Blog: The Motherlode

Polyphasing Experiment: Conclusions

Things I achieved in the week:

  • Cleared out the loft.
  • Cleared out my bedroom – wardrobes, desk etc.
  • Threw out a load of clothes, books and general crap.
  • Sorted out my computer filing system.
  • Gave my website a complete overhaul.
  • Started a new money making venture.

Lessons learned:

  • I can sleep for 2 hours a day and still operate (more or less).
  • There are no serious side effects (I think!).
  • The limits of my endurance are much further than expected. I feel like I would be able to operate on 14 hours of sleep a week in extreme circumstances.
  • Sleep is something that can be trained and it can be modified to my own requirements: it’s not just a case of going to bed and waking up.
  • Naps are more important than I gave them credit for. The ability to nap every few hours to get through a night of work was a great feeling.
  • Without the habit of going to sleep for 8 hours straight I lost the sense of days passing. Time flowed constantly, not in fits and starts. It made me realise that every minute is sacred. 
  • With 22 hours in a day there’s far too much time to spend it on frivolity – that gets boring pretty quickly. I found that the more time I had, the more I wanted to spend it on something worthwhile.
  • It’s nice splitting the day up into more segments: it focusses the mind on achievement during the waking periods. Under this system of 20 minutes every four hours, however, I become something of a slave to the segments.
  • Beds are not necessary – and in fact I found it much nicer not to have a bed in my room. The bed, that huge piece of furniture, forced my room to be a BEDroom. This is counter productive both for working in that room and then for trying to sleep in that room after having worked there. It was really liberating to use a blow-up bed that I brought out only when required. It meant that I had a huge lump of space for other daytime activities. It meant I could put my rocking chair beside the window – I had never before realised how pleasant the sun was coming through there. The absence of a bed in my workspace lead to a healthy demarcation of day and night activities.
  • I like doing things that make me unique. I like to push myself into unusual situations that change my perception of the world – and then to encourage others to do the same. I like living with imagination and courage, not conformity and fear.

Positive aspects of polyphasia

  • Time for EVERYTHING – including complete and utter boredom!

I will have to let that time go on a monophasic schedule.

Negative aspects of a polyphasic pattern:

  • Socially it is difficult at best, antisocial at worst.
  • I found it difficult to perform creative work, in the adjustment phase at least. I got a lot of dross work done, but not much creative work – my novel suffered by about 2800 words over the 6 days of the experiment.

Negative side effects of polyphasia

These, I concede, could have disappeared if I had persisted through the adjustment period of about 30 days.

  • Hot flushes in the early phases.
  • Numbness in the extremities.
  • Cold sensitivity.
  • Digestive problems.
  • Brain freeze/fog.
  • Creativity blockages.

Action points to be taken away:

  • I don’t need a bed. Perhaps I should investigate buying a Japanese bed roll.
  • When I feel tired, I’ll sleep! I won’t feel guilty about sleeping or just ride through the rough period. I’ll take a nap. I know now that I don’t have to get undressed or brush my teeth or anything – I can just lie down and take 20 minutes out.
  • Evangelise the benefits of messing with your sleep to learn about yourself.

Finally, I exhort you: Experiment and Learn.

Thank you for reading.

Polyphasing Experiment: Day 6

01:51: Revenge of the Nap

I have had a change of tactics. Naptics you might say. Taking Pavlina’s idea and combining it with Buckminster Fuller’s technique: I’m just going to take a 20 minute nap every time (well, maybe not every time) I get too tired.

I just had one and it was unquestionably more successful than other naps. I am still scarcely able to keep my eyes open, but I did have vivid dreams and woke up before the end of the nap. These are good signs. I am still hunting the holy grail of refreshment, however. But at least I’m not tired!

Alertness rating: 4

03:20: Naptastic?

I’m not sure if I’m winning or losing. I think I feel better, although my eyes are having trouble adjusting to sight again.

Alertness rating: 4

06:40: Serial Napper

My schedule for this past night has been naps every 2 hours, rather than every 4. so that’s naps at 11pm, 1am, 3am, 5am and, coming up next, 7am. It has made it somewhat less painful to get through and I have achieved things, but I am still far from rested.

Alertness rating: 4

Disgusting: a 1 hour oversleep after initial wake up. Actually that’s not quite correct: I woke up an 20 minute intevals at 7:20, as planned, at 7:40 and then at 8:20.

18:34: Thoughts on Napping

There are some things that I have not been describing because I have not been sure. But I think now they are pertinent. A week ago I played cricket and did not stretch beforehand. Normally any strains would be gone in three days at most, but the pain in my back seems to have got worse.

Secondly, this sleeping pattern seems to have been playing havoc with my digestive system. This could be due to lack of an enzyme that is produced during deep sleep. Having said that, after two bike rides I am feeling pretty good – but that could just be thanks to watching Liverpool trounce Aston Villa 5-0!

Tonight is something of a test for the system: it is the first day that I have been able to socialise. Two of my friends are in town and we’ll probably go somewhere this evening. I obviously can’t go out until my 7pm nap, can’t drink and have to be back in bed by 11pm. I shall report back on the irritation this causes.

I have to confess that this experiment has been both easier and harder than I expected. I was expecting much more acute symptoms of sleep deprivation: hallucinations, narcolepsy and so on. I had none of these. But I have been really dragged down by the minor side effects: the dullness of thought, the hot flushes, the digestive problems, weakness when performing physical exercise. I have the time, but not the strength.

