Alexandra Harris, author of Romantic Moderns and winner of the Guardian First Book Award, considers how we pass, measure and mark time, and ultimately, what it means to us.
Robinson Crusoe, stuck on his island, had no need to keep time with the world. Certainly he had no boats to catch or appointments to keep. And yet he made it a priority to keep track of the passing days. In mid-October 1659, the thought struck him: ‘It came into my mind that I should lose my reckoning of time’. To avert that disaster he put up a large post on the beach and cut a notch in it each day – doggedly, faithfully, year after year. He had sole responsibility for this makeshift calendar and no way of checking it against an external measure, so he faced a problem when he woke up one afternoon having slept, drunkenly, for a very long time. How long? Could he have slept through a whole day? In which case his calendar would forever be wrong and there was just no way of telling.
There is something frightening and disorienting about that idea. We can laugh a little at Crusoe’s pedantic notches and his obsessive quest for order. And while laughing we might think how nice it is to take off our own watches and relax. But soon we put the watches back on again. We check the dairy, remember an important birthday, look forward to the weekend. We give meaning to life by measuring it out.
Time moves fast in autumn, or it seems to, perhaps because there’s the sense of an end. The last of summer ticks away, marked by the gathering darkness and the daily change in the trees. There are the small harvest rituals (blackberrying, apple-picking) which don’t require much labour, but which give a pleasurable hint of the ‘harvest home’. By nature’s clock autumn is a finale, and in agricultural communities harvest is an ending. But mostly, now, autumn is a starting point for work. It is time to knuckle down; the sense of sharpening one’s pencils – metaphorically – lasts well beyond the age of leaving school.
And then, once we’re back in the routine, time slows and stretches from Michaelmas to Christmas. This is the passage which takes us from the first regretful click of the boiler to festive logs burning in the grate; from muddy leaf-mulch to frost-hardened ground; from sunlight to lamplight; from migrating swifts to a puffed-up redbreast; from damp stakes around droopy asters bundled into clumps of pink, to the cool white flowering of the hellebores. The same months are marked out by all these different kinds of clock.
The Anglo-Saxons did not go in for autumn. The appearance of the full moon in ‘winterfyllith’ (the month known in Latin as October) marked the start of winter and, for the most part, that was that. The year was one of binaries: summer and winter, light and dark, warmth and cold. But there was nothing simple about the early English reckoning of time. The people who carved the Bewcastle Cross in Cumbria towards the end of the seventh century were already sophisticated timekeepers. Incised into the stone is a vertical sundial which measures not only the twelve hours of daylight (where an hour is a twelfth of the daylight available), but also the canonical hours or ‘tides’ for worship: terce, sext, none.
At night, and on cloudy days, other kinds of clock were needed. A candle known to burn at a certain rate would tell the time in diminishing wax or tallow. The venerable Bede, whose book The Reckoning of Time became the core text for a rapidly developing branch of science, made use of the lunar cycles and the related tides of the sea. It was useful knowledge: he was able to draw up tide timetables for his fellow monks at the monastery on Lindisfarne, reached across a causeway at low tide.
Calendars began early, along with clocks and dials. They started as records of Christian festivals (especially the numerous saints’ days and the controversially shifting dates of Easter), but quickly became amalgams of all sorts of things: divinity, agriculture, weather, astronomy. And so they continued. A birthday jotted down beside a saint’s day; a shopping list marked in amongst tables of the tides. Almanacs were available fairly cheaply from the sixteenth century onwards, and were made small enough to carry about as pocket diaries. An almanac was a universe in your pocket, packed with zodiac signs, charts, mottos, and dials. Prognostications mapped out the future (based on the weather at Christmas or the planets in September) and chronologies mapped out the past. Between past and future were little spaces left for personal notes and appointments. It is just the same today. Post-its stick out of diaries; there are arrows and boxes scribbled on the calendar. We make, day by day, our idiosyncratic additions to the general reckoning of time.
