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.

Sleepers

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?

Wakers

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 Personal life, Writing

What a To-Do!

My column for the June issue of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser

cover of June issue of Tetbury Advertiser

As I delete the latest task management app from my phone, my quest for the perfect automated to-do list resumes, in parallel with my perpetual search for the ideal handbag.

When I downloaded this cutely-named app, it seemed full of promise. I imagined my days streamlined and efficient, my desk and my conscience clear by wine o’clock every day. However, I quickly went off it when it began to take over the decision-making process. It refused point-blank to allow me to change my mind about priorities or even to move incomplete tasks to the next day.

I really need an action-list app with a mañana setting, although the ever-patient editor of this esteemed magazine may disagree.

The last straw was the app’s highhandedly adding events to my calendar that were of no relevance to me. Bank Holidays I could accept, and I don’t mind a reminder of the Queen’s birthday, but the Battle of the Boyne? Really? All that did was make me feel inadequate that I couldn’t think of an appropriate to-do action to add to my list. “Wear orange,” suggested one waggish friend when I protested the fact on Twitter.

Which brings me to a different approach to productivity management: the What Not to Do list, for logging time-wasting things to avoid. If you know of any app designers out there, tell them I think there’s a gap in the market for this. I don’t mean only for recording evergreen items such as “Don’t spend too much time on Twitter (except to “like” @LionsTetbury’s wisecracks, obviously)”. I formulate new ideas for mine every day.

This morning, for example, I’d have added: “Don’t match up the pile of odd socks that your husband has discarded on the bedroom rug while searching his wardrobe for a pair – he is not a toddler. He can sort his own socks.” Although to be fair a toddler would handle this task very well, if at the stage of enjoying shape-sorter toys and memory games of pairs.”

I must add to my action list: “Recruit affable toddler.”

So it’s back to the drawing board for me – or at least to pen and paper. A handwritten list by my keyboard will have to suffice. Sometimes old technology really is the best option, just as old wives’ tales so often prove to be founded in fact. Old-fashioned does not mean obsolete. My favourite sage old saying? “The best way to get something done is to do it.”

As in writing my column for the Tetbury Advertiser.

(You see what I did there?)

Tick!


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To be among the first to know about my new booksspecial offerscoming events and free downloads, just type your email address into the box above and click the grey button. You’ll also receive a free download of a short novella, The Pride of Peacocks, a lighthearted quick read in the Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, available exclusively to my subscribers. I promise I won’t share your email address with anyone else and you may unsubscribe at any time. Thank you!

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Posted in Personal life, Travel

Train of Thought

In my Young by Name column for the April edition of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, I’m getting all nostalgic about train travel 

cover of the Tetbury Advertiser April 2019
Click the image to read the whole magazine for free online

Growing up in a London suburb half an hour by train from Charing Cross, I became a seasoned railway traveller at an early age. The slam of compartment doors and the rattle of trains on the line are part of the soundtrack to my childhood.

When I went up north to university, I enjoyed the longer train rides because I always met interesting people. From my current perspective as a parent, the thought of a teenage girl seeking out strangers on trains makes me shudder, but for the teenage me it was all an adventure.

On boarding, I’d choose my compartment carefully, walking through the corridor to find the most interesting looking passengers. Before the first stop we’d be sharing the sweets and biscuits bought for the journey while discussing the meaning of life. We felt we were striking up life-long friendships, but of course they never lasted beyond our destination. This is probably just as well, particularly with the middle-aged lady who invited me to bring my swimming costume and sunbathe in her garden any time I liked.

I wasn’t the only one to treat train travel like a social occasion. Once, as I followed a group of girl students into a compartment, its only prior occupant, a middle-aged lady, gave a deep sigh. “So we’re all girls together.” She sounded disappointed. Was the sole purpose of her trip to search for Mr Right in the form of a random fellow passenger? I wondered whether she had a season ticket.

If you didn’t want to chat, too bad. The Quiet Coach had yet to be invented. For a bit of peace, you went out to stand in the corridor.

Then and Now

These days when travelling by train, I always book a seat in the Quiet Coach to avoid irritating mobile phone conversations. This week, too weary to trek to my reservation at the far end of the train, I settled down in a normal carriage, bracing myself for the noise. To my astonishment, it was as silent as the Quiet Coach. Every occupant was staring at an electronic device, most of them further isolated by earbuds or headphones. The train might just as well have had no windows, because none of them once looked out to enjoy the view.

The ever-changing view: another great benefit of railway travel. I still can’t board a train without Robert Louis Stephenson’s poem “From a Railway Carriage” popping into my head at some point along the way:

“…And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.”

cover of Young by Name
Earlier columns from the Tetbury Advertiser, available in paperback and ebook – click image for more details

So I was pleased to learn recently of a care home that has mocked up a railway carriage for the benefit of elderly residents too frail for real trips. (Click here to see the BBC News report, complete with picture.) Complete with scrolling scenery behind fake windows, and with an excellent refreshment service, it offers them all the pleasures of train travel without them having to leave the building.

I bet they’d be great conversationalists too.


Posted in Personal life, Writing

Life Lessons Learned from School

Click the cover image to read the whole the magazine online

In my Young By Name column in the March issue of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, I’m musing about the most valuable and lasting lessons from my schooldays.

 

As my daughter muscles down to revision on the home straight of her GCSEs, I can’t help wondering which of the many facts and concepts she’s memorising will be of greatest value to her in later life. When I ran an informal survey some years ago, asking the alumni of Westonbirt School the most useful thing they’d learned at school, my favourite answer was “Not to sign anything I hadn’t read – and at my prep school, how to steam open an envelope”. While I can’t promise to better those examples, here are the most lasting takeaways from my own schooldays.

How to Write a Three-Point Essay

Our English teacher, Mr Campbell, spent many lessons hammering home this simple but clear strategy for essay-writing. First, pick three points on your chosen topic, outline each one in a separate paragraph. Top and tail the trio with an interesting introduction and conclusion, and you’re done. Why three? Perhaps because it’s the magic number in rhetoric, or because of the limited staying power of a class of fourteen-year-olds – or because that’s all he could face marking. I must have written hundreds of three-point essays during my working life, and I wish he was still alive so I could thank him.

Never Give More Than One Excuse

I can’t remember which two excuses I gave to Mr Crane, the school’s pantomime director, when I wanted to bunk off an after-school rehearsal, but neither of them was genuine. (The real reason was that I wanted to get to the local bookshop before it closed.) Whatever they were, he saw straight through them, kindly letting me off the hook with the advice that, for future reference, giving more than one excuse is unconvincing. I never missed another rehearsal. He was a wise man.

The Masses Are Asses

This blunt statement was frequently shared by Mr Judis, our A Level history teacher, when trying to explain to a classful of teenage idealists why so many bad decisions had been made in the name of democracy. The topics of our study were the causes and effects of the First and Second World War, twentieth-century East-West relations, and the fall of colonialism, but as I listen to twenty-first-century news stories, his words frequently echo in my head.

So if, Desert Island Discs style, I had to pick just one of these school-life lessons as the most important, which would it be? It would have to be the three point-essay. Just cast your eye back up the page. Do you see what I did there?


If you’d like to read my archive of columns written for the Tetbury Advertiser, you can buy the first collection as an ebook or in paperback – click here for more details