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24 April 2024

Spring’s lighter evenings have brought me back to life

It’s a cruel and twisted joke that this country is kept dark all winter because of our obsession with GMT.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Spring is sprung, the grass is rizz, and I have had an epiphany: I belong on British Summer Time. It hits me a few weekends after Easter. I am looking out at the wasteland that is the Disaster House garden (our renovation efforts have not yet made it past the back door) and admiring the blossom on our neighbour’s crab apple tree when I notice it is after 7pm – and the sky is light! With that small realisation, something lifts; my head clears, and the anxiety spiral I’ve been trapped in for months begins to unwind.

Perhaps I should have worked out long ago how closely my mood is tied to the seasons. It’s hardly unique – who doesn’t dread the dark trudge through the gloomy winter months, or feel revitalised at the sight of the first green shoots? But this is something more. Looking at the blossom, then the clock, then back to the blossom flicks a switch in my head. It’s as if my brain has been given permission to feel hopeful again.

Seasonal affective disorder runs in my family. When my parents embarked on their own home improvement project more than two decades ago, they planned it around my mother’s need for light: a wall of glass, big mirrors, as many skylights as they could fit in. My sister is currently on the other side of the world chasing the sun. Yet it has never occurred to me that my tendency to tumble into depression might be exacerbated by being deprived of proper daylight. Or that artificially moving the clocks forward could prove such an instant improvement, worth missing out on an hour’s sleep for.

What I do know is that it is a cruel and twisted joke that this country is kept unnecessarily in the dark all winter because of our obsession with Greenwich Mean Time. Yes, I’ve heard the arguments about Scottish children going to school in the murky dawn – but is it really so much better for them to be returning after nightfall? And not just children. I think about walking home from work alone in winter, feeling the pitch black closing in and the evening constricting around me like a vice. I remember the 2020-21 winter lockdowns, spending all day indoors until the light faded completely, and how I lost my grip on reality. For the majority of people, children included, I reckon that extra hour of light is more valuable at the end of the day than at the beginning. So why don’t we keep it all year round?

I once got into a furious Twitter row with Peter Hitchens (on my birthday, no less) about the concept of “real time”. His view seemed to be that the cosmic order mandated noon should be at the midpoint of the day, that moving the clocks was an aberration, and that if I craved sunlight so much I should simply get up earlier.

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I envy those “morning larks” with the circadian rhythms that make voluntary early starts possible. Hitchens might think me lazy, but for us “night owls” (who make up 30 per cent of the population) that isn’t an option. Insomnia keeps us awake and fretting long past midnight; by the time we get to sleep we’re already in catch-up mode. As the neuroscience professor and sleep expert Matthew Walker writes in Why We Sleep: “Night owls are not owls by choice. They are bound to a delayed schedule by unavoidable DNA hard-wiring. It is not their conscious fault, but rather their genetic fate.” My genetic fate, it seems, is to be subsumed in inky misery for the months of GMT, broken only when the blossom comes out and the clocks change.

So I have no patience for “real time”, or for stealing away the light when we need it most. And yes, maybe this is something to address with a therapist, as opposed to blaming my mental health ups and downs on a chronological quirk. Maybe it’s not ideal that a small part of me is already dreading October. But watching the blossom in the evening light, for a moment I allow myself not to worry about that – or about how much work is left on the house, or what the results of recent medical tests will show, or if we’re about to descend into World War Three. For a moment, I remember what calm feels like. It feels like spring.

[See also: At 32, I am only just getting over the concept of time difference]

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger