Unpaid debts

The first post of the bright (or, more accurately, grey) new year will come in two parts, linked by little more than the applicability of the title. Then again, this blog does make claims about juxtaposition and I feel it incumbent upon me to make good on this threat from time to time.

Our first thread will once again pick away at my inability to sleep, a theme which this blog is forced to return to on a regular basis. As we passed the winter punctuation that is Christmas and with a return, once again, to full lockdown for me, if not for much of the country or the government, it eventually became obvious – even to me – that I was sleeping far too little and ineffectively for it to fulfil its role in the vital nightly re-building of the shattered ruins of my mind. It took a little longer and the prospect of having to be vaguely functional for money, with the return to work, that I started to do something about it.

In the prolonged absence of human company, or a bubble to call my own, I have been forced to lean on video conferencing to retain social connection. This is a lot better than nothing but doesn’t come without cost – and I’m not talking of the modest fee to maintain a Zoom account. I am coming to realise that the social performance required (or at least delivered, wanted or not) when I am with friends on Zoom does come at some emotional cost which in the depths of winter is proving harder to repay than it was in the spring and summer. It also means a lot of screen time in the evening and into the night, which is not generally associated with good sleep hygiene. It became clear that something was amiss when I woke each morning with the same thought as a bowl of petunias brought, improbably, into existence at some significant height above the surface of the planet Magrathea, viz “Oh no, not again”. This did not seem a healthy way to approach continued existence and so I decided I should probably do something about it: and hiring an assassin during lockdown is something of a challenge…

My initial strategy to fill my life with ever more baroque divertissement did provide a certain degree of entertainment – I have designed my own currency, written a topical play and made a massively over-elaborate PowerPoint presentation for my next quiz (well, I had to fill all those extra hours of not being asleep somehow and I feel all of these things could stand me in good stead in the post-apocalyptic wasteland into which we shall some day emerge) – but did not, sadly, represent a solution. A more desperate plan to eschew alcohol, I was pleased to find, was also ineffective. So, after bailing early on New Years’ Eve – though being in the presence of friends did keep my awake for a good two hours longer than I expected to be feasible (which may, itself, not have been such a wise decision), I decided that I need to implement much stronger sleep hygiene. This has meant no evening Zoom calls for the last eleven days and so no synchronous human contact in that period either (well, other than a brief sight of the back of the postman’s or delivery person’s head as they wisely flee my potentially infected presence). It also meant, as things re-opened after the lacuna between bank holidays, the acquisition of rather more serious chemical aids to slumber. This combination does seem to be bearing fruit in that I have started sleeping rather more successfully, have been able to function convincingly at work and have managed to cut the chemical assistance.

However, both tonight and tomorrow night, I have Zoom commitments and so we will see how well the sleep survives or whether I return to running up an ever rising debt. I have programmed my screen to switch to its most orange possible state at 21:00 as a partial defence (and to feel like I’m living in the future) but only time will tell whether I am ready to rejoin the virtual world…

It is now time to start down the second tine of our conversational (yes, I know you can’t join in) fork (I am imagining a pitchfork, if that helps with this metaphor). A couple of days ago, the journalist and writer (and so much more) Katherine Whitehorn passed away. I’ve read a few of her columns over the years and heard her essays on Radio 4 but for me, as for so many more, she is most significant as the writer of Cooking in a Bedsitter. This came into my possession shortly after starting university in 1984 and discovering both that food does not magically appear in front of me and that mid-80s ready meals barely qualified as food. It was she, rather than my mother, who taught me my first important lessons in cookery and made me into the Quransteining monster I am today. I should note that my mother did act as an inspiration that cooking meals was something that people did on a daily basis, that food should be tasty and made from recognisable ingredients and as a very valuable source of recipes in days long before the internet.

I like to imagine that I repaid the debt to my mother substantially better than I did to Ms Whitehorn who, I assume, never knew of the formative role she played in my food life. However, I’m sure she must have been aware how important she was to generations of young adults leaving home for the first time and taking their first faltering steps with a baby Belling. Many influences came later but she was the first and there are still aspects of her teaching that I use to this day: she even had some impact on my becoming a (terrible) vegetarian.

Perhaps it’s my age but this experience of not properly recognising the contribution someone has made to my life until they have gone is becoming increasingly common. Then again, I think it might just be the human condition that we take things largely for granted until they are no longer there. A thought which brings us back to today and missing human company, pubs, restaurants and the glorious cultural scene this city had right up until mid March last year. I can but hope that some of it can survive the degree of vandalism being delivered by the current government (through a combination of indifference, stupidity and conscious choice): it does put me rather in mind of the Taliban or the Commonwealth under the Protectorate. I, for one, am looking forward to the Restoration, undesirable as a leader though Charles II(I) was in many ways…


Channelling Gogol: An inadequate luxury

As we approach three months of lockdown, it is somewhat more than three months since I obtained a decent night’s sleep.  I thnk last night I managed a little under three hours with a few minutes of additional surreal hypnagogic napping spread across the rest of the night.  Sadly, this is all too typical of 2020 and my best attempts to exhaust both mind and body have been wholly successful against the proxy metric of exhaustion.  However, as with so many proxy metrics, its achievement has not led to the desired outcome: in this case, a decent night’s sleep every now and then.  Even as a chap who has suffered from regular insomnia for some 30 years, I am reaching the end of my ability to cope with so little access to the chief nourisher in life’s feast (though little short of death will stop me making use of the time I devoted to the study of Macbeth for O Level).  I fear I may have to seek stronger chemical assistance than Steam Town‘s finest and brave a visit to my local pharmacy…

