Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.
Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.
A man sleeps with a newspaper over his face. Photo: Getty
There’s only one word for this sleep-depriving heat: “stiffling” (look it up) A friend tells me he has been unable to sleep in this hot weather. Another friend tells me the same thing. Then I read in a paper that there is widespread sleeplessness going on. A nation tosses and turns under its low-tog duvets, counting sheep to no avail.
I know the misery of insomnia, especially in hot weather: until the age of 15, once the temperature rose above a certain point at night, I found it impossible to sleep. I experienced every second of every warm summer night from 1969 to 1978 awake. The earliest summers were the worst. My parents had invested in the soundtrack LP of the musical Hair – rather against the grain of their characters and tastes, it must be said – and every time they had people round, they would put this on when they thought I had gone to sleep and I would lie in bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering how many more times I could listen to “The Age of Aquarius” without going mad. (Actually, I rather liked the song but it is funnier to say it drove me crazy.)
The sleepless nights stopped in 1978 when I discovered alcohol. Or, to put it more accurately, when I discovered the poise and bearing that would, despite my lack of stature (and though I was only 15), somehow reassure bar staff into thinking I was three years older. Ever since then I have self-medicated, slept the sleep of the just, whatever the weather. I also like the hot weather, as I am a child of the sun; my forebears came from warmer climes. The Beloved, on the other hand, is pure English and, like Manny, the character played by Bill Bailey in the sitcom Black Books, succumbs to Dave syndrome once the temperature hits 88°F. (You don’t want to know.)
So I’m tucking myself in the other night, my ticket for the land of nod presented and stamped, when a burglar alarm goes off over the road. It is a loud burglar alarm, pitched high and designed by experts to be distressingly audible for about half a mile around. Thanks to the inverse-square law, from where I am, it sounds bloody loud.
I try shutting the window but this shuts off the breeze and I look at the Beloved’s sleeping form and wonder whether this will make her succumb to Dave syndrome in the middle of the night. (You really don’t want to know.) I think of Martin Amis’s example of the typically rubbish opening you get in entries to short-story competitions: “The heat was stiffling [sic].”
Feeling that it is better to be deafened than stiffled, I open the window again and assess the situation. It is not wholly devoid of interest, for the alarm has gone off in a building I have not noticed before. How I can have failed to notice an entire building a stone’s feeble throw from my window when I have been living here for six years is a puzzle.
The alarm seems to be the manifestation of the anxieties of a very anonymous office building, whose style suggests the mid-tolate 1960s, around the time Hair opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London. It is utterly characterless: square, fronted by frosted glass. I must have passed it a thousand times and I never knew it was there until now.
On either side, the street is 1850 vintage, so this cuckoo’s existence suggests that the Luftwaffe gouged it out during the war. To pass the time, I look up bombsight.org – the extraordinary site that tells you how many bombs fell where during the Blitz – but we can’t blame the Hun for this one, it turns out; we can blame a council or a firm of architects.
And the noise goes on. I wonder what it is that the alarm is protecting. Even if the offices within are in use during the day, who would be interested in carting off a photocopier and a few bulky computers? What else could be there? State secrets? If so, the place would be crawling with Men in Black; however, the guardians of our safety are maintaining a stout indifference.
There is no sign of forced or unforced entry. The offices are dark and empty, a non-place. It is as if the alarm went off in response to the office’s inner crisis, a sudden existential awareness of its lack of importance within a vast and uncaring universe. The alarm is simply saying: “I’m here! I’m here!”
Several hours later, it stops. I think there is a difference between the insomnia that one suffers on a quiet night and that which one suffers when there’s a racket going on. The dawn is breaking. I check that the room temperature is below 88°F, hum a few bars of “Aquarius” and finally drift off.