With paws crossed
Curled up on a sack of compost
A cat naps serenely
With paws crossed
Curled up on a sack of compost
A cat naps serenely
MY PARENTS USED TO go to bed early, usually just after hearing the 10 pm BBC news on the radio. When I was a youngster living at home, this used to upset me because I did not want to go to bed so early or to stay up without company. However, my aunt, my mother’s sister, and her husband were ‘night owls’. They lived a few minutes’ walk away from our family home.
Often, I used to wander over to their house after my parents had gone to bed. I would join them in their comfortable living room, and we would chat. Every now and then, our coffee cups would be refilled. And as the hours ticked by, the empty cafetieres would be replenished with coffee – one with normal coffee and the other with decaffeinated. As night merged into early morning, the three of us would nod off for a few moments and then wake with a jolt. This would happen several times during the early hours of the morning. I used to love these late-night sessions with my relatives. Frequently, I left my aunt and uncle’s home at about 3 am.
I used to walk home along the tree-lined streets of Hampstead Garden Suburb that were illuminated by the strange orange glow from the bulbs on the concrete streetlamps. The streets were deserted, without cars or other pedestrians. If you were lucky, you might have spotted a fox scuttling past. To be honest, even in daytime, the thoroughfares of the Suburb were almost as dead. Occasionally, I would encounter a policeman on his nocturnal beat. Usually, these encounters led to me being questioned politely. What was I doing out so late? Where was I going? My answers, my innocent mien, and the lack of a sack of swag probably reassured my questioner that I was innocently going about my business.
On weekdays, despite going to bed late, my uncle was ready to drive with his wife to Golders Green station at 8 am. This was the time I headed in the same direction on my way to school. Oddly, although my parents had retired just after 10 pm, they were always still lying in bed when I left the house at 8 am, having prepared my own breakfast.
Something that has only struck me whilst writing this is that my parents did not give any hint that they were concerned at me wandering the streets alone in the early hours of the morning. When our daughter reached the age when she went out with friends at night, often returning at 3 or 4 am, I could not fall asleep until she returned home. These days, so many decades after I was a youngster, the streets are not nearly as safe as they used to be. I am not saying that the streets of London were 100 percent safe when I was old enough to first venture out alone, because there were hazards. However, many new dangers have been added to those that I might have had to face ‘when I was a lad’. ‘That’s progress’, you might say, but, remember that, speaking medically, a disease that progresses is one that is getting worse.
RETIREMENT OFFERS MANY PLEASURES. One of these is waking up in the morning at whatever time one wishes. I do not want to sound slothful but waking up early rarely appeals to me.
While I was undertaking research for my PhD in physiology at University College London (‘UCL’), there were no daily time constraints. I could turn up at the laboratory whenever I felt like it and leave whenever I wanted. My timings were entirely up to me. I used to arrive at UCL at about 10 in the morning. At 11 o’clock, I went upstairs for coffee and biscuits in the Starling Room (a departmental meeting place for post-graduates and academic staff; named in honour of the physiologist Ernest Starling). By noon, I had returned to the lab. However, there was not much time to do anything because I liked to have lunch at just before 1 pm. And, after lunch, I often sat in the Ladies Common Room, chatting with Margaret, my supervisor’s wife who also worked in the lab. You can be sure that we never discussed scientific matters over our cups of sub-standard institutional coffee.
By just after 2 pm, I began getting down to work, setting up an experiment. However, everything stopped at 4 pm, when one of us would put the kettle on to boil, the heat being supplied by a gas flame from a Bunsen burner. Tea and biscuits involved me spending another hour chatting, mainly with Margaret. The other PhD students and workers in our lab took tea but were not distracted from their work. At 5 pm Margaret and my PhD supervisor, Robert, set off homewards, followed soon after by the rest of the lab. Between 5 and about 8.30 pm (and on some weekend days) is when I managed to do some ‘solid’ work. Miraculously with this lackadaisical schedule, I managed to do sufficient experimental research to be awarded a doctorate. Then, my life changed dramatically.
Soon after becoming ‘Dr Yamey’, I enrolled in the Dental School of UCL to train to become a dental surgeon (‘dentist’). Compared to my BSc and the PhD studies, this course leading to a Batchelor of Dental Surgery degree was far more demanding of my time. Five days a week, my presence was required at the Dental School at 9 am sharp. The day, which included a lunch break and two brief coffee breaks (if you were lucky), ended at about 5 pm. This seemed to me as bad as being sent back to junior school.
At first, I found this rigorous routine difficult after the relatively laxer times I had enjoyed during my BSc and PhD courses. I remember waking up at 7.00 am on dark autumn mornings and looking out of my bedroom window to see if there were lights on in any of my neighbours’ windows. Often, there were none. To arrive at the hospital by nine in the morning, I had to board the Underground at the peak of the morning rush hour. The tube trains were always crowded, standing room only, at that time. However, in those days in the late 1970s each train had two carriages in which smoking was allowed. Because many people were going off smoking or did not smoke, these carriages always had plenty of empty seats when they pulled into my station, Golders Green. Ignorant of secondary smoking, as I was then, I always travelled comfortably in the smelly, smoke filled carriages. However, by the time I had travelled the thirty minutes to Warren Street, I was always in great need of a quick coffee in the Dental Hospital’s basement canteen before classes began. After qualifying, the early morning routine continued. It lasted for thirty-five years until, at last, I retired.
