Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Golden Slumbers

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.

I could learn a lot about sleeping techniques from this koala, encountered at Edinburgh Zoo last month

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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Posted in Uncategorized

The Power of Sleep

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Britain's first prime minister, Margaret Thatcher - famous for her ability to go without sleep (Image via Wikipedia)

Call me slow, but I’ve only just realised that chronic lack of sleep affects every aspect of my life.  What did it take to make me wake up and take notice?   A new online facility called Moodscope.

The Moodscope website uses  a simple card game to assess your mood. You flip 20 cards in turn, each labelled with an emotion such as “anxious” or “proud”.  You rank the degree to which you feel each one, from 0 for “not at all or a little” to 3 for “extremely”.   Day by day, the system tracks your score on a graph to indicate your changing state of mind.  You may annotate each score to say why you felt that way e.g. “it’s my birthday” or “had a row with my best friend”.

Over time, it enables you to spot the triggers for your highs and lows and so empowers you to take avoiding or corrective action.  There’s also a facility to buddy up with a friend who receives notification of your progress, so they can step in to help you if you hit a sudden trough.  It’s a great resource for anyone who dips in and out of depression and a welcome alternative to medication – or to joining an NHS waiting list for psychiatric advice.

When I first heard about Moodscope on BBC Radio 4 recently, I thought I’d give it a try.  I’m not a habitual depressive but I’ve had my moments when life’s been tough, and I have friends who might benefit too.  So I nominated myself as a guinea pig and waited for the the website to recover from the crippling influx of traffic  that followed the broadcast. (What a depressive bunch we Radio 4 listeners must be.)

I’ve been taking the test for 10 days or so, and virtually every day I’ve found myself thinking “well, I’d rate that a 2 rather than a 1 if I wasn’t so tired”.  Exhaustion, sleepiness, torpor – such words pepper my annotations.  I don’t need Prozac, I need sleep.

If only I could get enough sleep, there’d be no end to what I could achieve!  It’s not that I’m an insomniac – I’m just a very busy person.  It’s too easy to let a sleep deficit build up and become a habit without noticing. And I haven’t had enough sleep for years.   It’s the same with the ironing: the basket is never empty.  But now I’ve identified the problem, I feel fully armed to address it.

If only sleep could be stored up and banked!  It would be great to be able to draw down some savings when you’re short of time for sleep, avoiding bed for days when life gets busy. And I’ve always liked the thought of staying up all night (though have seldom had the stamina to do it).  There’s something God-like about the feeling of being alert while the rest of the world sleeps.

Sadly, I’m no Margaret Thatcher.  (No, on second thoughts, delete the ‘sadly’). The only aspect of her character that I’d really like to emulate is her ability to function efficiently on four or five hours sleep a night.  Churchill, too.  I guess that’s why I’ll never be prime minister.  But there is good news – I have done quite a lot of  ironing tonight.