I do feel like today has been an improvement, however. Perhaps that is due to my oversleep earlier. Perhaps it is because my friends are here and I have someone to share it all with. Am I fed up with it though? Is it too much already?

Reading Dr Mednick’s book I am even more concerned with the long term effects – this was only meant to be an experiment, but is it worth the heartache just for an experiment? This 30 days could be spent productively – it’s not as though there aren’t a million things I need to be doing, but if I don’t have the strength then all the hours in the day won’t help me.

Alertness rating: 5.5

Still a thick head though, and that just kills me.

19:38: Sleep Inertia?

Seriously, waking up from a nap feels like waking up from a high speed encounter with the bull bars of a truck. I can barely focus my eyes, which is worrying – even after repeated shaking of the head etc. I wonder if this is because I am sinking quickly into short wave sleep and thus getting a load of sleep inertia on wake up. But once up and moving I feel fine again.

Alertness rating: 5.5

23:57: Nap to the Future

The evening with my friends was, predictably, terminated by me needing to nap. Post nap was the familiar feeling of being kicked in the face by a mule. As the clock ticks towards midnight I have trouble holding a conversation without feelings of great irritation and discomfort. This experiment is over.

Alertness rating: 4

Polyphasing Experiment: Day 5

3:00 Please let me recover!

Not the worst nap ever. But I’m still waiting to wake up refreshed. I’m lurching from nap to nap with my body just getting enough to keep going. It’s like I’m topping up to the level of sleep deprivation that I built up over the first night of not sleeping. Like the 20 minutes gives me just enough energy for the next 3 hours 40 minutes, no more, no less.

One other observation about this is that I really can’t read whilst in this phase. It makes me too sleepy. I can manage a few pages during the day, but even then I’m not really concentrating so I’m pretty sure it’s not very productive reading.

05:09: Testing

Cognitive tests:

  • Typing: 61 WPM
  • Simon: 9
  • Reactions: 82.38

Simon has taken a bit of a battering – concentration not great. But the others are fine.

Physical tests:

  • Weight: 65.2kg
  • Blood pressure: 112/72
  • Heart rate: 48 BPM

Absolutely normal physical tests.

08:56: Interdiurnal Nap?

I experimented with a nap between naps. I feel more rested, but have a feeling that it is only going to make things worse. I napped from 7:00 to 7:20 as normal, then got up and had a shower and napped again from 7:40 until 8:00. I then did a silly oversleep thing until 8:45. It really is odd that my sessions of oversleep are 40-45 minutes, not 90+. I wonder if this means that a 45 minutes Dymaxion would be possible for me?

Alertness rating: 4.5

17:34: Keep on napping

And hope it works out. I’m a little concerned that I don’t seem to be dreaming so much. Both the 11am and 3pm naps were more like falling into a faint and only rousing when the alarm goes off, what seems like hours later with a brain turned into oatmeal. My condition does seem to improve after waking, but I still struggle to read in my rocking chair. I feel dehydrated a lot of the time and exercise drains me. I’ve been for a long walk and a 15 minute bike ride and both left my head dense and craving sleep.

Alertness rating: 4.5

23:16:Torture?

Is this self-imposed torture? Sleep deprivation is a well-known technique and I have no gone five days without a decent deep sleep, always waking myself before the truly restorative phases of sleep.

Alertness rating: 3

Polyphasing Experiment: Day 4

02:21: Night Walking

I hope I develop a taste for dark, cold streets because I feel like I’m going to see them a lot over the next month. I find myself looking forward to the 7am nap because it seems like a true rest. When I wake up it is morning, just like for all the monophasers. It is a rare time of day when we are in sync, there is one other at 11pm when we all go to bed, ‘Good night!’ I say, knowing that I’ll be back up again in 20 minutes, but the others will slumber through the night, through to the morning.

Alertness rating: 4.5

04:16: Quiet Zone

That last nap wasn’t too restorative. Apparently night naps are harder than day naps. My body is still used to sleeping at night. But I have to say that I’ve been working on my cycling project quite productively in this quiet zone without too overwhelming feelings of tiredness. Still got two and a half hours to go though before the next nap!

Alertness rating: 4

07:22: Grogg

Dreaming again, but woke up to my alarm. When that happens I feel very groggy, especially if it was during a vivid dream, which it was this time. The dream took place on a film shoot. I was an extra and they needed me to eat a sandwich on camera. But they gave me the sandwich before the shot was ready and I ate it. So I felt bad and they had to make me another one. And I ate it again. Oops.

My eyes feel like they can’t focus, with heavy lids and a mist shading them from the world. Similar to yesterday morning actually. Not good.

Alertness rating: 2

09:20: Testing

Physical tests:

  • Weight: 64.1kg
  • Blood pressure: 121/61
  • Heart rate: 52 BPM

Absolutely normal physical tests.

12:12: Snoozeville

My 11am nap was the same story. Good long sleep with REM, but the alarm wakes me and I have no idea where I am, what the time is, whether I am just going to bed or should be getting up. I’m still feeling head fuzz.

Alertness rating: 3.5

16:12: Experimentation?

I’m not sure if this counts as valid experimentation, probably not, but I did oversleep again, like I did yesterday on my 3pm nap. Perhaps my excitement over adjusting was waaay too premature. Again, it wasn’t a problem of alarms. I clearly recall switching them all off this time, but I chose to stay in bed. It is interesting that, even after choosing to stay in bed, I am only oversleeping by 40 minutes. That makes my sleep time 20 minutes + 40 minutes. I also never remember dreams from this second 40 minutes so I am definitely indulging in the NREM bit. But what does it all mean?