The lack of sleep is starting to have increasingly serious impacts on my motor control: which, let’s face it, has never been great.  I have no idea to what extent the (or a ) naming convention of at least some of the descendents of the first settlers of North America does rely on identifying an aspect of a person’s activities, e.g. Dances with Wolves, and how much this is arrant nonsense I have unreflectively absorbed through my rather limited exposure to the cinematic Western (and rather greater exposure to format jokes).  However, if this had applied in this country I fear I would have been named “Walks into X” for suitable X (or even X): where X could be any (and all) of doorframes, furniture, lamposts, walls and many many more painfully, and undeniably very visible and static, solid objects.

My typing is now a complete disaster and my attempts to lay down a MIDI version of Left Bank Two on the piano is being frustrated by the increasing independence of my fingers from the central authorities.  Four reliable bars, or even four reliable notes, is looking like a distant dream for the time being.  However, this does give my tired brain a chance to get to slightly better grips with Reaper, a somewhat slippery character, which will convert the movements of my fingers across a keyboard into a MIDI file to which friends can add more competent additional tracks to create something that could pass for music making.  However, it is rather a complex and fully-featured piece of free software for my needs and has eschewed both an intuitive UI and any sort of Help system: I believe I may have to call on YouTube tuitional videos for assistance.  I don’t like instructional videos for, almostly certainly, entirely irrational reasons: if you can’t set out clear instructions in text with (if you must) a diagram or two then your product/idea/cult is not for me.  My working life means that I can extract useful information from long, complex documents written in legalese in a variety of languages.  Show me a video and I’ve tuned out before the 5 seconds of advert which precedes it has finished: much like when asking for directions my brain has switched off before my interlocutor has reached the second turn.  People of my vintage are prone to decry the short attention spans of young people, however, my pot seems very much blacker than their kettles: I wonder if we are just boring them?

I am assuming some of my sleeplessness can be explained by the constant low level anxiety occasioned by the impact of the virus sweeping the land.  I believe we can already lay the excess mortality of 1/1000th of the UK population at its purely notional feet: though it does seem to have had more-than-a-little assistance from its enablers in the corridors of power who are possessed of actual feet (for the time being… my scythe is on back-order).  I rather fear it will continue to act as a cause of excess mortality long after it has died away, with the continuing impact on the routine work of the NHS being felt for years to come.  However, outside of dungeons of my own divising (where I can arrange for implausible resurrections), there is little I can do about this beyond trying to avoid being the cause of any infections myself.  I am now involved in three separate academic projects into COVID: reporting daily, periodically filling in extensive questionnaires on my mental state and coping and (soon) sending my bodily fluids to strangers through the post.  Frankly, if I don’t catch this virus I will feel that I’m wasting a lot of people’s time, though I suppose all data is of some value in permitting better decision-making if we can just rustle up some more competent leadership…

No, I suspect my issues arise from all the things I feel I should be helping with and, to a very limited extent, try to do.  However, I have found find myself trying to support so many local pubs, breweries, music venues, independent cafes and shops, musicians and other creatives plus at least one climbing gym where I hang upside-down and indulge in other foolishness not entirely consonant with my age and dignity.  I also used to get about a bit and see visiting artists when they could still travel to entertain and help to repair and improve me with their cultural wares, so I also have the feeling (and indeed desire) to support a wider range of theatres, galleries, museums and other non-local creative jewels which are all struggling.  It turns out that whilst I have a perfectly decent job which has continued with minimal impact through lockdown and provides more than enough salary to cover all of my needs, I am some way from the salary income needed to support even a meaningful minority of the arts sector that has been such an important part of my life in recent years.  There is also only so much that I can eat, drink and read to keep the local businesses that I love afloat: and I do feel that I have been putting in the ‘hard yards’ (or tricky metres) in all three of these areas.  I can assure readers that the recently reported 20% fall in beer sales flies very much in the face of my own efforts in this field!  Nonetheless, my response feels woefully inadequate to the the size of the problem and this eats away at me during the long nights and their copious unwanted consciousness.

Still, lockdown does continue to ease in a range of random and internally inconsistent ways.  I can’t help feeling that the government have had the sort of off-site I used to have in the more corporate phase of my life. I assume a facilitator has told them that there are ‘no bad ideas’ and then dutifully written all the frothing lunacy that emerged onto post-it notes which were then stuck to the walls of the conference room.  Government policy since then has been based on an extended game of ‘pin the tail in the donkey’ with whichsoever ‘idea’ acquires the pin being implemented.  I guess they are working with a slight variation to the standard game by placing the donkeys in charge of the pin…

This week’s key ‘innovation’, other than opening inessential shops, is the ‘bubble’.  As a single chap living alone, I am allowed to ‘join’ one other household and enter their house and, I believe, I can go so far as to make actual physical contact and exchange a range of bodily fluids with its members (subject to any limitations imposed by pre-existing statute).  If I’m honest, I’m not sure it is yet enough to support a living wage as a gigolo – so I shall stick with the day job.

