Devils Everywhere

David Wootton

  • At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime by Roger Ekirch
    Weidenfeld, 447 pp, £20.00, June 2005, ISBN 0 297 82992 0
  • Saving the Daylight: Why We Put the Clocks Forward by David Prerau
    Granta, 256 pp, £14.99, October 2005, ISBN 1 86207 796 7

As a small child, I was afraid of the dark, or rather of the monsters that entered my bedroom under cover of darkness. As an adult, I feel safe in my bed, and, until recently, I was never in true darkness except when in bed. But I have been reacquainting myself with the dark: I have become a weekly commuter, and spend part of each week on a narrow-boat. In winter, when the sky is cloudy, I have been leaving my boat and returning to it in pitch darkness: stumbling along the towpath, trying to fit a key into a lock by touch, feeling my way from one end of the boat to the other to reach the main battery switch. Because I have dogs, one of which has to be kept on a lead because he would catch sleeping waterfowl if he could, I have to venture forth into the dark last thing at night and first thing in the morning. Thus I have become acquainted with shades and degrees of dark of which I was previously unaware, from pitch black to the bright light of the full moon, and acquainted, too, with the noises of the night, the barking of foxes, the hooting of owls, the cracking of the fire, the stirring of the sleeping dogs, the sound of rainfall (particularly loud on the roof of a boat).

The other night I came back late from dinner with a colleague. There was a clear sky, a sharp frost, and no moon. The stars were reflected in the waters of the canal: they looked like Christmas tree lights strung deep below the surface of the water. Looking down, I could not tell if I was three feet or three hundred feet above the water because I was looking into deep space and seeing objects hundreds of light years away. I could identify constellations and planets in this topsy-turvy world. Turning back towards my boat, I realised I could see where I was going. I was seeing my watery world by starlight. If you live in Arizona or India the idea of seeing by starlight won’t surprise you; it certainly will if you live, as I do, in Yorkshire.

If I leave behind my million-candlepower rechargeable torch (which turns night into day, but fades to a glimmer after a few minutes) when I step off my boat at night, I step back in time to a world before street lighting, a world where a misstep can result in a twisted ankle or a broken arm. On the boat, though supplies of hot water are strictly limited, there’s always artificial light to read by. I have never had to prepare for a class by candlelight. I have never had to look for matches by the light of the fire. I always have a torch placed where I can find it in the dark. I have absolutely no idea what it would be like to live without electricity or gas, without torch or match, in a world of sparks and glows and flickering flames. I enter this world only on land, and then only when the electricity fails, which is almost never; when I do, I expect at any moment to be released from it. Or at least I had no idea of what it would be like to live in darkness until I read Roger Ekirch’s history of nighttime, which draws on accounts of the dark in early modern Europe.

In a recent LRB John Demos pondered the perils of popular history, in which events constantly drive the story onwards, in which interpretations receive short shrift, in which character and personality trump situation and circumstance. Ekirch has written a book that anybody with any imagination will find fascinating, but one that is the mirror image of conventional popular history. He has a beady eye for the tiny anecdote, the telling vignette, the mini-narrative, but these events don’t drive his story onward, for it constantly circles back on itself. The whole book is an essay in interpretation, and it is all about situation and circumstance, with only the most fleeting references to characters and personalities. And yet, flickeringly, the dead come alive, as if stepping out of the darkness into the circle of light cast by a lanthorn. Poets and philosophers, the rich and the poor momentarily rub shoulders, as if passing in a narrow street. Goethe, ‘overwhelmed by a feeling of infinite space’ on a moonlit night in Naples, is joined on the page by an English grazier, ‘treading home from an evening’s merriment’. ‘Would I had but as many fat bullocks as there are stars,’ he exclaims. To which his companion replies: ‘With all my heart, if I had but a meadow as large as the sky.’

In the dark, ghosts walked. Travel was dangerous. Cities locked their gates as dark fell, and strung chains across the streets. In the darkened alleyways, when curfews were not effectively enforced (as they often weren’t), prostitutes, thieves and drunks took control, though doctors and midwives also went out at night. In darkened houses, people drank, sang songs, told stories and whispered their secrets. At home, a toppling candle could burn down a house, or even a whole town. This book, which has been two decades in the writing, is in a sense merely an endless labouring of the obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less wonderful, for Ekirch spares no pains to rediscover the lost world of the dark.

Our ancestors, it seems, did not sleep as we do, we who live by clock time. Their night was divided into a first sleep and a second sleep; in the early hours they woke. Some meditated, some prayed, some read by candlelight (though candles, even when made of mutton fat, were a luxury: the poor relied on rushlights), some talked, some made love. Everyone knew the difference between first sleep and second sleep, and no one expected to sleep right through. Our own sleep patterns are profoundly artificial and unnatural, which may be why so many of us need sleeping pills to get what we think of as a good night’s sleep.

Ekirch’s first chapter is on the ‘terrors of the night’. In 1594 Thomas Nashe, the collaborator of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson, published a little pamphlet, ‘speedily botched up and compiled’, as he put it, called The Terrors of the Night or A Discourse of Apparitions. It is full of digressions: ‘I have rid a false gallop these three or four pages,’ Nashe says, resolving to ‘walk soberly and demurely’ for a while. It is very nearly finished before we learn that its ‘accidental occasion’ is the apparitions that appeared before death to a respectable gentleman: apparitions of devils fishing for souls, of carousing sailors, of Lucifer, of ‘an inveigling troupe of naked virgins’, who ‘to the end their natural unshelled shining mother-of-pearl proportions might be more imprintingly apprehended … made impudent proffer unto him of their lascivious embraces’. He assures us this story is more or less true, even though he has dressed it up a bit to entertain his readers; ‘and yet methinks it comes off too gouty and lumbering.’

