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A Point of View: 'How I learned to embrace my insomnia'

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Does insomnia have a positive side? It's a question which keeps the writer Will Self awake at night.

The title of Jonathan Crary's recently-published book says it all - 24/7: Late Capitalism And The Ends of Sleep. By which I mean that as with the best polemics − The Communist Manifesto or A Modest Proposal are other examples − the central idea is encapsulated in its heading. Mind you, my guard was already down, as if in involuntary preparation to receive Crary's thrust, which is this - the processes we associate with contemporary economic life are moving inexorably to deprive us of our sleep. An unconscious person is no kind of consumer at all, being quite unable to enter her credit card security code in a website − and nor is she much good at working either. Moreover, the sleeper is difficult for the state security apparatus to keep under surveillance, as without a real-time electroencephalograph it's impossible to know whether he's dreaming, while even with one the potentially treasonous or terroristic nature of his reveries remains unknowable.

Where I perhaps part company from Crary is in his assertion that capitalism is the only insomniac economic system. I'm quite sure there were the sleepless in Stalingrad, and quite possibly ancient Sumer as well for all we know - but I concede, there is something about our contemporary existence, especially in big, bustling cities, which seems altogether inimical to a good night's rest. I began to notice I was losing sleep about a decade ago − at first just a little top-and-tailing of the main period of repose, so I lay abed an hour or so less. But then I began to find it quite impossible to have a lie-in even on days when I wasn't required to be an economically-productive unit. After that, with increasing frequency there came night-time trips to the bathroom which would often render me insomniac for an hour or two.

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All of this was perfectly understandable and readily explicable. The ageing male of the species may sleep on a Posturepedic mattress, but this doesn't mitigate the effects of a slowly swelling prostate. I wasn't wild about the toilet two-step towards senescence, but perhaps what made it all the more galling was that my wife slumbered on… and on. Indeed, following casual enquiries among my peers I discovered this was a general rule - ageing men sleep less on the whole, and maturing women more. Contra Crary's thesis, my own explanation for this was purely arithmetic. There are many basic physiological functions that rely on unconscious calculation, such as our depth perception, which depends on figuring out the length of the sides of the thousands of equilateral triangles we form when we focus on an object, the base being a distance we know intuitively, since it's between one eye and the other.

Perhaps sleep was subject to a similar metric? At an ulterior level men realise we have a lower life expectancy, and so as we age we stay awake more − we'll have to catch up on sleep when we're dead, whereas those fortunate females get to spend anything up to four extra years tucked up with their hot water bottles and very much alive. I quite liked this hypothesis, which made my insomnia seem clear-eyed and stoical rather than blearily hysterical. I began to fancy myself − rather confusingly − as a transgender Mrs Thatcher, propped up on my pillows by dawn's early light, and slowly working my way through serried red ministerial despatch boxes. Who needed sleep anyway? All that unconsciousness makes you so… well, so out of it. When I thought back to the monumental slumbers of childhood and adolescence they seemed to have lasted for eons − while I slept civilisations rose and fell, species and indeed entire phyla reached extinction, and when I eventually awoke I hardly knew who I was any longer.

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Actually, I'd long since figured out when that deliriously discombobulating form of rest had come to an end - 1990, the year my first child was born. The World Cup was being held in Italy that summer, and the tournament's official song was the aria Nessun Dorma from Puccini's Turandot, sung by Luciano Pavarotti. "None shall sleep!" the big man belted out − and how right he was, because even after my children began slumbering throughout the night, I never regained that identity-negating oblivion. I'm sure other parents will identify. It doesn't matter if your kids have grown up and moved to another continent, you still hold their beating hearts in your heart even when you're unconscious, and so you remain ever-alert in case they should falter. But this vigilance segues unpleasantly with the phenomenon Crary describes − it only requires a slight tweak in your auditory processing system for you to become attuned to a different heartbeat − that of the city itself.

In a Point of View talk a couple of years ago I confessed to having moved my bed so I could look at the Shard as I fell asleep. The paradox embodied in contemplating the highest building in Europe while I dropped into my own deep abyss wasn't lost on me, but the truth is the gleaming dagger of the lit-up skyscraper was only part of the appeal. Throughout the warmer months, with my bed by the open window I can not only hear the city's bustle − it's as if I'm right in it. The electro-jabber and synthesised howl of emergency vehicles, the stumble-trip-yodel of drunks making their way home from the local pub, the yowling of copulating cats, foxes, and humans arguing about copulation, the whoosh of lorries on the arterial road − these skeins of sound wrap around my semi-consciousness and haul it back towards the sodium glow of wakefulness without end.

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Image caption London at night: "Wakefulness without end"

Of course, I'm not an idiot (or at least, no more so than anyone else), and nor am I trying to resurrect the white nights of my youth when I thought seeing the dawn was the dernier cri of sophistication. I'm only too aware that since I began this practice, inverted commas have come home to roost around the expression "a good night's sleep" rendering it entirely ironic − yet I cannot desist. If I follow Crary it's late capitalism that's to blame, and while I may have no intention of being first in line for the latest digital widget that'll boost my connectivity, I still remain permanently switched-on − my smartphone is right bedside the bed, its peeps and pings punctuating my partial oblivion with exhortations to click and tick and scan and pick the next great opportunity. As a member of that freelance class of workers known as "the precariat", I remain finely balanced on the edge of an economic cliff. After years of writing to deadlines time has indeed become money for me, and I cannot afford to squander any of it − thriftily insomniac Mrs Thatcher would approve.

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But I also think there's another reason why I can't sleep properly anymore. As a writer of fiction I set great store by the assistance sleep, and its imaginative bedfellow, dream, provide to creativity. I've always written the first drafts of my stories and novels first thing in the morning, believing it easier to suspend disbelief in my unlikely inventions if I've but recently disentangled myself from those of my own subconscious. A good dream − by which I mean a reverie of a vividness to challenge reality − can completely alter your perception of the world, rendering the most important concerns trivial, and imbuing picayune things with great spiritual significance. Obviously, this isn't a mental state conducive to being a content cog in the great wheel of growth − unless you're an artist − so the entire go-round acts to detach us from our duvets. Oscar Wilde observed that "Life is a dream that keeps us from sleeping", but perhaps once we've ceased to slumber at all we'll realise there was no us to begin with − only one dream, dreaming another.


The Magazine in the wee small hours of the night

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Image caption Detail from "Flaming June" by Frederic Leighton

Why a long night's sleep may be bad for you (March 2015)

Are night shifts killing me? (July 2015)

The myth of the eight-hour sleep (February 2012)

How much can an extra hour's sleep change you? (October 2013)


A Point of View is broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST

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