Having not read the detail of this latest wheeze, I am not sure whether the other household has to volunteer for my addition to their ensemble or whether if I can, by any means (a well-placed jemmy for example), make an entry into their home I am then able to claim them and their home, to the exclusion of all other,s for the remainder of the crisis.  Assuming (dangerous, I know) that this is not the case, I found myself pondering which other household would have decent cause to claim me as their one and only single person (or parent).  My own immediate family would be better off choosing each other, rather than distant me, and my friends will largely have their own families or remote squeezes which would (and should) take priority.  I have come to realise that, while I have many good friends, I am something of a luxury item rather than an everyday necessity when it comes to bubble formation.  I am, in many ways, not a key worker in my own life but can be safely furloughed and accessed via a video conference when necessary.  I feel I ought to be upset about this fact, but I think I am mostly finding it rather amusing.  Luckily, I already knew I was an idiot: though lockdown has definitely gifted me with far too much of my own, unmediated company. However, it does take me back to the first of the three maxims to be found at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi.    Thinking of Delphi, I was also struck how much the third of the maxims seems to have been forgotten today: many people could useful be reminded that ‘surety brings ruin‘.

This seens seems to have gone on a bit, even by my standards, and to contain rather more sarcasm than I would normally advocate.  I shall blame this on lack of sleep and the proximity of lunch (and thus low blood sugar) and so take my leave of you vanishing back into the woods from which I came…

Perchance to dream

I should perhaps start by stating that I have no real reason to predict my imminent demise: though I shall leave you, the reader, to decide whether my toes will soon be turning up and my clack rattled.

Looking at the weather forecast, I could be swept or blown away today: a particular concern given my rather high surface area to mass ratio.  I’m also struggling to shift some form of cold-like infection from my lungs – and yesterday’s cold snap, brief though it was, did little to help – but I’m not expecting this to carry me off.  Similarly, there is no reason to believe that the multiple cuts to my right hand incurred attempting to form chilli-chocolate truffles (or Frankenkugeln as I have named them) with a melon baller are life threatening: merely annoying.

Nor am I planning to indulge in any unusually risky activities in the near term.  I will not, for example, be sharing a photo of my sweetheart with any trench-mates while claiming that we plan to be wed as soon as this war is over and I return to Blighty/Omaha, probably before Christmas.  I may be an idiot but I am no fool…

No, the primary intimation of impending mortality was the decision of my rather tired brain, bouncing as it was between insomnia and hypnogogia, to flash my entire life before my (closed) eyes.  Well, I say ‘my entire life’ but large chunks had clearly been forgotten beyond recall and some rather curious editorial decisions had been made about the memories that were retained.  A largely uneventful walk home from Honor Oak Park to Crystal Palace in the early 90s was given far more screen time than it justified while more major life, and interesting, events were rather rushed through.  The replay also took place in an order far from chronological: which was somewhat confusing to me and would have been incomprehensible to any other viewer.  I shall not be allowing my subconscious to write, edit or direct my life story!

My actions in many parts of this showreel were frankly mystifying to the current me, but were true (insofar as any memory can be thought of as true) records of past events.  I was struck by how useless and unworldly the young me was: which contrasts rather unfavourably with the young people I know today.  Other memories suggested a stronger strand of consistency in the self than I usually recognise: despite overcoming much of my original programming, I have changed less than I sometimes like to imagine.

In popular fiction, such a flashback – poorly constructed as it was – should be an almost immediate precursor to the sweet embrace of death.  However, in my case, I have had time to get up, eat breakfast, carry out some work for my employers and now write a blog post and still seem to be numbered among the quick.  Either this is another oddly vivid and detailed – and very dull – memory being recalled or this veil of tears may be stuck with me for longer than I was expecting.  In the latter case, I can only apologise for raising your hopes…



Fear not, this post will not contain graphic images, or even descriptive passages, of me following in the (presumably rather sticky) footsteps of Onan.  Any reference to the bashing of the holders of a See will be limited to argument on purely theological grounds.

No, the self-abuse to which I will refer can, perhaps, be explained by reference to Edna St Vincent Millay’s splendid (and short) poem: My Candle Burns at Both Ends:

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –
It gives a lovely light!

This does rather describe the way in which I appear to have chosen to run my life, careless of my body’s wax.  The excessive burning of my personal candle seems to have accelerated in the last few years, but the tendency was always there: especially when on holiday.  Indeed, in some ways I seem to have switched to permanent-holiday-mode in my life.  I can see elements of this metaphorical persoanl auto-da-fé in the differing genetic inheritance from both of my parents, the combination of the two making for a potent mix.

The urge to fill my life with incident and moment, some of it really quite physically and or mentally demanding, is really rather strong and I (mostly) get away with such foolishness with very few ill-effects.  This is despite, I think rather than a cause of, the chronic insomnia which has been my regular companion since my late twenties: easily making it one of my longest maintained relationships!

However, from time-to-time my mind does continue to write extravagant cheques long after my body’s ability to cash them has expired.  If this is coupled with a lack of sleep (not uncommon) and should the black dog also happen to have returned from fetching that stick that I had hurled from me in an attempt to keep it occupied, then I find it harder to maintain the social ‘construct’ which passes for my personality.  So that the reader does not concern themselves unduly, I should be clear that I do not suffer from depression (nor particularly enjoy it) but am sometimes less naturally ‘up’ than at others and a I am naturally a worrier (perhaps also a warrior, but this has not really been put to a proper test) .

Mostly, I get to deal with these situation where my mind heavily overdraws on its account with my body ‘off-stage’  However, last night my body did decide to forcibly remind me that I was not, in fact, a superhuman of infinite resources but was an all-too-finite middle-aged man while in public.  This reminder was issued quite early in the thoroughly enjoyable, Halloween-themed – and very busy – folk and acoustic session at the Steam Town Brewco.  Frank(enstein)ly, I have only myself to blame for this situation as I have been sleeping badly, was rather busy at work and did contrive to fit in two hour-long – and rather strenuous – hand-balancing sessions before going out for the night.  I think we might also blame a combination of clock change and the accompanying cold grey days and dark evenings for a slight drop in my normal unnatural ebullience.

Anyway, to maintain my monstrous leitmotif, it became necessary to make an early bolt for the door.  Just as well, as I barely managed to maintain consciousness on the short train ride home from Eastleigh before collapsing at home onto my ancient mattress.  However, this did disrupt my plans to mash a monster, a tune and the assembled ears at Steam Town at a single stroke (don’t you just love a chance to use zeugma!).  The world will have to wait to see whether I would have been a graveyard smash and whether the denizens of Eastleigh were ready for my pelvic thrust, or would have been driven insane (an increased risk given the increased hip mobility arising from all this hand balancing)…  Some clues may be gleaned from the unfortunates gathered in the Dog House on Monday night and who experienced a trial run (with the emphasis on the ‘trial’).

What I did discover, when my batteries are deep in the red zone, and my ego-depletion is at its maximum, is that I revert to a previous (presumably more primal) personality.  A version of me that I had assumed long dead appears to be used as a battery saver: the psychological equivalent of minimising screen brightness, shutting down non-essential apps and only allowing emergency calls.  This reduced operating mode (which used to be my only mode for social interaction in a crowd) is as a wall-flower alien observer preparing a report on the planet’s dominant lifeform, while suffering from an odd form of hiraeth for its long forgotten home (oh yes, even as an alien I’m keeping those Welsh roots!).

Still, a night with at least some sleep has restored me to more normal function and early 20s me is safely back in his bottle and I shall shortly be heading off into social media purdah.  This has nothing to do with the election or last night, but because I am visiting my parents’ house and will not be returning until the morrow.  For my whole adult life, they have chosen to both live, and holiday, in locations where any mobile phone signal is a distant dream.  This is coupled with my dad having his wifi secured more tightly than anything the used by the NSA: I can only wonder what he is getting up to on-line that requires this degree of electronic prophylaxis…

I had always assumed the lack of access to the marvel of wireless communication was the result of a conscious choice by my parents.  However, earlier this week I started to wonder if my dad just naturally jams a certain portion of the EM spectrum: he is, after all, the common factor in the wide range of afflicted locations.  I may be able to put this theory to the test later today…


The word ‘journey’ seems to slip ever further from its moorings – as the distance travelled in a day – as time goes on.  It has in a very real, and modern, sense been on a journey.  Any fool given exposure to a wider public via a glowing screen will attempt to describe some more-or-less trivial, curated set of their life events as a journey.   Never one to ignore a band-wagon, let’s explore how high, and or far, I can jump in my attempt to gain a free ride.  As you will have come to expect, this exploration will take place through the medium of a blog post: I’ll leave the humiliatingly public route to brief, vapid and bland pop fame until after I’ve sucked every last morsel of marrow from the dry bones of my life.  To put your fears at rest, no sharks were harmed in the making of this post.

Of course, even as I lay under my crumpled duvet last night desperately seeking sleep – or even Susan (I was growing desperate…) – I was on a journey.  Whilst my bed remained (virtually) static relative to my flat, Southampton and the local tectonic plate, we were all whirling in some extraordinarily complex set of super-imposed translations and rotations though the fabric of space-time.  While some of these motions were more than glacial slow – my gradual parting from the New World, for example – many were occurring at frankly breakneck speeds.  Or so it will seem, many years in my future, to an observer located somewhere beyond the furthest reaches of the Virgo supercluster.  Is it any wonder that when I finally left my organic cotton-swaddled cocoon I did not feel entirely refreshed?

I sometimes feel that much of my life is spent in a futile effort to exhaust both my mind and body to the extent that they sign up to some sort of nightly treaty to allow me eight uninterrupted hours of great nature’s second course.  Well, it’s either that or a desire to spare myself the company of my own, unaccompanied thoughts.

Of late this blog has, perhaps, tended to matters of the mind so I thought we’d start today’s outpouring with the physical.  My long-running plan to run away to the circus had to be put on a hold for a while last year while my broken wrist healed.  It then took a little time to return to the peak (more a molehill than Olympus Mons) of physical perfection that I had previously been taking for granted.  With the start of a new year, and with the front and back-levers continuing to improve, I decided that 2018 needed a new – and foolish – gymnastic physical project for me to attempt.  So, I have decided that 2018 will be the year that I achieve the human flag: let’s face it, it looks like people will always need flags.  With countries continuing to fragment, I can see opportunities opening up to become the official flag for a tiny new nation!  My plan might also be linked to the fact that I’ve seen it described as ‘arguably the most visually impressive bodyweight feat of strength anyone’s ever come up with‘.

