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Musings from a sleepless night

Posted on 7 May 2009 | 7:05am

If you read The Blair Years, you will know that I get the occasional night of insomnia. This is the end of one.

Fiona always says, when I nudge her awake to say I haven’t slept, ‘you’ve slept more than you think.’ To which I always say ‘how do you know, you’ve been asleep?’

She may be right. I have a friend who is genuinely, seriously insomniac, which sounds like hell.

But I was definitely awake at 2, 3 and 4 o’clock, because I was checking the time. There is no obvious set of circumstances for a sleepless night, but mine usually come before a busy, logistically challenging day which require me to get up early to the sound of the alarm. Indeed, amid the thoughts that crept into my mind somewhere between 2 and 3 – I wonder what the impact of the mobile phone has been on the alarm clock industry? Not good, I would think. Does anyone actually have an alarm clock any more, other than for ornamental or sentimental reasons, when a mobile will do?

That got me thinking about a speech I am doing tomorrow about crisis management and I’m suddenly wondering whether to weave in the demise of the alarm clock. Oh dear.

I must have dozed off between 3 and 4 for a while because I had a dream, one I am familiar with, in which I am trapped in a room with four other people, and none of us can speak each other’s language. But it didn’t last as long as it usually does, and then it was back to non sleeping.

The worst bit – I think I said this in the diaries – is when you’re at that point where you think less about how tired you are than how tired you are going to be, and how things are bound to go wrong. But then a kind of deja vu kicks in, which says ok, you’re not sleeping, and you’d rather you were and you know you’re going to drink too much coffee in the morning, and get a bit wired at points, but actually the day will go fine and tomorrow you’ll sleep ok.

As for the various things that came into my mind, they were a mix of personal/family, political, professional. I remember Gail Rebuck once asking her husband Philip Gould and me whether we had ever had a conversation which did not mention TB and GB and their relationship? The answer was almost certainly no, and the same goes for mind conversations on sleepless nights.

But amid thoughts about eonomic crisis, war, terrorism, environmental catastrophe – I think I managed to keep swine flu at bay – come others, often logistical, much more banal. Did I take too many shirts on holiday last summer? How many did I take? If we go to the Tour de France this year, shall we just go to Mont Ventoux or maybe do one of the other stages? How am I going to get to Burnley on Saturday – I think it is the first 5.20 kick off we have ever had? Historic day indeed. Then I wonder how Darren Fletcher and Abidal are feeling – the Barcelona man having also been injustly red carded last night? How are the Chelsea players feeling? Is the ref sleeping badly? Do the players really think he was under pressure from UEFA to avoid an all-English final? That is quite a thing to say.

Then I knew I was in real trouble when my next novel crept in. I have done a third draft but had been planning to park it for a while, come back to what I hope will be a final draft in a few weeks time. But it was hopeless. There is a key scene towards the end which has been bugging me for a while, and I started to rewrite it in my head. Then I actually started to get a couple of decent thoughts which I thought were worth noting down. I couldn’t turn the light on for fear of waking Fiona so I switched my alarm clock/mobile to mute, then sent myself a couple of messages. But then I knew I needed to flesh the ideas out so I got up, went to  my computer and wrote for a while. Not great, but better than what went before.

Now I am at Heathrow Airport. It must have been the early flight that triggered the whole thing. It often is. I’m off to Portugal, speech tomorrow, and today a stack  of interviews to  promote Os Anos Blair. It sounds like a vaguely obscene medical condition, but is in fact the title of my diaries, recently published in Portugese. That was one of the other random thoughts last night – famous Portugese people. I never do the Belgian thing, because Jacques Brel is such a legend.

I wonder what proportion of Brits would name Cristiano Ronaldo ahead of all others. It’d be high. And to think none of us had ever heard of him in the era when we all had alarm clocks. Perhaps I’ll sleep on the plane.

  • Working Class Tory

    This is a really excellent post, in my opinion. I stay up til about 4-5am on a regular basis, despite having a 7.15 alarm (which by the way is still delivered by an old fashioned alarm clock/radio – for my classic fm needs – it helps me get to sleep).

    I also get these random thoughts, such as “when’s the Pope’s bedtime” or “was Henry VIII ever happy?”

  • Alina Palimaru

    Sounds like you had a rough night! Have a safe trip! And good luck with the speech! Of course you know this already, but here’s a friendly reminder: there is heavy demand for notes or a transcript of the speech!! Obrigada!

  • Malcolm

    Join the club. Most night I sleep fine. Every few months I have a stinker. Like you I think a lot about politics and I try to build a dream Cabinet from politicians down thee years. Last time I had Blair as Thatcher’s foreign secretary. Another time she was his overseas development minister. Tebbit is always reshuffled. I keep Churchill in domestic jobs

  • Alison Stead

    There is also always the question of when it is late enough to nudge awake the person next to you. I’m a 5 o clock bird

  • gary Enefer

    Dear AC

    Was one of the four people in the lift,who didn’t speak the same language,Hazel Blears?!

