Wednesday, January 4, 2012

First Month ~ Two Faces

For some years I worked at a Quaker school,  At the entrance (being a Quaker school it had no gates) was a sign with the name of the school and below it the words: ‘A Quaker School Open to All’. At one point some independent marketing agency was employed to look at how the school was perceived in the locality. What did local people think of us?  Well, after some weeks the agency reported back that, amongst other things the word ‘Quaker’ should be removed from the school’s signs and notepaper, etc. It seemed that people associated Quakers with being ‘quirky’, and that this association affected their perception of the school, its pupils and its staff.

I well remember objecting to this at a staff meeting on the following grounds; a) it was pointless research, b) it was a waste of money, c) ‘quirky’ was the only word beginning with ‘q’ on the option list of adjectives offered to those inhabitants questioned. After all, children are raised with Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Peppa Pig, Bugs Bunny etc... they are surrounded by simplistic alliteration in all directions.  If they see the word ‘Quaker’ and then look down the list and find the word ‘quirky’, well then “bang” ~ they have found the chosen response. Similar tests, under the same conditions for other groups might have resulted in bouncy Baptists, mousey Methodists or uppity Unitarians!

Needless to say, the school signs were repainted without the work ‘Quaker’ and I suspect hefty invoices were presented from various marketing personnel and sign painters. Quakers ~ quirky?  NO! Quakers ~ a bit different ~ well I suppose so ~ sometimes...

Quakers can seem different from those around them. Today those differences may not be obvious, but in the not too distant past, Friends saw themselves as separate from the culture that they found themselves living in. You could look back at the history of Quakers and think that early Friends were always on the lookout for ways to be different. This is not so strange; many religious groups felt that a group identity was not only a way of showing the world that you were a member of that group, but also a way of bonding the group together. In a recently screened television series here in the UK, an Amish woman answered the question ‘Why do you dress as you do?’ with the answer that she did not do it for herself, but to show her support for the community in which she lived.
One of the ways that Quakers marked themselves apart (though in truth some other groups did the same thing) was adopt a ‘Plain Calendar’ where the days of the week; Sunday, Monday, Tuesday etc. were replaced by First Day, Second Day and so on. Months were similarly named, so January became First Month. The reason for these namings was to disassociate from the ‘heathen’ associations with various ancient gods. I like to use Plain Calendar terms myself occasionally and many Friends still use the numbering of days and months all the time. I have to say that using the ‘regular’ names for days and months rarely conjures up an image of a Roman or Nordic deity in the mind, but every January I do think of the Roman god Janus and remember the words of J.B.S. Haldane;
So now I am like two-faced Janus
The only god who sees his anus.

taken from his excellent poem about rectal cancer, ‘Cancer’s a Funny Thing’ (link given below).

Would you choose to be like Janus and, with those two sets of eyes, see what is going to happen as well as what went before? Memory of things past can be a wonderful thing, but it can also haunt and taunt us, it can twist in our minds and lead us to remorse and guilt. What then could a clear vision of the future give us? At this time of year when we are full of resolutions and hope, could a view of the future bring us anything other than despair and dread? Hope assumes ignorance. The older we get the more of the past we can see, but at the same time, the less we can see in front of us. Unlike Scrooge, our view of the future would be the shape of things to come and not the shape of things that may become.

Leo Tolstoy, we know, corresponded with Quakers in Britain and America and praised them for their stance against bearing arms and their beliefs in passive resistance. I presume that correspondence was translated for him and wonder if the Plain Calendar was translated as it stood, or simply converted into the conventional Russian day and month names. Tolstoy had strong views on the past, present and future, and touches upon these ideas in several of his works. In his short story usually translated at ‘The Three Questions’ a king has, as you may have guessed, a few queries; what is the most important time, who is the most important person and what is the most important thing to do. The story (well worth reading) concludes;

"Remember then: there is only one time that is important--Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with any one else: and the most important affair is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!"  

(c) Ray Lovegrove 2012


Plain Calender as used by Quakers;

More about Janus;

Poem by J.B.S. Haldane

"The Three Questions" by Leo Tolstoy


  1. It's a pity the Friends sought to expunge the heathen/pagan associations of the days of the week and the months.

    I think a religious community ought to be different from the world around it, if the world around it is materialist, consumerist and unspiritual. Long live the quirkiness of Quakers, the uppitiness of Unitarians, and the weirdness of Wiccans.

  2. The plain calendar seems a bit unimaginative. I also think we are better off with the names of months and days that we have. They remind us of our rich heritage and the influences which Romans, Christian and Pagan Celts, Norsemen, Angles, Saxons and Jutes etc have had on our culture.

    Having an internet free day is a good idea, but I often forget about it. On the other hand we find it enjoyable to sit and watch a DVD or TV programme together and don't spend all evening doing that sort of thing. In fact we're lucky if it's not past eight o'clock, by which time we're both too tired to read.

    I think trying to drink a glass of wine at the weekends and making more time to read would be good resolutions for me, along with internet free Sundays.