Saturday, 4 January 2014

How can anyone get to sleep without reading in bed?

One of the best experiences of the day is slipping under the duvet in a chilly bedroom (I can’t sleep with the windows shut), slipping on reading glasses and reaching out for a book or clicking on the Kindle, sinking back against the pillows (minumum number: four), draining a cup of tea – and starting to read. Characters in film and TV dramas almost invariably get into bed, have a chat – or more usually a row - with their partners, then either have sex before instantly falling asleep or get into bed, switch off their bedside light, immediately roll over, and close their eyes. (An optional extra shot involves the camera pulling back to reveal their partner lying awake in the darkness, crying.) My question is, can any educated person – no matter what they’ve been up to immediately beforehand - fall asleep without reading something  first?

Since the age of 14, when I had to sleep in a shared tent at my school’s West Barnes Lane playing-fields as part of the Duke of Edinburgh Awards Scheme (which I never heard mentioned again) I probably haven’t fallen asleep without reading more than a dozen times – and never in my own home. Even in my younger days, when I would occasionally go to bed drunk, I’d still manage to struggle through a paragraph or two of something – it didn’t really matter what - usually with one eye closed in order to stop the text swimming around. (I remember a friend once telling me that The Spectator represented excellent value because he could read it in bed drunk when it came out on a Friday, then re-read the whole thing sober the next day, when he wouldn’t remember a word he’d read the previous night.) Misery, agony, worry, depression, nausea, a blinding head-ache – none of these has ever stopped me from reading something before turning off the light. For instance, as a fifteen-year old, on the night we heard that my beloved grandmother had died while away on a trip, and sleep proved impossible, my response  was to read the whole of John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (I've never been able to read Wyndham since).

I’m an extreme owl, so I’ve never been any good at falling asleep: I have to be on the verge of unconsciousness before switching off the light, or I just have to switch it on again within half and hour and read some more. For years I took Halcion sleeping pills (triazolam) every night, and they worked a treat, leaving me relatively clear-headed in the morning. Then some American who was taking them committed suicide, a whole bunch of other American insomniacs reported everything from hair-loss to psychotic episodes (none of which will have had anything to do with their medication) - and neurotic health-Nazis banned my little night-time helper. (This happened while I was working in News and a fellow pill-popper who lived nearer than me went home to get his stash so they could be filmed for a news report on the ban.) I had to go cold turkey – at which point reading matter became doubly important, because the wrong choice might cut one’s sleeping time by two to three hours.

Apart from newspapers (the items are too short and many of the stories are annoying), almost anything will do – the important thing is to have a choice: lots of choice. Even if I’m in the middle of a sensationally good book, I have to know that there are at least five other titles I could switch to at a moment’s notice: often, if I’m not feeling tired enough, I’ll deliberately eschew an exciting book for something less enthralling in order not to find myself still reading at four in the morning. Several times, while travelling abroad on work, I would try to force myself to read something worthy by only taking one book along, but I would invariably end up reading a Gideon Bible instead (this may be one of the reasons I'm now a Christian).

This multi-choice approach inevitably means that there are many books which (unless they’re chosen by my book group) I will never reach the end of (Ulysses and Nostromo top the list), but there’s nothing more guaranteed to stop me falling asleep than reading something I simply don’t want to read. (Apart from fictional characters who read nothing at all before switching off the light, the ones that really make me feel panicky are those who read work-related documents in bed – does anyone you’d ever want to have a conversation with or who isn’t on the verge of a stress-related breakdown ever do this in real life? Is there anything guaranteed more effectively to prevent sleep than thinking about work?)

Actually, I’m grateful to the authorities who banned Halcion – I’ve probably had less sleep in the past 28 years than I would otherwise have enjoyed, but I’ve probably read twice as much as a result. Tonight, I’ll be continuing with Agatha Christie’s first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which I started at one this morning, having finished Edgar Wallace's silly but entertaining The Daffodil Mystery earlier than expected. Or something from Michael Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. Or make a start on Tom Lubbock’s Great Works: 50 Paintings Explored. Or finish off Mark Forsyth’s fascinating The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language. Or read some more of Professor Bob Grant’s thoroughly enjoyable philosophical essays (I have “Sex” and Death” lined up). Or I could get properly stuck into the Gillian Flynn thriller Gone Girl, which my wife thoroughly enjoyed. Or…

Actually, that sounds so appealing, I'm tempted to get started right now - but 4.56 in the afternoon might be a bit early to go to bed. All I'm certain of is that, if I didn't have all those treats lined up, I wouldn't be getting to sleep at all.


  1. I can fall asleep standing in the shower or in a supermarket queue for about 1 - 2 minutes. Watching "Downton Abbey" or any film made by Richard Curtis immediately sends me into a form of medically induced coma, but I always wake up when the end credits start rolling. No books required.

    1. Almost half of all male drivers report experiencing microsleep episodes at the wheel. This knowledge has made me nervous while driving.

      I've spent my life surrounded by people who nod off regularly watching television or when being driven in cars, and I've always felt vaguely envious, as I've never been able to sleep anywhere but in a bed. (Okay, Radio 4's Moneybox and any programme featuring Tony Robinson and an archeological dig tends to produce a state very like sleep, but, unfortunately, I never quite lose consciousness). I've never met anyone who has fallen asleep standing up. The big question is, why don't you fall over? Lucky that you don't, obviously.