This is not going to be easy: partly because of my advanced age but mostly because I’m annoyingly long in limb and body which means that my effort, fulcrum and load are very poorly placed to reap any mechanical advantage.  I strongly suspect my physical frame will be delivering mechanical disadvantage to my cause.  However, I am not the sort of cove to be put off by the apparent lunacy of a project and so the training has begun.  At the moment, at those times at which this most resembles an attempt to perform the human flag, my own movements most closely resemble the flailing of a beached mermaid.  This is partly down to a lack of strength and/or flexibility in the relevant parts of my body but also down to a failure to apply the powers I do possess in any constructive way.

As the snapshots above might illustrate, while I can haul myself off the deck parallel to the plane of my sternum (the more impressively-named, but much easier to achieve, dragon flag), anything in the perpendicular plane is much less effective.  Still, I think I am slowly working out how to apply my effort via a more effective set of fulcra to shift the load.  In the meantime, I can’t help wondering if the south coast needs a drag tribute act to Bette Midler in her guise as Dolores deLago?  We would have to transpose the songs down an octave or two – or my costume would have to be eye-wateringly tight – but I’m game… (not for the tight tailed option!)

The other journey which will add the ‘mens sana‘ in today’s ‘corpore sano‘ will be a musical one.  In pursuit of another lunatic project – to become a concert (or jazz) pianist (why couldn’t I have chosen the much easier and more traditional path of fast cars and inappropriately youthful female company?) – I have been delving ever deeper into chord theory.  I find this absolutely fascinating and find myself playing with chords when sat at the keyboard – and when I am supposed to be practicing!  So many well-known tunes, or fragments thereof, are based on some relatively simple transitioning between chords.  There are many ways to move from one chord to another and some of these journeys are more interesting and/or satisfying than others.  I have discovered that this as an area in which I have Views as heading back to the home key too quickly or directly was clearly very dull leading me to accidentally re-discovered cadences.  While at a concert last weekend, I found I knew where Beethoven was going at various point of his 3rd Piano Concerto but could admire the glorious route he took to reach his destination.  I was also left in awe of John Lill’s beautiful technique at the piano: would that my younger wrists and fingers had such poise and bounce.

In a possibly successful attempt to head off the launch of yet another project, my piano teacher treated me to a boy’s first accordion lesson on Monday.  This is a somewhat terrifying device comprising, as it does, 72 tiny buttons (though it can be as many as 120) arrayed in 12 slanted rows of 6 which one is supposed to control with the fingers of your left hand.  Worse, you cannot see any of the buttons whilst doing this – though three do have a slightly different feel: two have a cross (E and A flat) and one is concave (middle C).  Even worse, I am trying to sense this minor haptic difference using the tips of the fingers on my left-hand: fingertips whose sensitivity has been mangled by holding down steel guitar strings.  I tried to channel my youthful skill at reading Braille playing cards while playing cribbage with my blind uncle, but I fear those neurons have moved on to better things (or their eternal rest).  I found that as soon as a finger lost contact with middle C, I was all at sea (do you see what he did there?) with digits flailing wildly around the forest of buttons in the hope of encountering either one of the three marked trees or the forest’s edge and working back: which I believe is an important technique for wild navigation at night without a compass.  The keyboard side of the instrument was less problematic, albeit at an angle only previously experienced when attempting to play the piano while prone (or attempting the human flag).  I am now much more impressed when I see an accordionist in action, particularly one who is particularly free and easy with their left hand.

I think for now I shall confine my musical voyage to the piano, guitar and a selection of available woodwind.  Perhaps I’ll take up something percussive and portable: I quite fancy an egg.  Or perhaps the melodica could be stepping-stone to the accordion – it uses a bellows (the player’s lungs – unless he has a footman, groom or valet for that kind of thing) and a keyboard at an unexpected angle.  I could also try texting with my left hand and wearing a blindfold as further preparation…

Still, in the hope of sneaking in under the unofficial word count I try and impose on my text-based largesse, I think this is a good point to bring this particular journey to its conclusion.

When you’re lying awake…

As this blog has mentioned before, I am pretty good at resisting the charms of Hypnos and so spend a lot of time lying awake: though almost never with a dismal headache (well, hardly ever).  Let me reassure any ladies or gents still carrying a torch for the author, my insomnia is not caused by love – neither unrequited nor hopeless – and it does not lie, nightmare-like, heavy on my chest.

Usually, there is no obvious physical cause for my sleeplessness, so I have always assumed it must be something mental.  I used to blame work and “the man”, but my ability to sleep did not improve (or grow worse) during my recent sabbatical: so this accusation is starting to ring rather hollow.

This week just gone, sleep has been rather elusive once again – but, on two occasions there was a clear physical cause.