Buildings, sometimes, are diaries in stone. Their walls, marked and notched, tell the stories of their lives, and in doing so they gesture to the human lives spent within – and without. This capacity of walls to measure time has been a source of fascination since at least the period of the earliest English literature. In the eighth century or before, a poet stood gazing at the crumbling walls of an ancient town, trying to understand the transience of things. He composed an elegiac poem now known as ‘The Ruin’. It was written in the Exeter Book, a large anthology which itself shows the marks of age. There are cuts on the covers, as though it has been used as a plate, and rings where someone has put a glass down without thinking to get a coaster. ‘The Ruin’ crumbles into illegibility in several places, the pages torn and stained. But mostly the words survive.
‘Wrǣtlic is ƿes wealstān; wyrde gebrǣcon’
Wondrous is this wall, destroyed by fate.
The poet is in a Roman town, possibly Bath, surrounded by what seems like ‘the work of giants’. Who were these people who built so extensively and luxuriously, he wonders. But he sees that even these ‘giants’ have long since gone, though some of their work still stands firm.
This wall, grey with lichen
and red of hue, outlives kingdom after kingdom,
withstands tempests; its tall gate succumbed.
The city still moulders gashed by storms . . .
The scene is melancholy, but there is beauty in it. The poet is mesmerised by the weathered, broken, lichen-covered stone. It seems eloquent to him, and he tries to translate what it says. Centuries later, John Ruskin wrote about the ‘voicefulness’ of buildings, and later still the painter John Piper wrote about ‘pleasing decay’. It was the same sentiment and the same aesthetic pleasure passed from the eighth century to the twentieth. It was much the same fascination with the marks made by time.
I like the thought of Anglo-Saxon lichen, and it makes me wonder whether my teacher at primary school might have known ‘The Ruin’. There was a stone wall outside our classroom, and she asked us every month to sit and draw it, paying special attention to the lichen. ‘Make note of how it’s changed’ she told us. Of course it hadn’t changed. If the lichen had grown by a millimetre it didn’t seem to be visible to the naked eye. So we all sat, feeling ridiculous, squinting at the lichen, drawing the hated wall again.
This was hopeless as a biology lesson, which I think is what it was meant to be. But it has lodged in memory as a lesson in other things: patience, observation, attentive stillness. I’m not sure they were learnt but I’m glad we tried. It was a kind of vigil, and there is much to be said for those.
In medieval art the passage of the year was often marked out according to the ‘labours of the months’, in a tradition that came through from Greek and Roman pastoral writing, and particularly from Virgil’s Eclogues. So, carved into the twelfth-century font at Burnham Deepdale in Norfolk is a sequence of timely rural occupations. September is illustrated with threshing, October with the filling of casks, November, the ‘blood month’, with the slaughter of a pig, and December with feasting (which carries on into January). February is very sensibly illustrated with the labour of keeping warm by the fire. And in March the outdoor labours get underway again, with digging. Like the Exeter Book, the font has tales to tell. It was dropped in the eighteenth century and its fragments formed part of a rockery until the months were reassembled, and the labouring year brought back to the church.
The occupations were pretty much the same wherever you went in Britain. The seed being sown would be different of course, and the various soils required different forms of ploughing. But the basic pattern held firm. The labours gave routine to the year, and variety. You knew where you were, and where you were going. Life was tough, but dividing it up made it that bit more manageable. And since the divisions were very often marked with feasts and fairs appropriate to the time of year, you were never too far from a change of pace.
The desire for that kind of rhythm and order is still very strong, but there is no need for false nostalgia. The contemporary year is rich in markers, richer than ever. It’s just a question of recognising them, circling them consciously, paying attention. We would all now depict different occupations on a twelve-panelled font, but we would not be lost for scenes to illustrate. Diaries and calendars, meanwhile, are palimpsests, as they always were, of the official and spontaneous, the humdrum and momentous.
‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons’ says Prufrock drearily in T.S. Eliot’s poem. Fortunately there are other ways of doing it (though the coffee spoons don’t sound so bad). Walking on the beach, listening to the sounds at night, lighting candles, feasting, keeping warm, watching lichen fail to grow. These are the small things that help us keep count.