I’ve just re-read Steve Pavlina’s blog about the adjustment period and he didn’t feel 100% until Day 6 and even then still used an extra 20 minute nap in the early hours before dawn. I’m pretty sure that my two 40 minute oversleeps are more damaging than his extra 20 minute sleeps for the reason that I am not going straight into REM sleep, which is the purpose of this initial training, adaptation period. Does that mean that my body is ‘reset’ and I have another 6 days of perfect scheduling to get through? Or are two relatively minor oversleeps permissible and my body will be on track for 100% on my day 6 equivalent (which would be next Monday)?

One thing that I did not do for this nap was to place the alarms out of reach – a policy I implemented after yesterday’s oversleep – the problem is I went to bed about 15 minutes before nap time to adjust and read and I needed a clock to see the correct time to close my eyes. I shall move another clock to viewing distance and keep my alarms out of arm’s reach!

Alertness rating: 3.5

20:03: Napping for Napping’s sake

Well that nap didn’t feel very restorative at all. I woke up about 10 minutes in worrying that I had over slept. It feels like I am getting all the right symptoms of polyphasic sleep, but none of the benefits (yet). I’m going to work tonight on clearing out Liz’s loft so that should keep me wide awake and make the hours of darkness pass.

Alertness rating: 3
But after a big meal, Alertness rating: 4

01:45: Another Day’s Nap

My 11pm nap was no more than functional. It’s amazing how easily I fall asleep and dream, but they are not restorative. I just get up and resume my zombie routines. I can’t remember the last time my brain felt engaged. Scary.

Polyphasing Experiment: Day 3

00:40: Midnight Creep

The ‘day’ begins with me dragging three huge bags of clothes down to the Salvation Army collection point in the centre of the village. As I stuff the dense black bin bags into the skip I feel guilty, as if they were chopped up bodies and I were a 1920s gangster.

Alertness rating: 5

Surprisingly alert.

02:28: Epiphany

This really is remarkable. Here I am at half past two in the morning and yeah I don’t feel 100%, but I can function quite well and I do have enough energy and concentration to do the sort of tasks that suck hours out of our days (or just don’t get done at all). And to think that this is the worst of the adjustment period; I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have energy at this time of night on just 20 minutes napping time. I do look forward to the naps now and I think my brain would really love me to forget to set the alarm but I’m on track and loving it.

03:22: Changes

I feel as if the nap length is increasing. Of course it isn’t, but that’s the way it feels. It seems like the naps are a few hours, not just 20 minutes. I’m still not awaking refreshed though. Exhausted.

Alertness rating: 2

07:59: OUCH

I feel sick, I can hardly keep my eyes open, I’m very sensitive to cold. This is the pain.

Alertness rating: 1

I hope that’s rock bottom, but there is still room for worse I fear.

08:15: Testing

Cognitive tests:

  • Typing: 64 WPM
  • Simon: 9
  • Reactions: 69.47

I’m getting better at the typing! The other worse scores better reflect the way I feel: rubbish!

Physical tests:

  • Weight: 63.5kg
  • Blood pressure: 108/62
  • Heart rate: 56 BPM

Absolutely normal physical tests.

11:27: Rushing Naps

They seem to be coming quicker. I don’t feel sick any longer: I just needed to eat breakfast. I am still whacked; this seems to be a hangover from each nap. I am groggy apparently. Also worth mentioning: I appear to have a cold, something happened yesterday about 6pm and my nose has been liquid ever since. Probably not making things any easier, but I don’t think it is affecting me too much.

Alertness rating: 3

16:00: Disaster?

I have no idea how, but I somehow managed to oversleep there. The alarms were all switched on and I woke up naturally 40 minutes late. I have a distant memory of possibly turning them off and just lying there for a moment… I’m a little groggy, but otherwise fine. I hope that has not put be back too far!

Alertness rating: 3.5

19:18: Back on Track

And I dreamed and woke up naturally for the first time! Woo-hoo! My dream was based in a middle eastern city (probably because I wrote 1000 words of my novel just before napping) – it could have been Cairo, it could have been Tunis – it was a melange. Anyway, I was there to learn Arabic and I was in a school room and there were two lesbians (I later assumed – but don’t worry, it’s not one of those dreams!) who came in and asked us if we wanted to watch some comedy sketches performed by two lesbians in French. I was surprised and pleased that they were so open about the homosexual content. I wondered if they were rebelling against the society or just determined to live their lives as they felt them, with no shame.

So: dreams, real dreams. I still don’t feel totally fresh, but this seems to be something of a break-through. And the fact that I woke ‘naturally’ – I use the quote marks because after the 16:00 nap I was worried about oversleeping and I woke in something of a shock thinking that I had overslept again. This also seems to be a constant in ubersleepers’ reports: the impression that sleep lasted much longer than 20 minutes.

Alertness rating: 4

And to celebrate my first successful polyphasic sleep:

White Hot Chocolate!

22:07: Testing

But first:
Alertness rating: 6 – I’m impressed.

Cognitive tests:

  • Typing: 62 WPM
  • Simon: 17
  • Reactions: 84.67

Typing speed was up, but accuracy was down. The other scores blown out of the water! If that is in any way indicative of the results of a good polyphasic nap then I’m in for a treat! Reaction speed up 22% from this morning – wow.