Waking early in the morning was not confined to dental studies and practice. It is a feature of life that I have got used to in India. Many people in India wake early to take advantage of the cooler early hours of the day. I learned this very soon after arriving in Bangalore during my first visit to India in 1994. For the first few weeks, my wife and I stayed in my in-law’s home. On the second or third morning of our stay, I woke up in darkness. I could hear people rushing about in the house. I woke up my wife and said that I thought that the house was being burgled or attacked. She reassured me that all was okay and told me that the family liked to rise early. It was not quite 5 am. Day after day, my father-in-law tried to encourage me to join him on his early morning walk, to see the sun rise. Eventually, I gave in and we walked around a nearby open space in semi-darkness. It was only when we had returned to the house that we noticed the sun was beginning to rise.
Since those early days in India, I have just about got used to getting up incredibly early if there is a good reason to do so. Driving out of a city as large as Bangalore is one of these reasons. Before 7 am, there is hardly any traffic on the roads, which are usually choc-a-bloc during working hours. Flights to London are another good reason. They often leave India at early hours of the morning so that they can land in Western Europe at an hour that will not disturb those asleep in the UK, where late night/early morning passenger flights are forbidden. Although I can see the benefits of doing things early in the morning in India, I still miss being permitted to sleep until my built-in biological clock gives me its wake-up call. And for those of you who are by now thinking that sleep is all important to me, let me tell you that of late, despite not having any work or travel obligations, that clock of mine is waking me up much earlier than it used to years ago.
Gothic towers glow
In the grey midnight gloom
London sleeps silently
Some years ago, we were in Bangalore on a New Years Eve. Our daughter went off to an all night party and we remained at home with my recently widowed late mother-in-law.
We ordered a pizza from the local branch of a well known international pizza chain. It arrived by motorbike, looked delicious, but tasted mouldy.
At about 10 pm, we were all feeling sleepy and retired to bed. At about 3 am we were woken by a telephone call. It was our daughter wishing us a happy new year.
We had slept whilst the old year ended and the new one began. It was the most effortless and relaxing way of ‘celebrating’ a New Year that I can remember.
PS: this year we celebrated the New Year’s Eve in a part of India where the consumption of alcohol is forbidden!
It would be strange,
Very bizarre indeed,
To sleep in a fine tea cup
Picture of an artwork by Jasmine Thomas-Girvan
The sleeping brain
powerhouse of fantasy
fertile playground of dreams
Many of us experience dreams that recur periodically, not necessarily every night, but from time to time. Here is mine.
I dream that I am about to take a mathematics exam. I know that I have had a year to study for it, but have done nothing about it. Maybe, I can ‘wing it’ without study, but I am sure that I cannot. There are only a few days left to study, but something tells me that neither will there be enough time, nor will I ever get started. I will tell you how the dream ends later on.
Ever since I was about 8 years old, I have been writing examinations. First, there were simple tests to enter preparatory school. At the end of each school year, we sat a series of written tests. Then, there were more (and much more difficult) papers for admission to secondary school to be attempted when I was 12. At age 16, I had to write state examinations in eight subjects, the Ordinary Level (‘O Levels’, now ‘GCSE’). A year later, a few more state examinations, and then when I was 18, I had to take the difficult Advanced Level exams that could make or broke a candidate’s chances of entering a University.
At the end of each year of my BSc course in physiology, there were examination papers, the results of each of them counting towards the quality (grade) of the degree I would be awarded.
Following that, I had a three year break from exams while I researched and then wrote up my PhD thesis.
I entered dental school, where for five years I had to pass endless numbers of examinations of all sorts: practical, written, and viva-voce.
Eventually, I graduated as a dentist. However, there was one more examination to be taken: the driving test!
I have never found writing examinations stressful.
My recurring dream ends as follows. After pondering the hopelessness of my prospects via-a-vis the forthcoming mathematics exam in my sleeping brain, it occurs to me that it does not matter after all, because already I had a BSc, a PhD, and a dental degree. Then, I wake up.
This dream ending might have a basis in reality. When I was ready after completing the dental course, I took the set of dental qualifying examinations arranged by the Royal College of Surgeons. I passed them.
Three month’s later, after I had been working with patients in practice for most of that time, I returned to the dental school to take the university dental examinations. I was already qualified, and did not really need the extra qualification, but I went along nevertheless. The university exams required me sitting a number of written papers along with a clinical test. While sitting on an uncomfortable chair, scribbling exam essays at high speed, I paused for a moment. As in my dream, I asked myself why was I bothering to waste time on attempting to attain this superfluous qualification when I had so many already.