In the early hours of Friday morning, I was awoken in my bed at the Premier Inn in Belfast (normally my best hope for a good night’s rest: far more reliable than home) by rain being hurled into my bedroom window at 50mph (and the rest) as Northern Ireland was lashed by Gertrude (a phrase more commonly associated with a Tory minister).  Fortunately, as I had travelled without a coat, the rain had ceased before I had to walk from my lodgings to my place of employment: the wind had retained much of its vigour but I am not so easily rendered airborne.

The previous night my speedy approach to unconsciousness was also delayed by noise.  Not as you might imagine a thoughtless, partying neighbour nor the plangent cry of a car alarm being ignored (thus bringing the whole reason for its existence into question).  No, nothing so mundane for yours truly.  I was prevented from sleeping by the racket from amorous owls!  Tawny owls to be specific: to-wit and to-wooing each other at considerable volume in close proximity to my city-centre boudoir.  Given that we had 2wit and 2woo, both sexes were clearly implicated and with spring just around the corner (I hope) I am assuming that the cacophony was the prelude to some sweet, sweet lovin’.  I assume that owls can indulge in a gene flow event in a number of physical configurations while still maintaining eye contact with the object of their affection.  This must make for some interesting content in an owl jazz mag.

I would have to say that if I lived in splendid rural isolation, this owl courtship would have been easier to understand.  People have grown used to urban foxes, but urban owls?    I do recall TV series Futurama suggesting that owls in the 31st century were urban pests, in much the same way as rats and feral pigeons were in the 20th.  I’m starting to wonder if Matt Groening and David X Cohen knew rather more about the future than I had previously assumed.

Après le Déluge

It has been a little quiet on here of late, and this is not entirely my fault.  As you will later see, I am placing some of the blame firmly with higher powers (or perhaps with a malicious butterfly).  Some portion of the causative liability does lie closer to home, and with the chronic insomnia that has afflicted the author, intermittently, for the last couple of decades.  My recent, prolonged estrangement from the restorative embrace of Morpheus has left me parted from my muse (or at least the get-up-and-go to translate limited inspiration to textual iron pyrites).  Some days, I do wonder if the bone-deep enervation, combined with such news as I fail to avoid, is nature’s way of telling me that I have passed my natural span and I should exit, stage left: it probably has been too long since last I visited the Swiss.  Still, last night I managed to achieve nearly eight hours of uninterrupted slumber for the first time in weeks and so will probably stick around for a little longer.  Annoyingly, when I did awake this morning, it interrupted a dream in which I was being effortlessly witty in front of an audience – something I rarely manage when awake (perhaps the jarring unreality of the hypnogogic state was what brought me back to reality?).

The last few days I have been lying awake in historic Cambridge: seeing friends and indulging in pursuits both cultural and physical.  It had been six months since my last visit, but the orgy of demolition and construction seems to have continued unabated (or even intensified).  Like London, it would seem that Cambridge is pricing out the claustrophobic young – but still offers reasonable value for any sardines seeking a flat share.  Do young sardines get given the key to the tin when they turn the fishy-equivalent of 21?  Or does that musing date me horribly?

In the wee, small hours of Friday morning, Cambridge was hit by a storm the likes of which I have never seen.  We had continuous thunder for several hours and a prolonged period over which the city was struck by 200+ bolts of lightning per minute.  I had a decent excuse for my sleeplessness, rather than the usual “cause unknown” (though having been between jobs for a little while, I think I must exonerate “the man”).  In the morning sunshine, the city looked rather beautiful with all the building and plants washed clean by the night’s precipitative excitement.    Sadly, this was not the only effect of the storm – with significant flooding across the city, including the basement parlour where my massage therapist plies his trade.  Luckily, the waters had been conquered by the modern day Knut by the time I had my massage later that afternoon and the (as always, odd) conversation with my therapist should generate several posts in the days to come.  The storm also took out the city council’s offices and had a rather serious impact on Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

I was staying in Sidney Sussex College – wisely on the first floor and so above any rising waters.  My room was perfectly comfortable – though with oddly few, badly-positioned power sockets, which must be an issue for the modern student – and the shared shower could offer a force of water to match the previous night’s storm.  The college is wonderfully central and offers a very generous breakfast – and, to-date, has always offered extremely stimulating breakfast conversation.  This time, with an american chap involved in the drafting of NAFTA, covering the Euro crisis and the different models of university on the two sides of the Atlantic.  I have never had a conversation in a proper hotel which can match those I’ve had in a Cambridge college refectory: it is almost worth paying for a night’s stay just for the breakfast.

The biggest impact the storm had on me (and, lest we forget, I am the important one here) was the damage to Cambridge University’s computing systems which meant that I was without internet access for most of Friday.  Even when it returned, it was generally slow and would not load the WordPress website at all (though was quite happy to serve any other site I attempted).  Is there some sort of long-term feud between WordPress and Cambridge University?  Have they published something slanderous about the VC?  Whatever the reason, I was actually unable to blog until I returned home: an enforced period of cold turkey (which I seem to have survived without obvious symptoms, so this is not an addiction – it must be a life-style choice).

It was lovely being back in Cambridge and I remember why I loved living there.  I also remembered some of the frustrations too: Saturday combined graduation with an enormous quantity of foreign language students and the usual shoppers making the city centre hideously busy.  I hid in a variety of bookshops, the Divinity School (aka The “Div” School – which gives a very different impression of its role) and a church before fleeing back towards the relative peace-and-quiet of London’s Southbank and thence home.  I think I could live in Cambridge again – if life were to take me that way – but there is now a lot about Southampton and it environs that I would miss.  My new city has quietly wormed its way into my affections and become home.