Is there sense in Nashe’s nonsense, grace in his gouty lumbering? The point of the book is surely to turn all apparitions into hallucinations, to argue that ‘everyone shapes his own fears and fancies as he lists.’ What happens in the night is that we are alone with our thoughts, out of which we conjure our own private hells and personal demons. Our brains are ceaselessly wheeling and rolling, and we are never so deceived as by ourselves. Even in our sleep they are at work: dreams, Nashe argues, are not portents but reworkings of our undigested experiences. But Nashe can’t openly avow his disbelief in demons and spirits, in witches and conjurers, though he does assure us that we have only to face up to them to put them to flight, and he can’t openly dismiss portents and prognostications when they are authorised by the Bible. (Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft, which Nashe read, is avowedly sceptical, but was published without a licence.) So his mockery of those, including himself, who are ‘benighted in an old wives’ tale of devils and urchins’ (urchins are goblins) has to be balanced by credulity. He starts by finding devils everywhere: in Tewkesbury mustard, in flint, in gunpowder, in the bubbles in streams. So tiny as to be virtually invisible (the microscope has yet to be invented, but Nashe has played with powerful magnifying glasses), they pullulate everywhere. Infinite millions of devils, he assures us, ‘hang swarming about a worm-eaten nose’. These devils, too, lose their demonic character and become aspects of chemistry and biology.

The aim of Nashe’s Terrors of the Night is to shine daylight into the night’s dark corners; but that doesn’t suit Ekirch’s purposes, so he reads Nashe as reporting real terrors, not imaginary ones. A text that Ekirch misses, but one that would fit neatly into the chronology he proposes, is Lord Kames’s essay ‘Dread of Supernatural Powers in the Dark’ (1751), which argues, like Nashe, ‘that the terror occasioned by darkness is entirely owing to the imagination.’ Ekirch never explains why people were frightened of the cold and damp night air, or how they understood the physiology of sight. He has a tendency to recount the discoveries of modern science when Aristotle would be more to the point, and he seriously underestimates the number of people executed for witchcraft in early modern Europe. But these defects, like the fact that neither Ekirch nor the many people who read this book in draft have ever, it seems, looked a goat in the eye, are minor in a book that can’t be summarised but must be experienced.

David Prerau’s Saving the Daylight begins where Ekirch ends. Through the 19th century, more and more city streets were lit by gas lamps; in the early 20th century mains electricity spread rapidly. Artificial light made it possible to live and work by clock time. But clock time itself had become artificial. Clocks had once been set to local noon; but in 1840 the Great Western Railway imposed London time throughout its network. In Oxford, the clock on Tom Tower was fitted with two minute hands, for London time was some five minutes ahead of local time. Greenwich Mean Time only became the national standard in 1880, at which point local time disappeared. The United States was divided into artificial time zones by the railways in 1883. The triumph of artificial lighting and artificial time led in England in 1905 to the first serious call for Daylight Saving Time (in the 18th century Benjamin Franklin had already complained that the inhabitants of London and Paris lived by candlelight and slept by sunshine).

In the First World War, Daylight Saving Time was adopted as an efficiency measure, first by Germany, then by Britain, and finally by the United States and, two weeks later, Canada. In Britain, unlike most of Europe, DST was never repealed, though it was temporarily extended during the Second World War to Double Summer Time, and between 1968 and 1971 the country was on Permanent Summer Time – my wife, who loves the light, says these were her halcyon days. In America, federal DST ceased in 1919 (the farmers were bitterly opposed to it), though it was soon established over much of the North-East by local ordinances: by the late 1930s about a quarter of the population observed DST. It was reintroduced nationally after Pearl Harbor, and repealed immediately the war ended. After 1945, cities and states chose their own time, which inevitably resulted in a good deal of confusion: only in 1966 did the Uniform Time Act impose a national DST (in 1974, during the oil crisis, the country went briefly onto Permanent Summer Time). Most countries now employ some form of DST.

Saving the Daylight is a compact, entertaining, efficient history of artificial time. But the resistance to DST in the US between 1919 and 1966 is a reminder of just how many people continued and continue to live by daylight. DST affected farmers because they had to get milk to the morning train an hour earlier, while hired hands arrived at work too early, when dew was still on the crops, and left too early, when there was still light to work. Even the farmers, though, had matches, torches and electric lights. For a century now, no one (in this country at least) has lived by moonlight, starlight and rushlight.

Ekrich’s history seems long overdue. But perhaps a decent interval has to pass before what was once obvious becomes worthy of its own history. A century after the triumph of the railroad, Braudel rediscovered the power of geography in the world before the steam engine. If you want to re-enter Ekrich’s world in your imagination, close the curtains to shut out the street lighting; if you have a fire, throw a log on it; light a candle; tell a story to your companion or sit alone with your thoughts. Make time and space for the dark. The monsters, I trust, will not appear, but you will find the dark still changes who you are. Living always in the light, we have become artificial people.