Bright sparks of creativity light up the darkness of insomnia
How much worse would insomnia be without the companionship of radio? How much less creative would the artist be if restricted to nine-to- ve? This week Radio 3 devoted The Essay, nightly at 10.45pm, to The Darkest Hour, ve meditations on the lack of shut-eye which rambled through a profusion of thoughts, rather like sleeplessness itself.
But the series also revealed how to turn a long yawn into something positive. In Monday’s programme the novelist Margaret Drabble (pictured) warned against regarding insomnia as an illness. If it was instead considered interesting and worthy of respect, the loneliness that came with it “was far less distressing.” Drabble dated her lack of sleep from motherhood although when she was small, her late-night chatter would cause her own exasperated mother to plead: “Shut up and go to sleep.” Now in the gritty small hours that was the mantra she repeated to herself. When sleep came vivid dreams arrived, dreams of vertigo where Drabble woke “before the body hit the ground.” But in her Wednesday Essay, AL Kennedy described sleep as an intrusion on precious writing time. Her preferred working mode was to hammer the keyboard for up to three days without succumbing once to the pillow. But this had come at a horrid price, trapping her in a loop of spine trouble, muscle wastage and pain so chronic it forced her to buy groceries one tin at a time.
Kennedy knew her physical health now depended on ditching this destructive regime. But the problem for all these essayists was whether a normal sleep pattern would cripple creativity. Kennedy’s meagre sleep ration had begun in childhood when she kept her bedroom door open “just enough to let the monsters in.” That habit had stayed with her, and on nding that “sheets are impervious to monsters”, she’d slept with her head under the covers ever since.
Michael Portillo’s excellent Capitalism on Trial ( Radio 4) reached its conclusion on Tuesday. And the message: we’re in a mess not even the unloved bankers understand.