I could sleep for a week. Let me rephrase that: given a bed that does not have three dogs luxuriously stretched out on it, snoring gently and occasionally woofing as they run after dream-rabbits, I could go to sleep and stay there for a whole, unbroken night. But while I work on my master plan to provide alternative sleeping arrangements for the dogs that they will accept and stay in all night – and before you very kindly offer suggestions you need to know that the spaniel is an accomplished lock-picker – I can at least use the still watches of the night to catch up on some reading.
‘O for a beaker full of the warm South’ strongly suggests that little Johnny Keates (as Byron called him, presumably deliberately mis-spelling the surname: we must talk about their feuds and squabbles one day) knew what it is to stare at the ceiling at three in the morning. I’m not sure, though, that his remedy is approved of these days in medical circles, which can be rather kill-joy: but ‘O for a beaker full of Ovaltine’, although scanning perfectly well, does not have the same ring to it. Sleeplessness has not always produced great poetry. Rossetti’s poem ‘Insomnia’ does nothing to put him up there among the first rank of Victorian poets (fair enough, as I don’t think that’s his rightful place: a definite also-ran especially when compared to his sister Christina, who, although tending towards the droopy, left us some really cracking stuff). Better by far is Dana Gioia’s poem, also called ‘Insomnia’, which begins, ‘Now you hear what the house has to say’, which is exactly right, and ends, ‘The terrible clarity this moment brings,/ the useless insight, the unbroken dark’, which is of course a very useful insight and a reminder not to keep a notebook by the bed for jotting down all those utterly brilliant perceptions that come to you in the wee small hours. Dana Gioia, by the way, is not only a chap, no matter what students who have written ill-researched essays for me presume, but quite possibly the only poet ever to have been Vice-President of General Foods (ah: Unlikely Jobs Held By Poets: I think I spot a topic for another week).
Having known me now for some time, you will be unsurprised to hear that I have not read Stephen King’s no doubt fine-if-you-like-that-sort-of-thing novel, Insomnia, which presumably comes with a guarantee to provide you with several sleepless nights and a tendency to keep the light on. Much more my sort of thing, and definitely one for this week’s bookshelf (or bedside table perhaps) is Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which, as well as being possibly the first detective story in English, tells us the dire consequences of taking laudanum as a cure for sleeplessness. Collins was a fabulous story-teller, and once again (he did it in The Woman in White previously) he gives us the plot from different characters’ points of view. When you add a sparklingly exotic plot, an amateur detective, a Scotland Yard man, a locked room and a barrel-load of red herrings, you can see why this is a must-read should you not have got round to doing so yet. It is also really long, which is, for once, a recommendation, as it will make quite a few wide-awake nights go that little bit faster.
If you are a bit young for that sort of thing, or know someone whose prescribed bedtime is in single figures, you might do better with a couple of completely magical books from the great Maurice Sendak: Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen. I have just learned that In the Night Kitchen is much-banned and vilified in some parts of the world because our three-year old hero – shock horror – is naked. Goodness me. What very cushioned places some people live in, where a drawing of a little boy with no clothes on can cause such moral outrage. We can only wonder how such readers – if they can read – will react to pictures of children dying of hunger or entirely preventable diseases: by rising up and insisting that their governments intervene and eradicate the causes, let us hope. Meanwhile, back in Max’s bedroom (is it alright to look at drawings of a little boy’s bedroom?), Where the Wild Things Are is quite simply the best, the most magical, the most essential book for the very small. Sendak pointed out that children have the great gift of being able to slip easily between reality and fantasy. It is a shame that, somewhere along the line, we put that ability down for a moment and forget where we left it. Reading Where the Wild Things Are, and, of course, revelling in the marvellous pictures, can help soothe the savage breast of adulthood and lull us into a good night’s sleep.
But don’t panic. An objective observer will tell you that you are sleeping for much more of the night than you think you are. It is also very unlikely that a night or two with less sleep than you think you need will kill you. The best advice for the sleepless seems to be a mixture of the crashingly obvious – coffee, alcohol and nicotine are not your friends – and the cheering: a winding-down routine at the end of the day, a comfortable bed and a book that will soothe rather than set the pulse racing is the best prescription. Oh, and keep the dogs off the bed.