Lots of money: characters from Channel 4's The Auction House
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Zebra-stripe pouffes and a big bronze vagina: Channel 4’s The Auction House

I loathed pretty much every buyer we saw but I was able to keep my disgust in check by thinking of them as upmarket recyclers. 

The Auction House
Channel 4


The people in factual at Channel 4 are billing Lots Road Auctions in Chelsea, subject of their silly new documentary series (Tuesdays, 9pm), as the strangest such establishment in Britain. This is clearly an exaggeration. All auction houses are strange, for there’s nothing so peculiar as other people’s tat: posh, antique or otherwise. Amazing, really, that anyone should want to rehouse it. Among the items we saw the loaded denizens of Britain’s richest borough lusting over in the first film, for instance, were a pair of “mosaic” panthers (think concrete with a few bits of broken mirror stuck into it); a three-foot model of a vagina set in bronze (yours for £800-£1,200); and a collection of cheap-looking furniture that had been “customised” (translation: covered in mindless graffiti) by a “local artist”.

Lili, a Lots Road regular who works as a songwriter and psychotherapist and has just bought a seven-bedroom mansion that stands in its own park, seriously considered buying the vagina, on the grounds that if she saw such a thing in a friend’s house, she would be hot with envy. However, having given it a lustful stroke, in the end she plumped for a more practical purchase, snapping up a dining table on which our nameless artist had helpfully scrawled in black marker pen the legend: “Everything can be art, nothing can be everything”. Such was her excitement, she even claimed this table had special powers. “I have a feeling it will make us happier,” she said, her suede cowboy hat quite possibly vibrating with joy. This, I felt, was incautious. Any fool could see it was going to look absolutely terrible in her “alpine-surgical”-themed kitchen.

Lots Road Auctions has been owned for the past 35 years by a millionaire called Roger Ross who describes his management style as “antiquated, dictatorial . . . offensive”. It used to be a nice little earner, but business is down 30 per cent, the bottom having fallen out of “brown furniture”; these days, only his “modern” department is a hit with the City boys and their womenfolk. What to do? So far, he’s all out of ideas, after his plan to muddle up his departments roundly failed (the crusty types in search of Edwardian card tables and 19th-century copies of Old Masters were unimpressed to see a sofa shaped like a pair of lips in the antique showroom, while the Belgravia housewives who frequent the modern department downstairs were still not tempted to take a look at all the gleaming mahogany above). Even his most loyal customers are in danger of drifting away. Michael and Craig, a couple of more than 30 years whose home is themed “the Grand Tour gone mad”, would love to refresh their collection of antiques. But while the market is so flat, they’re unable to sell anything, and as a result have no room. A pair of Chinese porcelain rabbits they reluctantly plucked from a crowded tabletop went for just £400, which seemed a lot given that they strongly resembled Thumper and Miss Bunny from Bambi. But Michael’s disappointment was palpable. “You’ve got your new teeth,” he said to Craig, who is currently somewhat lacking in the incisor department. “But that’s all.”

The Auction House is madly derivative: it’s Posh Pawn meets The Office, the influence of which lingers whiffily on in the world of fly-on-the-wall. But its combination of melancholy (all that abandoned, once-loved furniture) and vulgarity (the too-fat wallets, the zebra-stripe pouffes) makes, I must admit, for weirdly consoling television. I loathed pretty much every buyer we saw but I was able to keep my disgust in check by thinking of them as upmarket recyclers. If a life-size fake bronze gorilla has to exist at all, better that it ends up in some banker’s ghastly penthouse than in landfill.

Meanwhile, the Kirstie Allsopp in me – I refer to her fondness for upcycling rather than her “passionate feminism” – quietly wondered if I shouldn’t nip down to Lots Road myself to snap up the lovely Victorian daybed no one else seemed to want. Reupholstered, it would come in useful for those afternoons on which, sickened by the sight of yet another perfectly good kitchen being ripped out by my neighbours, I find myself in urgent need of a good, long lie-down.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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Out like a light: why bad sleep poses a danger to us all

Our species has declared war on the night and sleep has been the victim.

At 4.02am on 2 November 1892, near Thirsk railway station in Yorkshire, an express train crashed into a goods train. Ten people were killed and 39 injured. Nearly a century later, at 1.23am on 26 April 1986, the No 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, killing two people instantly and causing multiple deaths from radiation. To see how these seemingly unrelated tragedies are connected requires that we understand biological time.

Our lives are ruled by time, but the alarms that drive us out of bed in the morning or tell us that we are late for a meeting are recently adopted chronometers. Life answers to a more ancient beat, which probably started to tick early in the evolutionary process. Embedded in our genes are the instructions for a biological or “circadian” clock that regulates our sleep patterns, alertness, mood, physical strength, blood pressure, and more.

Normally, we experience a 24-hour pattern of light and dark and this aligns our day to the Earth’s rotation. The clock is then used to anticipate this rotation and fine-tune physiology and behaviour before these conditions change. Temperature, blood pressure and cognitive performance all decline as you wind down to sleep. Before dawn, these processes are slowly reversed in anticipation of the new day.

The daily sleep cycle is the most obvious of these rhythms. While asleep, we don’t eat, drink, make money or have sex, so we have relegated the sleep state to a lowly position on our list of priorities. At best, we tolerate it; at worst, we regard it as an illness in need of a cure. Such attitudes are not only wrong, but dangerous.

Though sleep may involve the suspension of most physical activity, the brain is consolidating memories and solving problems; it co-ordinates the removal of toxins; promotes cell division and tissue repair; and rebuilds metabolic pathways. In short, without sleep, our performance and health deteriorate rapidly.

Our species has declared war on the night and sleep has been the victim. The unintended consequences of cheap electric light are twofold. More light at night, together with forms of entertainment including social media, have eroded our sleep time by as much as two hours every night. On top of this, many of us are trying to sleep at the wrong time. Those with night shifts work when they are sleepy and try to sleep when they are not. The body clock fails to adjust and remains synchronised to the natural light/dark cycle.

Shortened sleep and working against biological time have been linked with many health problems. These include lapses in attention and uncontrollable micro-sleeps; impulsiveness and loss of empathy; memory impairment and reduced creativity; immune suppression; higher risks of Type 2 diabetes, infection, cancer and cardiovascular disease; weight gain; and a susceptibility to depression, anxiety and mood instability.

In our quest for instant gratification, it is unlikely that we will stop doing what we like when we like. However, understanding the consequences of bad sleep will help us to reprioritise sleep. Perhaps, one day, the self-inflicted tired will be viewed with the same contempt as that for smokers huddled outside a building. Employers need to recognise that employees with disrupted sleep will be less productive. Why not introduce more health checks and offer advice to those at risk? As night-shift workers are more likely to have heart disease and Type 2 diabetes and to be obese, firms could provide food that reduces these risks. Finally, technology could be used to alert an individual that they are falling asleep both in the workplace and during the drive home.

So, what happened at Thirsk railway station in 1892 and Chernobyl in 1986? These disasters and others like them were linked to excessive tiredness, people working at the wrong biological time and a breakdown in procedure. James Holmes was the signalman at Thirsk. The day before the crash, he had been awake for 36 hours, caring for his daughter, trying to find a doctor and looking after his grief-stricken wife when the baby died. He reported to the stationmaster that he would be unable to work the next night, but no replacement was sent and he was forced to do his shift. He fell asleep, and he had forgotten that the goods train was on the line when he allowed the express through.

After the crash, Holmes was found guilty of manslaughter but given an absolute discharge. The railway company was blamed for ignoring him, and for failing to use procedures which would have detected that he had fallen asleep.

Russell Foster is Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at the University of Oxford

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution