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20 February 2023

Sleep has always proved elusive, but at least I have nothing to get up for

Some people use the time afforded by insomnia to worry about things, but I prefer a good book and a small whisky.

By Nicholas Lezard

Insomnia strikes again. It’s like Tolstoy’s line about unhappy families: each person’s experience of it is different.

In fact, each of my experiences with it is different. The trick is not to have anything to do the next morning. Before I discovered the magical properties of alcohol, the night for me was largely a sleep-free zone, which became more and more fraught as the time I was meant to get up and go to nursery school inched closer.

I exaggerate, but only a little bit. I found that even though I was an undersized 15-year-old, I could, with the correct address and bearing, be served alcohol in my local: as long as I ordered Guinness, no questions were asked. As with Dorothy Parker’s martinis, three could send me under the table but two was fine: enough to send me reeling pleasantly back home and into the arms of oblivion. The only rash thing I did was lose the then incredible sum of £5 to a man propping up the bar, in a dispute about the correct spelling of “desiccate”. It is a lesson I have never forgotten. In fact, there were three lessons rolled into one: the spelling of the word itself, never to gamble when tiddly, and never to mistake interior confidence for knowledge.

The last couple of weeks though have cemented the insomnia as a nightly feature. The main driver was the embarrassing infection I had: the kind that makes you think you really, really need to go to the loo even though there is nothing in the tank, as you discovered five minutes ago. Thanks to the miracle of Nitrofurantoin (a word that, astonishingly, my spell-checker accepts, unlike “martini” with a lower-case “m”) that ailment vanished quickly; but failing to sleep has persisted. It’s mostly my fault: I seem to have got out of the habit of getting sloshed before going to bed. Bedtime is generally around midnight, with a good book or two on the go. Bed is particularly inviting these days, with fresh bedclothes, which I launder every six months whether they need it or not.

[See also: Florian Zeller’s The Son is a work of crass melodrama]

But some time between 2.30am and 3am I wake up and that’s it until seven at the very earliest. Some people like to use this time to worry about things, but I do enough of that during the day. Instead, I pick up one of the books I’m meant to be reading, plump up the pillows, and maybe pour myself a small whisky. Maybe have a snack. The book for the past couple of nights has been one I am reviewing for another publication, but it is Ian Marchant’s One Fine Day and it is bloody marvellous. It keeps me going for a few hours and by the time the Today programme is on its third round of hourly headlines I am ready to go to sleep.

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Only on one occasion has this state of affairs been the cause of panic – on a day when I was due to file some copy before noon. But even then it wasn’t too bad because I knew I could go straight back to bed the moment I’d delivered. This was not an option available when I went to school.

I mention my insomnia on a social media platform and am beset by advice. I love all the people who communicate with me on this particular platform, but there are times when I wish they would rein it in with the advice. There seems to be a consensus about magnesium supplements. And maybe Vitamin D as well? I don’t care, as a look at the box of Curiously Cinnamon cereal I snack from with my fingers tells me that I already get 19 per cent of my Vitamin D with each 30g serving, and I’m pretty sure I have more than 30g a go. That is, while it is still on offer at £2 a box in Waitrose. When it goes back to full price I might have to rethink my position on this.

It occurs to me, and might have occurred to you, that being awake all night and eating breakfast cereal out of the box is not necessarily an enviable way of living. I can see your point, but on the other hand there are worse ways to exist. Ian Marchant has also written a book about what goes on during the night – Something of the Night – and I recommend that too. I’d give you an apt quote from it but my copy is in storage somewhere, probably East Finchley.

I marvel at how awful it must be to be insomniac if you have a job to go to in the morning, small children who have to be looked after during the day, or even a loved one lying next to you in bed. But I have none of these things and am fortunate. There is something to be said for embracing sleeplessness; to embrace the darkness, to relish the time being conscious, before being obliged to take the sleep from which none of us awake.

[See also: Bret Easton-Ellis: Wokeness is running out of room]

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This article appears in the 22 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Undoing of Nicola Sturgeon