Physical tests:

  • Weight: 64.0kg
  • Blood pressure: 114/68
  • Heart rate: 61 BPM

Absolutely normal physical tests.

23:21: Good Night!

Or not. Dreamt again, but woke with the alarm. Feel very drowsy and just wish I could go back to sleep!

Alertness rating: 3.5

Polyphasing Experiment: Day 2

00:14: New Territory

This is the start of my first full day of polyphasic sleeping. Yesterday was great, but on the back of a full nights sleep it was no challenge. Today is a different kettle of fish altogether. Over the next 24 hours I will discover what it means to be sleep deprived. And it’s just the beginning.

Alertness rating: 6

03:00: Early Morning Nap

Got some light sleep in with a little para-dreaming: a marching band drummer with a big old drum strapped to his chest beating a marching rhythm. I woke up in surprise at this visit, only to realise that my brain was interpreting the music I had playing in the background.

I am napping on the floor with a duvet and a pillow, with a small lamp on and some soft music playing. I don’t want to make this harder than it already is by oversleeping! I am setting five different alarms, one on my phone which is fairly obnoxious and then four on this Salter Kitchen Timer I got off Amazon, each one set one minute later than the last. They all have different sounds and I haven’t needed more than one – so far…

I’m going to head out for a walk now to keep myself conscious – I’ll probably have a bite to eat as well. Only one more waking phase until I’ve done 24 hours. Steve Pavlina had to do three 24 hour polyphasic ‘days’ before he started feeling good again. There is no doubt that the hardest is ahead of me. So far I’m feeling alright.

Alertness rating: 4

Piano is an excellent tool for staying awake, as I thought. I only hope I didn’t wake the rest of the house up! Played for about an hour – Dos Gardenias and a bit of Gonzales. I’m quite hungry now actually – I haven’t eaten a full meal since about 5pm yesterday.

06:16: The Night Shift

The hardest part of the day is almost over. I got through the last hour by writing my 1000 words of novel for Tuesday. I did notice that it was harder to think straight, but once I got going it was fine. Dad is up already, dawn has broken. I have officially made it through the night.

Alertness rating: 4

7:20: Morning has broken

I’m yet to have a decent nap. This one was a kind of unconscious rest. Not particularly refreshing and I didn’t really dream, but I did sleep. This 7am nap will be akin to a monophasic sleep: I will now have a shower and breakfast.

Happy days! What a difference a good hot shower makes! Ready to face the day. Except every time I think that, I can’t help thinking that it’s not merely the day I have to face: it’s the next 30 days. I will never rest, not like I used to, and that simple fact is a mind bender.

Alertness rating: 5.5

08:52: Testing

Cognitive tests:

  • Typing: 60 WPM
  • Simon: 10
  • Reactions: 68.34

No change in typing accuracy or speed. Lower scores on both the concentration and reaction tests, however. I’m not surprised – I feel pretty slow.

Physical tests:

  • Weight: 63.8kg
  • Blood pressure: 113/56
  • Heart rate: 59 BPM

Absolutely normal physical tests.

11:00: Mid Morning Already?

Still no proper REM sleep. I am definitely sleeping though. It took about 8 minutes to fall asleep, about 2 minutes once I’d switched off the rather lively Cuban music…Feeling very fragile and sleepy.

Alertness rating: 4

14:32: A Walk in the Sun

It’s boiling out there! An hour long walk through the fog of brain fuzz and boy am I looking forward to the 3pm nap!

Alertness rating: 3.5

15:21: Afternoon Kip

Better, better. Slept the whole 20 minutes thanks to extending the alarm to about 25 minutes and doing a bit of reading before sinking into slumber.

Alertness rating: 4

Just fending off the zeds.

19:20: Evening Session

One really needs to prepare for one’s sleep about 10 minutes before the nap actually begins. I was clearing out the loft and didn’t lie down until 19:00 precisely so didn’t fall asleep for perhaps 8 minutes. This meant a shorter nap than I’m supposed to be getting and as a consequence I feel like death!

22:26: Testing

Cognitive tests:

  • Typing: 57 WPM
  • Simon: 10
  • Reactions: 78.41

Slightly worse accuracy in the typing test. Interestingly I was a lot quicker on the reaction test. Not sure what that means!

Physical tests:

  • Weight: 64.5kg
  • Blood pressure: 112/64
  • Heart rate: 64 BPM

Absolutely normal physical tests.

23:27: ZZZ

Wow. I just slept the whole 20 minutes, possibly a fraction more. Woke up in another dimension, not sure where I was. I’m really feeling the pull of sleep now.

Alertness rating: 2.5

My eye lids are being dragged down by an invisible force. I should get up out of this chair and do something before I fall under the spell.

Polyphasing Experiment: Day 1

Today is the day it all begins. Or ends. No more bed for a week. I have just got up from a very relaxing 8 hour sleep. I feel fully rested, but a little fuzzy in the head. I haven’t had a full 8 hours for a few days.

Alertness rating: 7

I shall be taking my naps at 11am, 3pm, 7pm and 11pm as scheduled.

10:00am: Testing

Cognitive tests:
I shall be taking three different types of cognitive tests every day. These are:

  • Typing test: The score is words per minute adjusted for errors over a two minute test. Test here.
  • Simon game: Test memory of colours and sounds. The score is the number of consecutive colours I can recall. Test here.
  • Reactions: The score is a weighted speed. Test here.

