Learning The Twentieth Century Calendar

Sunday's child is bonny, good, blithe and gay Monday's child is fair offace Tuesday's child is full of grace Wednesday's child is full of woe Thursday's child has far to go Friday's child is loving and giving Saturday's child works hard for a living

On the 11 September 1978, a Bulgarian playwright named Georgie Markov was queuing at a bus stop on the Embankment in London. He was on his h way to Bush House on the Strand, where he worked as a translator for the BBC's World Service. Shortly before his bus arrived, he felt a sharp jab in the back of his leg. Witnesses said they saw a man walking off in a hurry, carrying an umbrella. Four days later, Markov was dead. The police suspected poisoning.

I was recently reminded of this notorious assassination by a magazine ardcle on the Bulgarian secret police. As I read it, I tried to picture the scene: why was he poisoned at a bus stop? Was there anything relevant about the date? I knew in an instant that Markov was stabbed on a Monday. It was a small point, but it helped to set the scene for me. He was a normal commuter, going to work like the rest of us. But what a tragic start to the week!

I knew it was a Monday because I have 'learnt' the twentieth-century calendar. I could similarly tell you in an instant what day of the week it was on 19 August 1905 (Saturday), or 22 December 1948 (Wednesday); and I know what day it will be on 1 January 1998 (Thursday).

It's an extremely useful skill to acquire, one that I personally use all the time. It's also a very entertaining party trick. As part of my stage show, I ask someone to tell me their date of birth; before they've had time to say, 'It's a eon!', I have told them which day of the week they were born on, and which famous people they share their birthdays with. Surprisingly, there is very little to learn; you have already done most of the work in previous chapters.


Imagine that today is your birthday. As a present, a friend has organized a surprise party for you. You come home from work to find that your house has been taken over by 100 guests, a mixture of friends, relatives, and famous people.

The guest list bears an uncanny resemblance to the people you memorized for the dominic system. This time, however, the characters represent years, from 1900 to 1999. Take Benny Hill, for example (or your equivalent character suggested by BH). Using the dominic system, he represents 1928 (2 = B; 8 = H). Or Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker of the House of Commons. She represents 1922 (2 = B; 2 = B).

The house is too small to accommodate all the guests in one room, so your friend has allocated each person to a particular room, and told everyone to stay there for the whole evening. One group has even been banished to the garden. As far as possible, they have been spread evenly; some areas have fourteen people and some fifteen. I will tell you in a moment who has been allocated where.


When someone tells me a date, I make an instant and simple calculation. The date is broken down into its component parts, year, month, and day, and I give each one a basic numerical code (anything between 0 and 6). I then add them together to work out the day of the week. The party scene you have just imagined is an easy way of remembering the relevant codes.

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