My week

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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

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