Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Sleeping rebels

Idealism still exists. It's just gone up in price a little. This week has seen a series of commemorative articles marking the 40th anniversary of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "bed-in" peace protest. Out of all the ex-Beatle's political statements, it's odd how lying in bed in a hotel has remained such a stand-out, if not stand-up, memory. This ultimate form of passive resistance really seemed to get under people's skin.

Given the number of people who claimed to have been in the bedroom with the couple, they must have been accommodated in a room the size of Wembley Stadium. "We were just passing through in our VW camper and they said come on up."

But back to the idealism. Toronto's Queen Elizabeth hotel was one of the locations for the bed-in protest in 1969, where Lennon and his followers sang songs and grew hairy in the cause of peace and love. In honour of the occasion, you can stay in the same suite for $599 per night in the irresistibly unironic "Imagine package". You get to sleep in the room, plus breakfast in bed and a CD of Give Peace A Chance. Yes, just imagine.

They say that history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce... and after that as a tourist attraction.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

'Natural thought of our souls'

There's a great review in the New York Times of an exhibition “To Sleep, Perchance to Dream,” which has opened at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington.

It reveals the complexities of the way that sleep was seen in the 17th century, not as something functional and rather trivial, but as an uncertain and thought-provoking state. "Sleep should not be thought of casually: it is mysterious, powerful, central, inextricably linked to the world."

This exhibition shows how seriously the men and women of the 17th century took their sleep - recognising that it needed to be attended to as much as their waking hours.

There is a marvellous quote from the 1630s, saying that the wise man "learnes to know himselfe as well by the night's blacke mantle, as the searching beames of day. In sleepe, wee have the naked and naturall thoughts of our soules".

You could sit back and think about that for a long time. While we attach so much status to what we achieve in our work and in our public lives, to what we show other people, it's under night's black mantle that we might see more of our own souls.

There are also some intriguing sleep remedies. There was the old stand-by of poppy, but also lettuce and dormouse blood. Both lettuce and dormice have been associated with sleep forever, they are remarkably persistent associations.

The exhibition runs until the end of May - and there is some information online at http://www.folger.edu.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Rip van Sleep-Deprivation

It's a sad tale of our times. Rip van Winkle can't get to sleep. This Rip van Winkle is a 37-year-old resident of Corvallis, Oregon, and he is seeking help with his insomnia. The irony couldn't be plainer if it was painted in yard-high letters. The man who shares a name with the symbol of sleep can't get any himself. The owner of the Rip Van Winkle Residential Contract and Repair firm is sleep deprived.

It says something about our sleepless times when this is the case. Such problems never afflicted the Rip van Winkle invented by the writer Washington Irving. He had a drink and fell asleep and didn't wake for 20 years. By then, there had been a revolution, his wife had died and his daughter was grown up. We've all had mornings like that.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Sleeping through a recession

The recession has given newspapers more angles than a suitcase full of protractors. Not just the stuff about money and finance. I mean all the features and news features and lifestyle stories, pegged on the economic downturn. How to eat cheaply, what it's doing to our sex lives, how we're all going to have to go on holiday to a windswept caravan site in North Wales.

The recession is creating its own mini-boom in recession-related news stories.

Sleep is not escaping this recessionary obsession - although oddly enough, sleep is one of nature's greatest free gifts. Millionaires and paupers both have equal claims on its restorative balm. But according to a big survey in the United States, a whopping one third of people are claiming to be losing sleep over the recession.

Now, you can imagine President Obama losing a little shut eye about the recession. And there could be a few troubled nights for those suits who accidentally let the entire banking system slip down the back of the sofa. But it seems very unfair that so many other people are losing out on the joy of sleep because of the financial chaos.

The survey suggests that this is a case of people being too worried about their jobs and their financial security to sleep properly. This might be understandable. But the figures also show that one fifth of the population are only getting six hours sleep. No wonder people are always crying on US reality shows. They must be completely cream crackered.

Six hours every night is systematic sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep means bad judgements, stress, an inability to solve problems, irritability, aggression, it means behaving recklessly...

It's beginning to sound like there might be a connection to the banking crash. Maybe the guys who were running the finance houses that fell apart were only getting six hours a night. No wonder they made bad calls. Now everyone else is losing sleep over it. Perhaps we've stumbled onto something here...

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Lessons in sleep

The Australians are teaching teenagers about sleep. It seems a little counter-intuitive, along the lines of taking coals to Newcastle, but the more you think about it, the more sensible it seems.

For something that is so important, it's remarkable how little we really know about sleep. Even on the most basic question - what is sleep for? - the general consensus is that there is no general consensus and no on really knows. On a more day to day level, sleep occupies a great chunk of our lives, but it's something that we don't really learn anything about.

There are all kinds of lessons in schools about sex education and healthy eating and keeping fit... but what about sleep? It might sound vaguely subversive to promote the cause of sleep. But then look around at the yawning ranks of teenagers who have missed out on sleep and what is more important? If you haven't slept properly, there's less chance of learning properly.

A project in schools in South Australia gave teenagers some basic advice about sleeping - how many hours they needed, suggestions for getting into a regular pattern of healthy sleep and avoiding drinks before bedtime such as coffee which might disrupt sleep. According to the research, this helped teenagers to establish a better sleep routine.

It might also help them to avoid that great scourge of teenage life - "weekend jetlag". This is where they stay up so late at the weekend, blurring morning and night, that going back to school on Monday is like crashing back into a different time zone. Sympathy? No chance.