All Change

My heart belongs in a shabby little town on the parochial South Coast of England.

Folkestone is an eccentric settlement, one with a history stretching back to the Domesday book – when it had a colossal 445 households. Well before the Roman invasion, there was a villa on the cliffs looking out over the thin stretch of water between us and Gaul.

The town will, in equal parts, dismay you with its socio-economics and enchant you with the bohemian artists who have set up stall there, congregating in the ramshackle buildings which once sheltered smugglers, vagabonds and women of the night. The sea breaks eternally on the shore, and the Folkestone dog walkers meet, to talk companionably and survey the sands.

The town has powerful friends; and has made some savvy moves.

International entrepreneur Peter De Savary has helped to breathe new life into this ancient settlement. Every time I visit, I am struck by smart new shop fronts and chic sea-view restaurants. Rail links to London render it a perfect commuter haunt, and it has been host to its own strikingly high-profile arts festival: the Folkestone Triennial.

Folkestone bcomes a ‘blank canvas’ against which internationally renowned artists such as Cornelia Parker and Tracey Emin site their work. There are tours, and exhibitions, reviews in the nationals, and there is a palpable buzz in the streets.

I don’t wear a watch; when I turned up for a walking tour last August, I was depending on the public clocks to see me right.

It was naive in the extreme to assume that the artists would leave the clocks alone.

Ruth Ewan, it was, who gazed across the channel on a clear day in 2009, and decided she would bring French Revolutionary Time to the seaside town.

Scottish born and in her early thirties, she is fascinated with propaganda: with the messages people send to coerce others to do their bidding.

You have to love her methods. There was the time she persuaded 100 London buskers, over and under ground, to sing Ewan McColl’s Ballad of Accountingand the occasion she brought an aviary of parrots to Studio Voltaire in Clapham and taught them all slogans which were recorded during protests at the G8 summit.

And then she gazed across the sea, and remembered how the French had attempted to tether time itself in the name of propaganda.

Time changed utterly on 22nd September, 1792, in France, thanks to bright mathematical spark Gilbert Romme.

The old order should, he said, be completely swept away. Instead of 24 hours in every day, there would, by governmental decree, be 10. Each hour would be divided into 100 minutes. Each minute would be divided into 100 seconds.

One day there were sixty minutes in an hour: the next, there were 100 interminable groups of 100 seconds. How time must have dragged.

Not only that, but each week had ten days. Months were uniformly 30 days, making 360 in all: and at the end of the summer there were five extra days of public holiday, when everyone breathed out and fleetingly escaped the tyranny of the French Revolutionary Calendar.

The months were renamed, too, according to their attributes: Vintage was September-time. It was followed by the mists month, the frosts month, and then Winter arrived with Snowy, Rainy and Windy months; Spring was Seed-time, Flowers, and Meadows; and Summer was Harvest, Heat and Fruits.

Such total change does not come easy to humans. There was no payoff: weeks were long and arduous, hours were tortuous. No one could work out where church festivals fitted in. Life was hard and everyone hated the new order with bitter Gallic ire.

It lasted 13 years.

It was one of the best things Napoleon Bonaparte ever did, at midnight on the tenth day of the snowy month in the year XIV. The next day everyone went back to 24 hours and a seven-day week, and heaved a sigh of relief.

It always reminds me of the sun and the wind: that old parable of the wind challenging the sun to persuade a man to take his cloak off.

No matter how hard the mighty wind strived to blow the coat off, the man clutched it ever tighter to him. Yet when the sun shone, he took it off voluntarily because he wanted to: the warm rays rendered the cloak superfluous.

The best change makes people want to. They can see the point. If France had tried a four-day week, maybe they would still be counting time in days ten hours long to this day.

It is an ancient piece of wisdom, but we forget. And here is Ruth Ewan with a quiet persuasive message etched on the face of a clock.

A mistress of performance art, she favours the sun’s approach.

What a shame she was not born French, 220 years ago.


35 thoughts on “All Change

  1. A four day week with retirement at 30 would suit most of the French in my corner of the Vendee. 100 minutes or 1000 minutes to the hour would make little difference to the pleasure enjoyed by someone quietly fishing, and 100 minutes to the hour whilst enjoying good food and wine would be a positive bonus.

    1. This is all very true, Roger. I suspect your corner of the Vendee is a rather lovely place.The standard of living went up after the revolution I believe (although it couldn’t go much further down): maybe they had more time, within their decimal framework, to stand and stare.

  2. Here I’ve been sitting, wondering and complaining over who took those two or three hours I need away from my days, and you had the answer all along, Kate. Marvelous post!

  3. There will always be SOMEONE who can make a case for ANYTHING, but surely it’s all about perspective in this instance, Now that I no longer punch a time clock, the idea of longer hours holds more appeal than it might have awhile back. 🙂

    This is indeed fascinating though. I marvel at your ability to find enough time for all the research you must do in order to produce these entertaining and informational posts with such frequency. I usually get my “something new each day” from you!

  4. Once again, a reach back in history to bring unique perspective to our propensity to resist change. Really great stuff, thanks again for making me put on my thinking cap.

    1. Only the French, Amy. Have you heard they’re abolishing the term “Mademoiselle?” Woman will all be referred to as Madame from now on in all official documents…

      1. Is this because men were only given one handle “Monsieur” ? They aren’t even going to sneak in an “e” option that would depict availability -of either sex?

        Kate, I have to admit, I have wondered why I have not heard a peep about gendered languages. I hope you’d be able to suss out any controversy that may have been played out over that issue…

  5. What a story, Kate. I have never heard a bit of this, but it certainly intrigues me! People are so funny about time…those who live by the clock and those who find time a measure they don’t need to control. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a time-control freak, but I admit I would like to be a lot more like the intriguing Ruth Ewan. Folkstone sounds utterly charming! Thank you for my first introduction! Debra

    1. There are bits of Folkestone which are charming, although when I’m bimbling around with my camera, I spend ages trying to edit out the bits in every frame that aren’t, Debra. Me: I love it, warts and all…

  6. 10 is not as handy a base as some more flexible numbers that divide themselves into human sized shapes more easily. It seems to work for distance and weight, but time is a different dimension altogether and should be left to the human shaped ways of measuring it

      1. Thanks Kate, hence the name view from the side, I don’t always see things the way others do which can make for interest or frustrated communication

  7. I think the U.S. is one official holiday away from any of us retaining an anatomical sense of time…

    I do value change however…does Big Al have an extra pair of “Lightning McQueen” underwear I can borrow?

    Ugh,,,”Don’t Mind Me”…I’m just a little Taken-A-Back with the whole big brother peaking in through the social networks window of acquired personal info of the “General Puppets” at the moment…even though it is all written, and I’ve seen it coming for some time…

    I say…Israel is the only true time piece…(Of course, I don’t expect everyone to understand that statement at this time) …great post as usual Kate…sorry to vent on your time…

  8. Phenomenal post, Kate. I can’t imagine days divided up into such long units . . . they would seem interminable.

    Wait! I reconsider . . . maybe we would finally have “all the time in the world.”

  9. We loved Folkestone when based there for a few days to ‘do’ the NT and EH places in the area. Thrown in with the hotel ‘special’ was a day trip to France – alas, we gave up trying to get visas.
    A more sensible set of divisions for time does make a lot of sense – pity the attempt was abandoned.

  10. What a thought – I’d quite like it optional throughout the day – in agreement with anyone I happen to be doing things with at the time or on that day – so one hour could be sixty, the next 100 etc

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