The title for this return to the blog, continues the occasional (and largely ignored) conceit of using foreign titles: on this occasion turning to the French poet Arthur Rimbaud (never played by Sly Stallone, so far as I know) and his thematically rather apt work of the same name.

The curse has come upon me

I tend to think, when the black dog is safely curled up in his basket, that I am the luckiest chap alive – or at least one of them (I have no desire to become overly competitive with others on whom Fate has smiled).  The place and time of my birth mean that my physical suffering has been dramatically less than for the vast majority of the members of the family Homo who have trodden the earth (and, frankly, most of any such suffering that has occurred has been self-inflicted).  I am also fortunate that my rather rag-tag collection of (what I like to call) skills are sufficiently valued by “the man” that I am paid more money than I am able (or perhaps willing) to spend maintaining myself and my desires, while only working (a theoretical) three days a week (well, I was brought up in the 1970s).

I have the opportunity to express myself creatively, not least through this blog – and, sometimes, the words I cast into the avoid even seem to find a sympathetic ear.  Usually, the only fly of discord in the ointment of my existence is my continuing tendency to insomnia.  I sometimes wonder what I might achieve with the benefit of a few, contiguous nights of decent sleep.  Then again, perhaps under such conditions I might become even more insufferable than is already the case.

The last 24 hours might serve to illustrate my good fortune.  After some time fighting with work, a little ironing and some ring-based gymnastic training I treated myself to an episode of Psych on DVD.  This is well into series 5 (for me) and yet is still finding new ways to be extremely silly and funny.  In the evening I went to the Art House Café to see Andrew O’Neill gives his “lecture” on the history of heavy metal – which was very funny, quite loud and surprisingly informative.  I think I may have a rather greater fondness for the oeuvre than I had realised.  This morning, I left the flat to sunshine and bird song to start my journey up to Edinburgh by train.  Sadly, this did start with the dreaded rail-replacement bus service – but, oddly, whilst they are pretty rubbish with the trains, South West trains do run a very efficient and well-organised replacement bus service (I think this may be their métier).  As a result of this, and my over-compensation for their normal uselessness, I had quite a long wait in London before my train left Kings Cross – just enough time to stroll up to 10 Greek Street for a light(ish) lunch.

All very idyllic (albeit with a slightly non-standard definition of an idyll) you may think – and frankly rather dull – so now we come to the twist and move into darker territory.

As I prepared to go out yesterday evening, I selected a light-weight jacket from my wardrobe – but as I swept it around my shoulders I thought I glimpsed something odd and so took a closer look.  The back of the jacket looked as though its wearer had been the subject of a frenzied stabbing attack, focused on the right shoulder blade.  I have no recall of such an attack, nor have I found any indication of knife-wielding moths in my wardrobe (or similar damage to other garments).  Have I been horribly murdered and am now in some form of limbo?  (And why does the afterlife involve trying to manoeuvre under an unfeasibly low horizontal obstacle anyway?)  Or am I a ghost, but don’t yet know it?  Or perhaps in some sort of fugue-state bought on by a very messy divorce?

Despite these worries, I manage to get some sleep last night – placing my watch on my bed-side table as normal.  When I came to return the timepiece to its other home, my left wrist, this morning I discovered that its face had “crack’d from side to side”.  Luckily, my loom and associated weaving seem to remain undamaged and I have not spotted the bier of a puissant knight passing my window.  Nonetheless, I live in fear in case Alfred (Lord Tennyson) had the basic story aright but used his artistic licence with a few of the key details to make for a more “commercial” poem.  If my surprisingly buff and youthful corpse should wash ashore near some analogue of Camelot, you dear readers will no that my fears were, like a dishwasher tablet, far from baseless.

Nothing could have fallen onto my watch, nor had it fallen from its place of repose, so how did it crack?  Did the heavy metal-stylings of Mr O’Neill happen to hit some critical frequency?  Or is some unquiet spirit haunting my demesne?  Could it be that I am the unquiet spirit, doomed to walk the earth until I avenge my untimely, cutlery-themed demise?

Woo! (It is surprisingly hard to be spooky in print, so please imagine a sudden drop in temperature and me rattling some chains).

No moggy

Oh yes, definitely not feline – this post relates rather to an uncat.  Well, it probably does – though lawyers might argue the point.

This blog has previously mentioned my tendency to insomnia – perhaps one of the reasons I so enjoyed studying Macbeth for O level: he also had a rather difficult relationship with sleep after an unfortunate incident with some daggers (and Duncan, as I recall).  For the sake of clarity, I should make clear that I have neither met a triumvirate of strange women on a heath nor engaged in regicide and I have never been Thane (indeed, some would suggest that, on the contrary, I am inthane).

Generally, sleep deprivation does not have a positive impact on a chap (or, I believe, a chapess – though I cannot speak directly in this case).  Indeed, these negative impacts are what makes it so useful as a form of torture and thus fall within the purview of UNCAT (the UN Convention Against Torture) – although, as mentioned above, some would argue that it does not.