  • Typing: 56 WPM
  • Simon: 10
  • Reactions: 71.47

Physical tests:
I shall be taking three physical measurements every day as well. These are:

  • Weight (kilograms)
  • Blood pressure
  • Heart rate (beats per minute)

  • Weight: 63.8 kg
  • Blood pressure: 112/56
  • Heart rate: 60 BPM

11am: Nap time!

Well, not surprisingly I didn’t sleep, but I did get two interruptions. Someone rang the door bell about 8 minutes in (no one ever rings the door bell here), and the National Blood Service sent me a text message asking me to give blood (which I can’t do for medical reasons). So never mind, I wasn’t expecting to sleep anyway. I feel slightly groggy from lying down in the dark for 20 minutes, but otherwise fine.

Alertness rating: 6.5

12:15pm: I Lost A Bed!

Before

After!

15:00: Afternoon Kip

Half an hour before hand: feeling pretty tired. There is no reason for that. I slept a full night last night, but my head feels like cotton wool. Quite looking forward to a little lie down.

Alertness rating: 5

Had a little pseudo-sleep. Not sure if I was entirely under or not, but there were what I can only describe as para-dreams. Now rather foggy in my head.

Alertness rating: 5

19:00: Evening doze

I’m definitely resting more and more as the day goes on. No para-dreaming, but a heavier 20 winks.

Alertness rating: 4.5

Bleurgh. I’m tired and cold. And this is day 1? I shouldn’t even be sleep deprived yet! I feel as you feel when you have overslept perhaps. The next sleep will be the test: I normally go to bed around 11pm, so my body will be expecting something good, something like 8 hours. It’s gonna be in for a surprise.

23:00: Night nap

Well I survived. I didn’t sleep, just some imaginative drifting. Now I am tired, properly tired like you are after a long day’s travelling just before you sink into bed. I’m not going to bed for another 30 days. At least I’ve tidied up my desk.

Alertness rating: 4

23:59pm: Testing

Cognitive tests:

  • Typing: 60 WPM
  • Simon: 13
  • Reactions: 76.69

So I improved in all areas of mental acuity. I can only conclude that my performance hasn’t been affected by being awake for 17 hours straight. I can believe that. I guess the improvement is simply down to being used to the exercises and standard variation in performance.

Physical tests:

  • Weight: 65.1kg
  • Blood pressure: 123/68
  • Heart rate: 48 BPM

Everything pretty normal here still. The blood pressure is raised, but still within my normal daily range. The weight is higher, as you would expect after a meal and full hydration.

Alertness rating: 6

Actually I’m feeling alright! I wonder if doing the cognitive tests woke me up a bit.

Polyphasing Experiment: Testing, testing

Today I was analysed by my psychologist. One hour of intensive testing at the Starbucks in Covent Garden (Peppermint tea please). I’m not sure if I am normal, but at least we’ve put down a marker for the end of the experiment.

These tests assess attention, concentration, memory and my executive functions, i.e. problem solving and decision making. The theory is that sleep deprivation will make these processes sloooower.

The tests were:

  1. Visual memory: copy a complicated geometric drawing, then draw it from memory immediately, then draw it from memory again 30 minutes later.
  2. Trail making: point to numbers on a piece of paper in numerical order, then with the letters of the alphabet and numbers in alternation (1, A, 2, B etc)
  3. Zoo map: trace a route through the zoo following various rules and injunctions.
  4. Wechster memory scale: listen to a story and then repeat it back, marked for story details and themes. Then retell 20 minutes later.
  5. Verbal fluency: name as many animals as possible, then as many words beginning with ‘F’ in one minute.
  6. Verbal paired associates: given pairs of nouns, e.g. Elephant, Glasses, then have to produce the pair when given its other half immediately and then again after 45 minutes.
  7. Letter number sequencing: given numbers and letter jumbled up, then have to sort them and repeat back in numerical and alphabetical order.
  8. Digit span: given sequences of numbers, then have to repeat them back in the same order as given. Then more sequences of numbers, but repeated backwards.

My results were:

  1. Immediate reproduction with no mistakes; 30 minute delay with 4 mistakes.
  2. Numerical order: 16.24s; Numerical and alphabetical order: 33.65s
  3. Successfully completed in: 1:46.29s
  4. Logical memory test 1a: 13/25 story units; 6/7 thematic units. After a delay: 10/25 story units; 6/7 thematic units. Logical memory test 1b: 14/25 story units; 7/8 thematic units. With a second reading of the story: 19/25 story units; 7/8 thematic units. After a delay: 19/25 story units; 8/8 thematic units
  5. Animals: 40; F words: 23
  6. 100% recall immediately and after 45 minutes
  7. 13/21 sequences correct.
  8. 8/16 sequences correct; 7/14 backward sequences correct.

We will test these again at the end of the experiment to see how many of my brain cells have died.

Polyphasing Experiment: The Challenge

It was midnight and we were totally exhausted. We were sitting up late again, relaxing in the office at Makan, a cultural centre in Cairo. We’d spent the last two weeks working long days on my friend’s PhD fieldwork and now you couldn’t have kept our eyes open with matchsticks. Our heads were drooping into our beers and our metabolism was crashing after the sugar high that had fuelled the last few hours of frantic archaeology.

We wanted to celebrate finishing her research which had been a succession of progressively more intractable problems one after another. Our necks were stiff from bending over the microscope and our arms were aching from sieving endless archaeological samples. We just felt like we deserved to relax and enjoy ourselves, but with only hours to spare before our flight home our bodies weren’t willing.

