Lying awake

London Essays – Issue 6: Night

Lying awake

Feelings about sleeplessness change over the course of a lifetime.

By Ian Jack

When the wind’s direction encourages flights to approach Heathrow from the east, the first planes fly over our house between four and five. They don’t act like a cockcrow does in old stories: they don’t wake me. Usually, all too usually these days, I’m already awake to hear their far-away roar rise and fall away again, a sound punctuated occasionally by the scrape of an undercarriage going down, as if God were moving a sideboard. (Though perhaps that noise comes from planes going in the other direction towards City Airport, which is far closer.) I like these sounds. They tell me that the night is ending – that the community of the wakeful is soon to grow: that I will no longer be alone.

I’ve looked at the landing schedules. The earliest flights come from Hong Kong and Sydney via Singapore. A small procession follows from Kuala Lumpur and Johannesburg. The first from North America – usually Chicago for some reason – gets in around 6, the first from India at 6.30; but long before then the sound of jet engines has become normal and scarcely noticeable – a faint background to the noises in the street. An electric milk float has crept around the houses even before the first plane from Africa. Soon wheeled suitcases are rattling over the pavements, towed by people heading towards the Tube, some of them making for the same destination as the planes overhead, but this time on a slower, landward journey via Acton Town. The Today programme starts up on the bedside radio. Life begins to seem unnecessarily urgent.

I get up. At the weekends, I make us a cup of tea and come back to bed, sometimes to fall easily into the slumber that no amount of hard work in the tossing-and -turning department could achieve four hours earlier. “How do you sleep?” people of my age ask each other, hoping to hear the answer that implies “as badly as you do”. A mind that is closing down during Newsnight and unfailingly unconscious before midnight is perversely agog, vibrating like a tuning fork, only a couple of hours later.

At an earlier stage in life, getting to sleep and staying asleep presented no difficulty. One night in the Glasgow Herald’s canteen in 1965, the year I was recruited to journalism, the night editor, a florid man who’d done naval service in the war, gave me some advice. “Son, the worst thing about newspaper work is night shifts. They play merry hell with your stomach.” He ate a little more of his fried eggs, bacon, black pudding and chips. ‘You don’t want ulcers as bad as mine. Get a job that gets you home before six.’ I didn’t. I went to work for a local weekly in an industrial suburb, where many news events took place in the evening: Burns Suppers, the amateur operatic society’s performance of The Desert Song. Then, when the Daily Express in Glasgow hired me as a sub-editor, I worked nothing but nights for three years.

There were early shifts and late shifts. With the first, you stopped work soon after the first edition began to print around ten. With the second, you carried on till two and three in the morning, revising the pages so that each part of Scotland had its own edition, beginning with Aberdeen and the Highlands and ending with Glasgow’s very own City Edition, which went to press when there were only half-a-dozen of us left in an office that nine hours earlier had contained hundreds.

In the winter, I went home on the late buses that ran on a few routes every hour. In the summer, I sometimes walked west through the city as the sun came up. The long summer days in Scotland can be magical. Nearing the rooms I rented in Kelvinside, I strolled down tree-lined avenues that at 4.30 on a fine June morning had still to be soiled by traffic or any other kind of human activity. They were pristine, and beyond them, on the horizon, the sun lit the folds of the Dunbartonshire hills under a pale blue sky. Whenever I recall those mornings, I think of Glasgow as Paris and myself as a tiny figure, a detail, in the corner of an Impressionist painting.

Once home, I usually read for an hour or two before I went to bed around five. John Updike, VS Pritchett, James Morris, Brian Moore: I met them all first when most people were asleep. There was no ‘evening economy’ then. Glasgow had a reputation as Britain’s roughest city – the most violent, the most squalid, the poorest, the drunkest – but the pubs closed at ten and by midnight, after the cinemas and the dance halls came out, most of Glasgow was tucked up in bed. In any case, the centre of an English country town on a Friday or Saturday night now looks a much wilder place than Glasgow ever did. ‘Binge-drinking’, that is, drinking to disable all your capacities, was a habit of the old and the poor who drank fortified wine and banana rum and could sometimes be found stretched out in shop doorways. Sleep was no bother to them, and no bother to me either. Night shifts conditioned my unconscious to ignore the racket of daytime.

Nearly 50 years have passed. When I came to live in London – the year was 1970 – men still came to work in bowler hats and talked in pubs about “having the other half”, meaning a half pint of bitter (or mild, in those days) that would complement the half of the previous round to complete the full pint. ‘Swinging London’ didn’t manifest itself much beyond Chelsea and Carnaby Street. After – sometimes during – a late Saturday shift on a Sunday paper, office cars would take us to a Greek restaurant on Goodge Street where we drank Metaxas brandy and smoked Dunhill cigarettes but even there they chucked us out in the half-hour after midnight. Perhaps they were still drinking later than that in the Colony Club, to begin again when the bars near the Covent Garden and Smithfield markets opened up, but that kind of behaviour was confined to a bohemian few. For most of us, London closed at midnight.

I slept soundly in Islington and Muswell Hill and sounder still in Bermondsey and Highbury, and I never said no to the coffee – “medium sweet please” – that came with the Metaxas.

A herbal tea is now the most I dare manage. Sleepless, waiting for the first planes to come, I envy those earlier nights when it took no effort to be dead to the world.