Monday, 28 February 2011

There’s nothing I hate worse than seeing the Sun rise!

My health isn’t at its best at the moment – nothing terminal, but I tend to wake up after eight hours’ solid sleep feeling as if I haven’t managed a wink, then shamble about for the rest of the day trying to locate my missing verve. This has been happening occasionally for many years: I used to liken it to having a bad hangover without any of the preceding pleasure.

Now I think it’s more like the way one feels after doing a night-shift.

I’m an owl, so you’d imagine I’d sail through an all-nighter, no worries. Far from it - I’m one of those people who just can’t do them.

My first experience of night-work was in the kitchens of a South London Hospital. But that was fine, because I was eighteen – I don’t remember it being a problem. The following year, I did three weeks in the run-up to Christmas at a West London post office, as chief washer-up in the canteen (incredibly well-paid). I was fine until the day after my stint had finished, when, for the only time in my life, I burst into tears for no reason whatsoever – in other words, a fit of the vapours

Then a lengthy hiatus until I joined BBC News and was ordered to work on Breakfast News for two weeks (we all were, back then - presumably in case we felt too smug about getting into the BBC). This led to the hallucinatory experience of walking around the rabbit-warren that was BBC Lime Grove at seven o’clock in the morning with Jonathan Ross in tow, failing to find my way back to the studio I’d just left in order to pick him up at reception. (I’ve been unrelentingly critical of Ross in this blog, so I have to report that, when I stopped half-way down a corridor we’d already been down twice and admitted I didn’t have a clue where we were, he just laughed and told me not to worry about it). A rescue party eventually found us, and I eventually slunk back, humiliated, to my day job.

Then came Armageddon: I volunteered for a new pre-Breakfast business news programme, which required doing night shifts every other week (I was getting on a bit in news terms and was angling for some fast-track promotion – didn’t work). Within nine months, I ended up in hospital with the condition that’s currently making me feel peaky, two decades on. 

Some people sailed through the experience, but I hated every single minute of every one of those endless, life-sapping, crawling hours. Most people who work nights say that their exhaustion and depression evaporate when the Sun comes up: for me, it was the opposite. The lightening of the sky in the East inevitably had me wondering whether life was actually worth the effort: the arrival of the Sun itself would entirely unman me. (There were rumours of illicit, furtive couplings between night-workers – where they found the energy, I’ll never know!). 

Fortunately, I always managed to reach home without incident – overnight news reporters were practically uninsurable because of the number of accidents they caused by falling asleep at the wheel (one was even arrested by police for falling asleep at traffic lights on Shepherd’s Bush Green).

Then a large Scotch (probably not such a good idea at 9.45 in the morning) and to bed – to lie asleep with one’s stomach roiling (I never knew how much I was eating overnight – one’s body-clock is so out of whack it fails to supply the usual helpful signals regarding the need for food: one was either permanently ravenous or utterly sated) and realising that one would have to wake up by 5.30 in order to go in and do it all over again.

Marginally better was the experience of editing early-morning week-end news bulletins, which required getting up 3.30 in the morning. The difference was that the arrival of the Sun wasn’t such a problem – because one had actually managed  a few hours of sleep, it didn’t feel quite so unnatural: and the sheer panic involved in getting a bulletin together in three hours meant that feelings of terminal crapulousness wouldn’t kick in until mid-morning.

Whenever I read accounts of soldiers or refugees with their lives in peril having to stay awake for days on end, I am overwhelmed with admiration.

I experienced my last all-nighter eighteen months ago, during the Iranian election. Mine was mainly a watching brief, so I didn’t have much to do, except fret uselessly – and hoover up an indecent number of custard croissants (for some odd reason, the BBC’s fuel of choice for major night-time events). As I fought against sleep on the tube home the next morning, I promised myself I would never, ever do it again – at least, voluntarily.


  1. Been there, done that - and yes it was grim grim grim. But my first Breakfast stint was a lot longer than did you manage that?... and I loved the Sun coming up because it meant the end was in sight. I don;t remember any sex, but some of the regulars acted as if they had took the odd nip to get them through. Maybe their brains brains had become permamently scrambled. I remember rumours that every night you worked took an hour off your life. Can't remember the methodology!
    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 - 10:53 AM

  2. Apologies for the two 'brains' in previous comment - I'm not normally known as "two brains". Forgot to mention that I remember you coming back from a long stint outside the newsroom...but I can barely remember anything about an early morning business news bulletin. How long did it last for? I also can't remember you mentioning your illness, but do recall you stopped coming to the club after the 9 for a Becks. is that why? If so, bad luck.
    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 - 11:01 AM