Wake up to the joys of sleep


There is nothing as nice as a good sleep. It keeps us healthy, is immensely pleasurable and, yes, it’s free. So why have visits to the Land of Nod slipped so far down our list of priorities? asks SEAN COUGHLAN.

WHY CAN’T we admit to enjoying sleep? Why is getting a good kip such a neglected and guilty pleasure?

Step inside any bookshop and you will find a wall-to-wall collection of books enthusing about food, drink and sex. But where are the books in praise of sleep, which, after all, is the finest natural accompaniment for all three of those other pleasures?

When sleep does get a mention, it’s usually in the context of being a problem, such as the misery of insomnia. To borrow the cookery analogy again, it would be like only referring to food when talking about eating disorders.

So why do we place such little value on such a luxury?

There are times when there is nothing better than a complete collapse into bed. The indulgent lie-in on a cold morning or snoring on a dawdling bank holiday can be more of a feast than any meal in a fancy restaurant.

In these recessionary times, sleep is also nature’s greatest free gift. It’s there for prince or pauper alike. It doesn’t care whether the credit card has gone into meltdown. You don’t even have to queue to enjoy it. It’s the health spa that never closes. It is the only state that can grant you all of your dreams.

But we treat sleep so badly. There’s a whole 24-hour culture going on inside the living room, with satellite television, computer games and the internet keeping us up all hours. There’s even a new phrase, “racoon mothers”, to describe the bleary-eyed women who are up all night on Facebook after the children have gone to bed.

SLEEP IS ALWAYS the first casualty of work. Listen to the lonesome call of the office martyr, boasting about only getting two hours shut-eye, as if it were a badge of honour.

What makes this neglect of sleep even more absurd is the evidence of how much damage is done. Sleep deprivation is a form of torture – Stalin’s henchmen were masters of the art. On a more everyday level, lack of sleep is linked to obesity, heart disease and stress. Last week, there was research linking sleep deprivation to an increased risk of suicide.

Apart from the physical damage, ignoring sleep leaves a cultural gap. Sleep has intrigued thinkers from Aristotle to Freud, it has fascinated poets such as Shakespeare and Keats. Inducing sleep has its own traditions, such as the Victorians using opium, cannabis and champagne, and the Romans eating lettuce and dormice.

Entire patterns of sleep have been lost. There are records in Russia and France of humans hibernating during the lean months. And before the industrial revolution, many people in northern Europe would have enjoyed a sleep divided into two halves.

Look around the bedroom and there’s an undiscovered history in these familiar objects. Pyjamas were brought back from India, the crusaders brought the mattress from the Middle East and the electric blanket was developed for patients in TB clinics.

The language of sleep is also surprising. The word “nightmare” has its origins in a demon that creeps into bedrooms to sleep with women during the night. The Land of Nod was the place where Cain was exiled after killing his brother. “Chumming” and “pigging” were words to describe the multiple sharing of a bed.

There is also a word to describe that deeply pleasurable moment when you yawn really loudly and stretch your arms out at the same time. It’s called “pandiculating”.

Treating sleep with suspicion also has long historical roots. There has always been a puritanical distrust of sleep, linking sleep to slothfulness and moral weakness. An Elizabethan writer, William Harrison, mocked the effeminate young men of the 1570s for sleeping on pillows. In his day, real men slept on wooden logs or sacking.

Puritan preachers in New England in the 1680s railed against people sleeping during sermons – and they promoted the starchy values of “early to bed, early to rise”.

The factory owners of the industrial revolution, who had to enforce long working hours on reluctant machine hands, borrowed some of this work ethic, creating the modern pattern of a single stretch of sleep each night, with the wage slaves rising in time to return rested for another day’s work.

Child labourers naturally wanted to sleep during the day, and harsh physical punishments were introduced to stop them, establishing the idea that sleep had to be confined to the unpaid hours of the night.

THE MODERN OFFICE might have flip charts and complicated chairs, but it still has long hours and not much sympathy for anyone wanting to slumber during the day. Sleep, like lunch, is for wimps.

But we shouldn’t be deterred. Sleep is there to be savoured.

As with any happiness, sleep has its delicacies for the discerning. Laurence Sterne, in Tristram Shandy, was all in favour of going to bed alone, because it made it possible to sleep on the diagonal.

Sleeping outside has its own feral enjoyment. Whether it’s on a beach, in the garden or slung in a hammock (thought to have been brought back from the new world by Christopher Columbus), it gives a bracing quality of slumber. An afternoon nap has a different kind of indulgent charm, allowing you to break out of routine and give in to nature’s irresistible call.

Or there are those moments when sleep is the thing we crave more than anything else on Earth. Think of those times when the baby is screaming like an air-raid siren, or you’re caught by a cancelled flight, jetlagged and feeling rougher than the carpet tiles.

It’s at that point that Flann O’Brien could have been right in At Swim-Two-Birds, when he considers whether being asleep might be a more pleasurable default position than being awake. “When a man sleeps, he is steeped and lost in a limp toneless happiness: awake he is restless, tortured by his body and the illusion of existence.”

Zzzzz: 10 great sleeps

- First morning of the holiday

- Bank holiday Mondays

- Christmas afternoon

- Outside on a summer’s day

- Away from the children

- After trying to make more children

- Snoring through a dull Act III

- After that nightmare flight delay

- Napping after a walk by the sea

- The sleep you had as a child

The Sleepyhead’s Bedside Companionby Sean Coughlan is published by Preface