    Enjoy the weather
    gary enefer

  • Marion

    Bizarrely I had a bad night too – not sleepless, but restless. Have been asked to do 3 days work here in Khartoum. But it is 2 weeks before the official end of holiday. Work could be a good opportunity – but won’t be paid much for it. Can’t get thinking pros and cons out of my head. Won’t sleep tonight, leaving for airport 11.45pm, arrive UK 10.30am… perhaps I will sleep on the plane too…

  • Alan Quinn

    How are the Chelsea players feeling? Ask Sir Alex how he thinks Peter Kenyon is feeling!!!

  • terry evans

    As an insomniac I used to worry like hell about it and it just got worse. I sleep better now that I don’t worry about it, but still no more than about 5 hrs a might. On a lighter note if you have a few super bocks you’ll sleep tonight, but not feel so great in the morning. Have a good trip and I hope your speech goes well.

  • Zelo Street

    Famous Portuguese: I assume you’re visiting Lisbon – on your way into town you’ll probably pass the statue of the Marques de Pombal, at the top of the Av. Liberdade. If you get a break, take the #15 tram out to Belem and look at the Padrao dos Descobrimentos on the waterfront, with its depiction of Henry the Navigator and many others. And Luis Figo may be better known locally than Ronaldo.

  • BarBar of Oz

    Alistair, there is an interesting throwaway line in your post regarding you and Phil Gould never having had a conversation which did not mention the relationship between TB and GB.

    Being marooned here in Oz my impressions have been formed by reading just about every book you guys have ever written, along with most of the biographies – not by any personal knowledge or info. But I often used to say to politico journo friends of mine here salivating
    over every TB imminent downfall story, that GB would never challenge TB because there was (to quote myself) “far more that unites Blair, Brown and Mandelson at the bottom line that will ever divide them.” And that -again to quote myself – “TB will only ever step down when Gould’s focus groups dictate the end has come”. I was basing this on GB, TB and PM having taken on the Labour party and forced it to reform into a modern, electable, authentic Labour challenger for government, as described so eloquently in Gould’s book.

    When PM, TB and yourself pulled the knives out of GB and picked him up from the floor last year it seemed my much-derided view had been vindicated. Recent events – particularly the McBride (Whelan lives again) narrative – indicates otherwise. Perhaps this is a possible source of your insomnia?!

  • John Willman

    Portugal rocks – Lisbon is one of Europe’s top 10 cities, and far more attractive than, say, Berlin or Brussels. Porto is pretty cool too.

    10 famous Portuguese: St Anthony of Padua (born Lisbon); Henry the Navigator; Vasco da Gama; Ferdinando Magellan; Baruch Spinoza; Jose Saramago; Eusebio; Paula Rego; Nelly Furtado; Jose Manuel Barroso – never mind Jose Mourinho, Ronaldo and the three kids who saw the Virgin Mary at Fatima

  • Em

    You’ve described just about every night of my life since I’ve been an adult. I think you mention having half a dozen such nights a year in Os Anos Blair. Lucky guy. Enjoy Portugal.

  • Michael

    Ever heard of a gadget called the Pzizz? I’ve used it and can heartily recommend – great for power naps (whcih can help you catch up after a long night) as well as drifting off at bedtime. Also, I like to think of the song Everything’s Alright from Jesus Christ Superstar – I find it has the perfect lyrics in such circumstances, usually sung by a sweet, soothing female voice. But famous portuguese? Crikey, from Vasco da Gama to Luis Figo, there’s loads of ’em!

  • Maja

    I could have written that blog myself this morning. The sleepless bit and the random thoughts, not the book promotion, novel writing or speech making, obviously. Top tip: ask Fiona if you can borrow her Touche Eclat to hide the dark circles.

  • Joanne Sheppard

    I suffer from insomnia every night. Half my trouble is that I end up lying awake pondering questions like ‘Are there any world famous Portuguese people?’

    Having seen other posters’ answers to that question, I would refine it slightly to ‘Are there any famous Portuguese people who aren’t a) footballers or b) Renaissance era explorers?’

  • Gabrielle Laine-Peters


    Welcome to my world! This has become a part of my life since 9/11 4-6 nights a week.

  • Wyrdtimes

    Conscience.Iraq. Blood. Hands.

  • Moya

    A word has kept me awake – you used it on The Speaker. It sounds like epithera (in fact a topical cream)but I can’t find it in any dictionary. Please help.

  • Ryan Ross

    Reading, it sounds more as if you were writing about me. I can completely relate with almost every single point, and I have come to one loose solution and one loose theory.
    Firstly, to pretend that it is perfectly fine for you to be late for whatever it is you have to do tomorrow, even not turn up, is often enough to relax you to sleep. It’s the worry, as you say, of being tired, that keeps you up.

    Secondly, I have a theory that using phones as alarm clocks is a huge damage to our sleep. When mine goes off (as I do use my mobile as an alarm), in my usual dazed state, I’m never quite sure whether I’m meant to be getting up or whether someone is trying to get hold of me- and it instils a mini-panic.

    Perhaps we should both try real alarm clocks? 😛

  • JF

    Any chance of posting up your crisis communications speech?