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St Swithin’s: How David Nicholls’ One Day superseded a dead Anglo Saxon

Today might be the feast day of a ninth century Bishop but, more importantly, it is also Dex and Em’s day

Matilda Battersby
Wednesday 15 July 2015 12:26 BST

If it rains today it’ll be equally miserable for the next forty days or so the superstition/standing joke goes. But whoever St Swithin, or Swithun, was the feast day of the long-dead Anglo Saxon Bishop has been firmly hijacked by Emma Morely and Dexter Mayhew.

If those names, or their friendlier Em and Dex, Dex and Em, combinations, don’t send you into raptures then you probably haven’t read David Nicholls’ One Day. The novel, which topped bestsellers list and spawned a movie starring Anne Hathaway and the most questionable Yorkshire accent since, well, ever, is set entirely on St Swithin’s.

In fact, it spans 20 years and the characters’ development from gangly new graduates to early life crises and careworn late 30s, is all snapshotted through the events of 15 July every year. The author paraphrases a well-known Elizabethan rhyme as “If on St Swithin it doth rain/Something dum-di-dum again” several times in the novel. We think it’s supposed to be "St Swithin's day if thou dost rain/ For forty days it will remain/ St Swithin's day if thou be fair/ For forty days will rain na mair."

But why did the author choose such a specific, and under the radar, saint’s day? “ The novel opens on graduation night, and 15th July is a plausible date for a graduation ceremony. I didn’t want a date that carried any weight, like 4th July or 14th February: 15th July felt suitably random,” Nicholls told the Oxonian review.

“But I also needed a date, which, when seen in a diary, might conjure up a memory for the protagonists. ‘St Swithin’s Day’ was to work as a kind of mental tag. I liked the mythology of St Swithin’s Day, which is really about our desire and inability to predict the future. Thematically that seemed right. And there’s a really beautiful melancholy song about lost love by Billy Bragg that is called 'St Swithin’s day'. To me that song was the unofficial soundtrack to the book. It helped me with the writing when I was stuck for words or tone.”

Old Swithin of Winchester might have foretold rain but those reading One Day will be more likely to experience tears once they reach *that* part of the book. Let’s hope they don’t last for forty days.

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