books and migratory bogs. Each day was like a junkshop or scrapyard, filled with fragments of history. An impression was made given that, sometime in the late winter/early spring of 2022, without intending to, I started to write my own.
…….Something happened to time during lockdown. Or rather something happened to us. Removed from routines of work, leisure, travel, we found ourselves adrift. Days passed at glacial speed. Weeks flew. Months collapsed in on themselves. I began to notice, in eerily empty streets, seasons in a way I had not since I was a child. Perhaps writing a Book of Days was an attempt to restore a scaffolding onto time. Yet I know the real reason for writing a book I would never publish. At first there had been little to worry about. My father was an outdoorsman, a gardener-groundsman for the council, a body builder, fanatically fit, still years from retirement, no underlying conditions. And yet, when I was told he’d Covid, lying feverish on his bed, with the curtains billowing out into the street, I felt an inexplicable feeling that defied reason, a godless baleful certainty that sickened me to my soul. In a matter of days, he was critically ill and in the months that followed, he suffered in ways I scarcely thought possible – sepsis, renal failure, pulmonary fibrosis, necrosis of the face, pneumonia, stroke. Bar the gracious nurses, he suffered alone, tethered to a ventilator in a room called ‘the glass house’ in a tower of the hospital. We couldn’t visit and were reduced to glitching ghosts on video calls. It felt like watching my father be tortured for months. When he was placed into a coma, it was almost a respite. Some nights, I would sit outside the hospital, knowing the doors were locked, just to stare up at the lights of the rooms.
…….We were told on several occasions by consultants that my father would make it. He was strong as an ox, but nevertheless we should prepare ourselves. He had undergone life-changing injuries. His home would have to change, and his lifestyle would never be the same. We began planning changes and I worried, privately, that given the stroke and ICU psychosis that had set in, whether he would still be himself.
…….I inherited a love of books from my father. He consumed knowledge and, though otherwise shy, would share in an impassioned way, even when my mother jokingly rolled her eyes, ‘Here we go again’ as he talked about the Boxer Rebellion or the Beaker people. I’ve never encountered a person who loved to read as much and yet my father harboured a secret. He could not write. He was illiterate in the writing sense. He’d grown up in deprivation, in a squat as Catholics were denied housing, and was thrown out of school very young. Not long after he ended up in jail as a political prisoner, having been swept up in the violence of the Troubles. We found out later, only with my sister’s diagnosis, that he’d been dyslexic his whole life. He’d carried that as a quiet silent burden all those years. A man obsessed with books who couldn’t write a line, a badass tattooed strongman who would sheepishly, and after much delay, ask his children to fill in forms for him. I felt sorry for him then, as little as I was. At times, I wonder if my path in life was because of what was denied to him.
…….I did what I could. I read him passages of nature books, the poetry of the Romantics, anything to colour his dreams and ease his mind. And I wrote. I wrote a Book of Days for every day of his illness, part diary, part journal of a plague year, part almanac, to tell him we were there though we could not be physically, to help him if he had lost himself or lost track of the world to find his way home. I wrote of the stars and the seasons, of geopolitics and songs and dreams. It’s the only thing I’ve ever written that I was not ashamed of. It was the only true poetry I’ve ever written. My father was a man who was tied to the seasons much more than I ever could be, a pagan who belonged in and to nature, who perceived time in a way far older than modernity and the French revolution and even Christianity. So, I tried to give him back those days stolen from him.
…….The book would be there for him when he came home but, of course, he never came home. Finally stable enough to wheel to the x-ray department, they found that my father’s lungs were destroyed. They finally let us in. I spent the last four nights of his life with him. They were more brutal than any nightmare and yet somehow I’m glad for them now. We never made it to a full year in our Book of Days. He survived for 184 days, just over six months. He died on 3 July or 15 Messidor, the month of the harvest, on the day of the Chamois. Not long after, the borders reopened. The lockdowns lifted. Normality apparently resumed.
…….What became of those who’d reset time? Gilbert Romme, architect of the Republican Calendar, found himself on the wrong side of a schism and, sentenced to death, committed suicide with others on the staircase of the court. The poet Fabre d’Eglantine went to the guillotine, singing his lyric, ‘It’s Raining, Shepherdess’, now a nursery rhyme. The calendar was abolished by Napoleon. The new age had lasted twelve years.
…….I buried my father’s Book of Days somewhere no-one living now will likely find it. They belonged to him. Those were the last days of a good man’s life, those were the days of his dying, and perhaps in the eyes of those who will one day find them, those days, now washed away, mattered.
Darran Anderson is the author of Imaginary Cities, chosen as a best book of 2015 by The Financial Times, The Guardian, and The A.V. Club. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The TLS, Frieze, Wired, and the Architectural Review. He was born in Derry, Ireland, and lives in London.
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