Opposite us was Ahmed al-Maghrabi, the tireless manager of Makan. He was boasting that he hadn’t slept the previous night. Just what we needed to hear, this man in his fifties casually telling us that he’d spent all night at a film première and hadn’t slept a wink. We sat there, supposedly in the peak condition of our lives, flagging horribly and feeling rather pathetic opposite this insomniac. It didn’t seem fair and I told him so. What he said was to change my life. ‘Well you know Leonardo Da Vinci only slept 2 hours a day. Not that I’m comparing myself with him, but you know…’

That woke me up. I’m interested in what you might call lifestyle design. Last year I spent forty consecutive days getting up at dawn in an attempt to become less of a lazy bones. Turned out the reason I was so ‘lazy’ and sleeping an awful lot was because I had an underactive thyroid, but the experience was a real eye opener and great fun. I have been looking for something else to do ever since and here, with the warm night air of Cairo blowing through the curtains, I sensed an opportunity.

‘Really? Two hours a day? That’s impossible, surely?’
‘No, no. It’s all documented. Two hours a day, that’s all. He just slept for 20 minutes every four hours.’
‘That’s incredible. Just imagine – you’d have six more hours a day awake. That’s a quarter of a day! You could squeeze an extra 3 months into every year! No wonder Leonardo Da Vinci got so much work done.’

At this point my companion interjected, somewhat brusquely, that I was still an inveterate lazy bones and wouldn’t be able to find anything productive to do for that extra six hours anyway, so what was the point? Ah ha. A dual challenge: sort out my life so that I need six extra hours of work/play time a day and therefore need a sleep schedule to match the greatest genius that has ever lived. ‘I’m gonna do it!’

Grande Ecole

She kept looking for the answer. The little girl was running from shop front to shop front, shouting her question: ‘When will I die? When will I die?’ She had long blonde curls and a fierce look in her eye that made the shop keepers laugh.
‘Never!’
‘In a very long time!’
‘Ten minutes if you keep up that racket!’
The answers were always different and the little girl started to get confused. She ran to the shop of her favourite grocer, Pierre. Pierre was an old man; surely he would know the answer to her question. Pierre laughed softly, not like the others, and hoisted her onto his knee and began to tell her a story:

‘A long time ago there was a little girl just like you who always questioned everything. She always asked ‘Why?’, ‘When?’ and ‘How?’ This little girl, who had lovely blonde hair just like you, cherie, learnt so much that she grew up to be very clever. She quickly learnt everything that anyone in her small village could tell her, but still found she had questions. She started to get frustrated with the villagers who could no longer answer her. The old people of the village looked on with sadness in their eyes because they knew that soon they would lose this beautiful little girl who asked all the questions.

‘She grew up fast and soon she was a beautiful young woman, impatiently counting the days until she would be allowed to leave the small village and go to Paris to study at the Grande Ecole there. That day arrived and all the old men of the village wept as she boarded her carriage, knowing that they would not see her beautiful face again, that they would die before she returned – if she ever returned. The old women of the village wept also, knowing that this curious young woman was going to learn secrets that had evaded them all their lives. Everybody wept because they knew that the young woman would not return for many years and that the village would not see the benefit of her great intellect and curiosity.

‘Well, the young woman, whose name was Therese, left that day by carriage and arrived two days later in Paris. This beautiful young woman had never been in such a huge city and knew nothing of the ways of the townspeople. So she started asking her questions: ‘Where can I stay the night?’, ‘How do I operate the trolley-bus?’, ‘Where can I take a carriage to the Sorbonne?’ She learnt the ways of Paris very quickly and soon settled into city life.

‘One day she decided to move from her room in the Hotel Cosmopolitan and so she asked a young man, ‘Where can I rent lodgings?’ The young man led her to a house where an old man sat outside, whittling a piece of wood. He stopped when he saw her and looked her up and looked her down. She started to feel uncomfortable, for she was very beautiful, so she asked, ‘Why do you look at me like that?’ The old man replied, ‘Because you are beautiful, I will give you good clean lodgings.’
‘Thank you. But how much will it cost me?’
‘Oh very cheap,’ the old man’s mouth cracked into a smile, ‘very cheap for a face like that.’
The young woman felt uncomfortable, but followed the old man into the house. He showed her a room, which was satisfactory and she paid a deposit of 15 francs.

‘The old man was a very attentive landlord and Therese would often find him waiting outside her door when she went to bathe. This made her uncomfortable so she asked, ‘Why do you wait outside my door when I bathe?’
He replied, ‘Because you are beautiful. I am an old man and it gives me great peace to see such a beautiful young woman.’
Therese couldn’t find the words to deny this old man his pleasure so lowered her head and didn’t say anything.

‘All this time Therese was studying at the Grande Ecole, asking her questions and getting her answers from her very intelligent tutors. One tutor, whose name was Jean, took a particular interest in her development and took it upon himself to ensure that she had full access to whatever materials she needed and also to his personal library. One day, after she mentioned that she was struggling to find money for tuition as well as food and even her very cheap lodgings, Jean offered to help pay for her room in the old man’s house. Therese thought this very kind and, because he was very intelligent, she trusted him and confided that the old man with whom she was staying made her feel uncomfortable. Upon hearing this, the tutor immediately offered her a room in his house until she could find more appropriate lodgings. Therese accepted with relief and immediately hired a carriage to move her few bags across town.