However, after several weeks of very poor sleep I have discovered a positive side-effect of my affliction.  I have suddenly become inspired when it comes to solving cryptic crosswords – a process whose pace can normally be compared with glaciation or continental drift.  Now I do love cryptic crosswords – or at least those from The Guardian – but only play with them somewhat infrequently.  I have a foxed and faded book of 100 of the Guardian’s finest: and on the current rate of progress I will never need to buy volume 2 (unless the human lifespan is significantly extended in the near future).  Solving a clue provides a triple pleasure: the sense of triumph in finding the answer, the joy at understanding the construction of the clue and the satisfaction from having successfully engaged another mind in single combat (the rude might suggest unarmed combat in my case).

Some clues prove particularly resistant to my mental assault – and puzzle number 13 (set by Rufus) had proved a particularly tough nut to crack.  However, in recent days, my addled brain has started to solve clues at an unprecedented rate.  I’m not entirely clear which of the myriad side-effects of sleeplessness might be providing this boost to my crossword solving skills – perhaps something in the confusion-hallucination space is allowing me to see the clues in a different and, as it transpires, helpful way?

Through the ages, artists have tried using a variety of drugs to allow them to think differently and as a result find inspiration.  Have I inadvertently discovered another, entirely legal, route into the Muse’s favour?  Is it time to write my first self-help book: one for the struggling artist?  Then again, would struggling artists be a particularly valuable market segment to target?  Maybe I need to wait for the self-help idea which will appeal to the struggling multi-millionaire…

Great as it has been to finally defeat Rufus (and much as I’d like to see off Araucaria’s No.11), I think on balance I’d prefer to have a few decent nights of sleep (as opposed to Knights of Sleep – a body of heavily armoured men who deliver sleep, each astride a nightmare, at the point of a lance).  So, I’m off to my palliasse with the plan to start counting Z’s or sheep or crows (though the last may not be entirely conducive to slumber).

Knitting up the ravelled sleeve

When I was but a callow youth, I found it all to easy to enter, and remain girdled within, the arms of Morpheus.  On one occasion, I managed to sleep through a cast-iron bath being broken up just a short hall from my bedroom.

Somewhere in my twenties, I started to find the leader of the Oneiroi rather more elusive – though luckily have never really fallen into the embrace of his brother Icelus.  Periodic bouts of insomnia have plagued me ever since – and it is in one of these I now find myself.

As a result, I have read very widely on sleep – often when I should have been sleeping – and like to think myself somewhat of an expert on the theory (if not the practice).  Sadly, theoretical knowledge only takes you so far when your sleeve of care is ravelled (to rather mangle the words of the Thane of Cawdor) – then again, I never could get the hang of knitting: I could never maintain the tension and my rows tended to have rather variable numbers of stitches.

One partial cure for my insomnia (surely another great, unused name for a hatchback), I have found, is blood letting – which is rather at variance with the ideas of Galen who would suggest purging myself of black bile (were he still with us).  However, whilst the National Blood Service are all too willing to divest me of some blood and offer me lemon squash and bikkies in recompense, I have yet to find any organisation willing to take surplus black bile off my hands (or liver to be more anatomically accurate and which makes me wonder if the process might be rather more invasive and painful.  Though, apparently it can also be reduced by the application of hot cups – if only I had a brassière to hand).

After giving of my life blood, I find I’m a very cheap date (or at least, a little alcohol goes a surprisingly long way), I sleep rather well but, and this is the only downside, I find myself afflicted with terrible gas.

I rather enjoy giving blood – it is an excellent, guilt-free excuse for a lie-down in the middle of the day, provides very quick (if modest) weight loss and is really the only time I eat biscuits (today, a couple of mint Clubs – but, usually, bourbons).  On one golden occasion in Jesmond, I was the last donor to leave and was given a brown bag with ALL the left-over biscuits from the day!  It is also a good opportunity to flirt with the nursing staff – an opportunity I tend to exploit shamelessly.

I have given blood in one form or another a little over 60 times now – which is the contents of enough arms to make up a rugby (union?) match, if Anthony Aloysius Hancock is to be believed (well, as long as the rest of the players turned up attached to the arms – lone arms, even in pairs, would struggle in the modern game I fear).  For a while I was able to give platelets, before my count dropped too low for it to be worthwhile.  This was a truly regal experience – and especially welcome during a hot summer – as the process takes a good 90 minutes whilst you recline like a king, waited on by the staff of the NBS.  They provide food, drink and even a personal DVD player – basically, it was like flying business class without all the nasty airport and aeroplane nonsense.  To extract the platelets, they take your blood out, whizz it round in a centrifuge (why, no centripete I wonder?) and then return it to you (less the platelets, which are a rather nasty shade of yellow).  To keep it fresh while it is out for a spin, they chill it and so you get your blood back nicely cooled – a sort of internal, sanguine version of aircon.

Sadly, I’m back to whole blood donation which is barely 5 minutes of lie-down these days – when I first started way back in the eighties, I’m sure it was a good half-hour.  I suppose it just shows how the pace of life has accelerated, or that my blood is very keen to be shot of me and to strike out for pastures new (or something in that vein): maybe I was better company in the 80s?

So, dear readers, I can thoroughly recommend the donation of blood:  pay no heed to Galen, I find it boosts my happiness – which is surely the best of all the humours!