In my column for the July-August issue of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, I arrived at some surprising conclusions about my erratic night-time sleeping habits.
“If 60 is the new 40” – my spirits lift as I read the start of this meme on Facebook, only to fall at its ending: – “then 9pm is the new midnight”.
Sensitive to the approach of a Big Birthday next year, I reluctantly agree. Once an ardent burner of midnight oil and two-ended candles, the older I get, the earlier my bedtime. Not so for the rest of my household: we operate on three different time zones.
My teenage daughter follows the classic morning-sloth-cum-party-animal schedule.
My husband, long free of nine-to-five commitments, stays up so late and sleeps in so long you’d think he was working nights. One warm, dry night in May, I was surprised by the sound of a lawnmower starting up after nightfall. Yes, he was cutting the grass in the dark. A few nights later, at midnight he leapt up from his seat in the kitchen, rubbed his hands together enthusiastically, and announced, “Right, back to work in the garden”. Gardeners’ lore states that potatoes should be planted by the light of a full moon, but he’s not growing potatoes. Still, who needs daylight when you have a headtorch?
Longing for my bed by 9pm, I’m first up every morning, yet I’m often awake for an hour or two half way through. Does that make me insomniac?
Apparently not. It turns out my two-stage sleep has historical precedence. According to Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, this was how everyone slept until artificial lighting skewed our body clocks, encouraging us to pursue a single shift of seamless slumber. Not only did our forbears to go to bed at dusk and wake at dawn, they also got up in the middle of the night and were active for an hour or so. Many cultures and languages, including Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, refer to “first sleep” (dusk till around midnight) and “second sleep” (early hours till dawn) as if they are the norm. While to twenty-first century ears it sounds absurd for monks to celebrate Matins at 2am, to the average medieval it was a constructive use of standard waking hours.
What You Will
Those without holy orders could do what they liked between sleep stages. Activities that didn’t require illumination would be more practical – and no, not only what you’re thinking: 2am was also prime time for theft. Me, I favour a cup of tea and a biscuit, with a few chapters of a good book.
So now when I wake at 3am, I do so happily, knowing I’m simply following a classic habit enjoyed by our ancestors until relatively recently. Until I stumble across a YouTube interview with Roger Ekirch describing two-stage sleepers as “as not insomniac, but pre-industrial”. Doesn’t that make me one removed from antediluvian? Now I really do feel old.
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