‘Jean’s house was much more convenient for the Grande Ecole and Jean himself was a very convivial host. They would spend the evenings talking in great depth about her interests and he would spend hours and hours answering her questions, sometimes even before she asked them. They would have long, relaxing dinners with wine and cheese. He had a taste that was delicately refined and he reveled in teaching Therese the subtleties of society. She had many questions about this of course, coming as she did from a small country village. She had scarcely thought about the village since being in Paris: the old villagers had been right to cry.

‘After two weeks of wine and intellectual lodging with Jean, Therese suddenly realized that she was supposed to find her own lodgings. When she told Jean of her intention, however, he grew offended and insisted that she remain with him. This made her puzzled and so she asked, ‘Why do you insist on me staying here?’ He did not reply, but left the room.

‘This was the first time that somebody had given her no answer at all and it made her think. He had not said, ‘I do not know.’ He had not said, ‘Please ask someone else.’ He had not said, ‘You can find the answer in this book.’ He had not said ‘I shall try to find out for you.’ He had not said ‘Examine the evidence and you will find out for yourself.’ He had not said anything. He had simply left the room. This confused Therese deeply and she went to bed that night with her mind in a frantic state. She could not sleep and tossed and turned until midnight. Jean’s house overlooked a church square and Therese could see from her bedroom window the tower of the church. The moon was high and shone its light over the clock face. The two hands of the clock were pointing straight up to the stars, as if pointing to the answer for her question. She stared out of her window as the clock struck midnight. She opened the window wide; perhaps the air would help her sleep.

‘As the twelfth note sounded there was a commotion of wings and, to Therese’s astonishment, a white barn owl landed on the eaves of the house just in front of her. She didn’t dare breathe as the owl surveyed the square below, seeking a mouse for prey. She was close enough to reach out and touch the soft down of the owl’s wings, but she didn’t dare move a muscle. The owl stood there, alert, its head rotating as its eyes penetrated the gloom. Its claws gripped the straw of the roof thatching and Therese felt like she was in a dream. The beauty of the owl in the moonlight haunted her and she grew bolder, inching her head closer to the owl’s. The owl caught her movement in his wide eyes, but stayed calm and rotated his head all around to consider her. The two stared at each other in the moonlight as the last echoes of the church bells drifted over the sleeping city roofs. Time seemed to stand still; the two creatures staring deep into each others eyes. Therese realised this was the moment she would find her answer. So she whispered, very faintly, ‘Why did he run away from my question, Owl?’
The owl looked deep into her eyes, his claws twitched on the thatch. He had her question and Therese waited breathless for the answer. But the owl batted his wings and, with one last look, took to the skies. Therese sighed and watched him disappear over the sleeping rooftops.’

There was a pause as Pierre stopped talking and smiled at the little girl.
‘Well what was the answer to her question?!’ The little girl almost screamed. ‘That’s not fair! Tell me the answer!’
Pierre looked down at the furrowed brow underneath the blonde curls of the little girl on his knee, ‘Sometimes, cherie, there are no answers; just moments.’

6th October

The streets would not forgive him. Cairo revealed herself, but at a price. Bert could feel their eyes, pricking his conscience, taking him apart limb by limb. The hawkers carried on their shouting match, but he knew their eyes were on him, the foreign. What were they selling? Was it the piles of plastic combs at their feet or was it something more precious? This man had all manner of plastic toys. Where had they come from? China probably. The new colonialism. We shall conquer the world by exporting plastic toys. First plastic toys, then… The business model worked, incredibly. In this world it worked.

A few others sold sweets wrapped in lurid plastic wrappers. Here and there were traditional food sellers. A man with a rough wooden cart was roasting sweet potatoes. An old woman, fat and wrapped in black was crouched beside a pile of tissues. All their eyes were upon him. Overhead the bridge flew over and down below micro-buses hurled past screaming their destinations. Even the birds stopped their pecking in the dust as he walked through the bus station.

What had brought him here? What unlikely, unnatural turn of events had brought him from middle class rural Germany to a bus station in downtown Cairo? Astonishingly, in this world, it was common. He looked up and could see ahead of him another blond man fighting to board a micro-bus. He had just past a Dutch looking woman heading down the subway. Suddenly he hated that blond, the unknown Dutch woman and, above all, himself. What right had they to be here? Bringing their Euros, easily buying the life that these hawkers could never attain despite working twenty-four hours a day, sometimes more. What sheer fluke, pure chance, unkind fate had bestowed upon them the right to jet into other countries and live it up with scarce a thought to where the next meal was coming from, when they would next wash with warm water or how they would sell enough plastic toys to shelter let alone school their children?

Bert knew where he was going. He was going to cross the road past the bus station, climb the stairway above the hawkers and stroll across 6th October Bridge in the evening air over to Gezira and on to his clean, comfortable hotel in Zamalek. His life was etched out ahead of him, he could see it, plain and clear in frustrating detail. What could go wrong? What event could possibly happen that could not be settled with a call to his credit card company or a visit to a cash machine? Even if he were hit by a car crossing this road now, he would be well looked after in the finest hospitals of Cairo and the man who hit him would doubtless spend the night in jail. His place in this city was cosseted away behind the security at his hotel in the tree lined boulevards of colonial Zamalek. There was no obstacle to his comfort and it was all thanks to pointless, aimless luck. Of course he worked but, in this world, incredibly, one hour’s work in Germany was equivalent to perhaps three days’ work for these hawkers. Probably more. Bert didn’t like to think about it because there was nothing he could do about it.

