Admittedly, there are perhaps far too many nights when this here medium keeps my attention, even if I intend to retire with a good book. Blame it all on bloody YouTube’s related videos bar and its annoyingly irresistible tag, ‘recommended for you’. Last night I was still watching old Queens Park Rangers games from the mid-70s at 3.00am; every time I sat through one Stan Bowles hat-trick scored on a pitch resembling Aintree the day after the Grand National, I spotted another one waiting in line for me. This happens a lot when you’re a night-owl and the allure of old football retains a particular magic absent from today’s excuse for it; at least players then could get on with the game instead of arriving with a shopping-list of causes requiring them to signal their virtue before eventually kicking-off. Ditto even cricket, as I gathered from its return to BBC TV yesterday; perhaps the Beeb only agreed to take the taking-the-knee highlights as the next phase of their plan to re-educate all the ‘Karens’ out there.
However, it is always my aim to end the day with a book, even if I sometimes leave it too late. It was never a problem when my much-missed feline companion dictated the evening schedule; she liked to be in bed by a certain time and she had a habit of staring me out around 2.00am if I was still reading. The unceasing vigilance with which she wore down my resistance simply by sitting beside the nearest lamp and fixing me with a glare that informed me she wanted the lights out never failed to prematurely curtail a chapter; but at least I was aware the earlier I began, the more reading time I’d have. After she passed away, nocturnal discipline became a little lax and I didn’t really get back into the habit of a bedtime book until I purchased a proper bedside lamp.
With my Edwardian bed designed along the lines of those in hospital-based ‘Carry On’ movies, a clip-on lamp seemed the best option. It gave me no excuse not to round off the day with a book and I have tried to break free from Brian Moore introducing one more vintage edition of ‘The Big Match’ at a reasonable hour ever since. Most nights, I manage it. Reading is one of three notable activities that the item of household furniture in question is the ideal location for – and probably the most underrated activity of the three, which is ironic considering it can often be the most rewarding. Last thing at night is the one time of the day that seems tailor-made for reading, when one’s head is cleared in preparation for sleep and there are no external distractions – no phone-calls, nobody ringing the doorbell, and (if lucky) no antisocial neighbours running through their audition for the Ministry of Sound. If there are any background noises, they can be especially selected to enhance the reading experience, perhaps the gentle tick-tock of a clock or maybe a quiet, conducive soundtrack in the distance.
Some – though not me – were fortunate to be told a bedtime story every night as a child, something that can forever associate books with bedtime in the mind thereafter; if spared this lesson, bedtime reading can begin with combing the pages of a comic via undercover torchlight and then inevitably progress to less wholesome ‘reading’ material. If one can make it to an actual book, however, it can prove an invaluable aid to sleep. Indeed, if inducing slumber is a perennial problem, reading before lights-out not only gives one something more stimulating to think about than the routine banal concerns that plague daytime, but it can also accelerate the gradual heaviness of the eyelids better than any sleeping pill. Personally, I tend to find I can surrender to sleep far easier if I’ve been reading before switching the lamp off than if not. And, let’s be honest, with so much shit polluting life ‘out there’ at the moment, what a relief it is to be able to escape into an alternate reality before the Land of Nod, one where none of 2020 is either relevant or even in existence.
Of all the books I’ve read over the past 20 years, the vast majority have been read during this precious window of the day. About six or seven years back, I sedately worked my way through ‘War and Peace’ over a period of around twelve months, and I think every line was digested with my head propped-up by pillows. I do sometimes read a little during the day, but the material is usually of the magazine or newspaper variety; when it comes to a book, it’s so much easier to give it your full attention when in bed. Moreover, as was the case with Tolstoy’s doorstopper, bedtime is the ultimate breathing space in which one can take one’s time; there’s no sense of having to rush or hurry the job up. A couple of pages or perhaps a chapter – it doesn’t matter; there are no deadlines. If a book running to over 1,300 pages takes a year to read in nightly instalments, so be it. Whoever said it had to be read in a month?
I find I switch between literary genres with each book, depending on how long the last one took to read. If I’ve just read a heavyweight novel, the next one will probably be a more lightweight autobiography; after that, I might read a collection of short stories and maybe then another novel and so on. I’m currently at the back end of ‘Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763’, the day-to-day jottings of Dr Johnson’s celebrated biographer, and a text that lay undiscovered for almost 200 years until unearthed and published in the 1950s. As with most diaries penned by a gifted writer, it provides a unique and authentic insight into the times in which it was written. This is early Georgian London as seen through the eyes of an alien – Boswell was a Scot at another moment in British history when the Union was going through one of its more fragile phases; the Jacobite Rebellion had only taken place less than 20 years previously and its ramifications were still being felt by Scots south of the border.
Boswell’s journal not only paints the atmosphere of the capital as it was in the early 1760s with wondrous vivacity, but his portrait of a man-about-town hobnobbing with other fascinating characters and occasionally paying the physically painful price for a bit of rough and tumble with a whore makes for a damn good read. Being able to end each day in Georgian London by proxy is certainly a better way to bid farewell to said day than enduring the less engaging place where one actually happens to be; and one can only get that in bed. That other refuge for reading – the lavatory – has its merits, though all can depend on the duration of the bowel movement; not that we all haven’t succumbed to pins & needles if the reading material has proven hard to put down; but magazines that can be snatched in dribs and drabs are more complementary to the toilet library than the book. The book belongs to bedtime.
I used to have a sensible system whereby I never owned a book I hadn’t read. When I finished one and it was time for another, I’d pop to the local Oxfam and nose around the shelves until I found something I fancied. However, in recent years I’ve been bought a lot of books for birthdays and Christmases and am still working my way through the ones I have. I don’t do badly, though; it’s surprising how many books one can read in a year as long as the bedtime routine is upheld. As far as the persistent insomniac with a penchant for extremely late nights goes, it’s the best bedtime routine there is.
© The Editor