Agood husband,’ according to Balzac, who worked every day between 1am and 8am, so it was easy for him to say, ‘is never the first to go to sleep at night or the last to awake in the morning.’ one could easily dismiss his opinion for another reason, viz. although he wrote two treatises about the matrimonial state, Physiologie du mariage and Petites misères de la vie conjugale, he was a confirmed bachelor himself.
Nevertheless, I think he was onto something, which is why I always make sure to perform the final but crucial chores— banking the bedroom fire, opening the window and turning out the lights—before sliding between the sheets.
It is, of course, one thing to be in bed and quite another to be asleep. This week, I’ve been beset by insomnia. I have to say that I don’t entirely mind. I can lie quite happily for hours listening to what Longfellow called ‘the trailing garments of the night’: Rose’s quiet breathing, the muffled chime of the hall clock, the wind in the trees, distant church bells.
occasionally, the peace can be disturbed by a more dramatic noise: the squeal of some small creature being hunted outside in the field or an anguished oath as our 19 year old, returning from his revels, runs into a piece of furniture in the darkened house (the night, as it were, has 1,000 cries).
Generally, however, sleeplessness affords one an opportunity to think of pleasant, happy things. In the small hours of Monday morning, I re-laid out and planted our walled garden. Tuesday, I retraced every step of a Lake district walking holiday I took with my father in 1977, during which he came as close as he was able to saying he loved me. Wednesday, I attempted to recall every Christmas since Nathaniel was born 37 years ago. When else does one have the peace and quiet to indulge in such thoughts?
Anyway, I’ve developed all sorts of techniques to help me doze, if not actually to slumber. Like Winnie the Pooh, I count Heffalumps. I also listen to boring audiobooks. Lord of the Rings is a favourite, leading our son, oliver, to accuse me of Tolkien in my sleep.
When all else fails, I get up, which is what I did on Thursday morning at 3am.
As Lord Byron, had he been peering out of our kitchen window, would doubtless have said: ‘Most glorious night! Thou wert not sent for slumber.’ There was a cloudless sky, no moon and a hard frost. It looked so alluring that I donned a coat and boots and slipped out of the back door.
‘Lord of the Rings is a favourite, leading our son, Oliver, to accuse me of Tolkien in my sleep
Strangely enough, I’ve always found dusk, what the French call entre chien et loup (between dog and wolf), with its deep shadows and mysterious shapes, more frightening than absolute darkness. And absolute darkness is what you get in a remote, West Cork location.
Acouple of decades ago an astronomer by the unlikely name of Bortle—although, given that my own is actually otter Self, I suppose I am in no position to mock—invented a ninelevel numeric scale that measures the night sky’s brightness.
If, for example, you live in Mayfair, your night sky measures nine on the Bortle scale, the stars and constellations being more or less invisible. ours, I’m proud to say, being an excellent, dark-sky site, measures one.
Which is why, having climbed the hill behind the house, I was treated to a scene of spectacular beauty. Humans have five senses or, if of a mystic bent, perhaps six, but the one we use the most is sight. Yet, how blind we can be, and I make no apology for the clichéd nature of my description, to the wonders of the world around us.
on any clear, or partially clear, night, it’s possible to step outside in a Bortle 1–4 (rural/suburban transition) area, gaze upwards and see a truly heavenly sight.
Cold and tired as I was, I couldn’t tear myself away. In every direction, thousands upon thousands of twinkling stars. My knowledge of such things is poor, but even I could recognise a dozen of the better-known constellations and a half-dozen planets. As I traced the course of the Milky Way across the inky black sky and watched a small shower of meteors, it occurred to me that, if this was a rare, rather than a nightly, event, then millions would stay up to observe it.
When I eventually returned to bed, I was so tired that I fell into a deep sleep. At 6.30am, however, I dutifully got up, shook the twins awake (I think nothing of rising at this hour and they don’t think much of it, either) and brought a cup of tea up to Rose. Balzac would, I hope, have approved.
Jonathan Self is the author of Good Money, Become an Ethical Entrepreneur (Head Zeus) and a raw dog-food maker (http://honeysrealdog food.com) who lives in Co Cork, Ireland