As he lowered his head a shout and a look caught his attention. A man about his age was waving a flashing elephant in his direction. Bert heard his name in the look. There was a flashing plastic train careering around a yellow plastic track at the man’s feet. Bert walked over, entranced. The man looked at him, “Seer! Mister!”
“Bikem?” Bert heard himself say.
“Da?” the man said, indicating the elephant.
“La,” Bert almost whispered through dried throat, “kull haaga.”
“Kull haaga?” The man’s eyes grew half an inch in diameter.
“Yes – it all. How much for everything?”
The man hesitated, calculating, measuring disbelief against opportunity.
“I want everything you have. The table, the stool, that cloth.” Bert was warming up, pointing at everything the hawker used to hawk with. The man was clearly unnerved by this mad foreigner and glanced across at his neighbour, who was beginning to take an interest. They fired a few sentences between themselves. The other man laughed and said, in surprisingly good English, “You want to buy all Mohammed shop?”
“Yes. I do. I want his entire stall. Everything.”
The man laughed and explained to Mohammed, who stammered a reply.
“Ok mister, Mohammed want 500 pounds.”
Well, eid has come early for Mohammed, Bert thought.
“I don’t have that much on me, but here is 250 pounds Egyptian,” Bert started emptying his pockets, “50 dollars US…and my watch.” Mohammed looked stunned.
“Is that enough?”
Mohammed laughed this time and took the money eagerly, counting it out for himself.
Bert laughed as well and said, “Now go, my friend, go and enjoy yourself! I’ll take it from here.”

Bert had never done anything so reckless. He felt like a new man. He had a vocation, he had comrades in the fight for survival. He and Mohammed had swapped places. Now Bert was the plastic toy hawker under 6th October Bridge. Mohammed was free, without a care in Cairo. Bert slipped into the world of a real Cairene. He grabbed the flashing elephant with zeal and started hawking. The other man, who introduced himself as Mahmud, was laughing heartily. Mahmud had never seen anything like it.

Bert hawked all that night, all the next day and into the night again, shouting himself hoarse. He stayed there twenty four hours straight, high on the intoxication of freedom. He didn’t sell a thing, but he didn’t care. Egyptians wouldn’t buy from a foreigner and foreigners would never buy the rubbish he was selling, certainly not from a mad German. He drew a lot of stares, but he didn’t care one bit. He was a Cairene hawker.
The police arrived after about eight hours and tried to get him moved on. They asked him where his hotel was and threatened to call the embassy, but Bert held firm and the hawkers, his new friends, argued his case in impassioned Arabic. The police moved to a respectful distance but stayed watching, clearly suspicious of this extraordinary foreigner. A gang of baladi kids came up to him and started teasing him, “Mister, mister! How much mister!”, delighting in this reversal of fortunes. Then they started trying to steal from him, mobbing him with their strong little hands. But Mahmud had eagle eyes and whipped a length of knotted rope at them. The kids fled, screaming in delight.

After about fifteen hours of non-stop hawking, Mahmud offered Bert half of his sweet potato to keep his spirits up. Bert gratefully accepted, they were equals, sharing food like true comrades. A few ragged looking men shuffled past on their way back from sweeping the roads, most just stared at him with dull eyes, but a few hissed. The police tried to get Bert to leave again, stating that it was against the law for him to work. Again Mahmud defended him by arguing that Bert hadn’t sold anything so technically could not be working. The police moved off again, buzzing into their radios.

About twenty hours in, an old lady shuffled up to Bert. It was clear that she was very poor and as she got closer Bert could tell that she was half blind. She used her hands to rummage through Bert’s collection of plastic and finally selected one, a chicken with furry feet who played a banjo when you twisted its neck. Bert looked into her darkened, unfocused eyes and felt his heart plunge. He was still far from equal. He could not sell her the chicken and shooed her away before his weakness showed. Mahmud noticed but said nothing. They watched the old lady shuffle off the kerb onto a bus, the chicken merrily banjo-ing the tune to Achy Breaky Heart.

The old lady had shaken Bert and he began to feel increasingly uneasy about shouting his wares into the night, increasingly self-conscious. He grew quieter and less eager for customers, fearful they would expose him for what he was. As his twenty-fourth hour approached, Bert started panicking, he started seeing the desperate eyes around him, he no longer saw comrades. How Bert had wanted to join them just twenty-four hours before. Now he could not imagine anything more claustrophobic.

As the twenty-fourth hour passed Bert saw a familiar face approaching his stand from across the bus station. Mohammed was returning and he did not look in the mood for conversation. Halfway across the road he started shouting at Bert. Bert couldn’t understand most of the words, but gathered that he was not welcome.
“Imshi! Get out! Get out! Thief!”

Mohammed was waving his arms around the stand of plastic toys. He picked up the flashing elephant and waved it in Bert’s face. Bert sensed the other hawkers closing in, forming a circle around him. The night was dark, lit from the fires of potato ovens, reflected in the dark eyes of his former comrades, the men he had spent the last twenty-four hours side by side with. Loneliness struck him in the chest. He lifted his arms as Mohammed started to beat him with the flashing elephant.
“Go! Get out! Thief! Steal my life! Get out!”
Mahmud raised his knotted rope and bared his teeth in the gloom. The cars and taxis raced overhead and Bert eyed the staircase. He ran. The mob chased him out of the bus station, out of the market and up the stairs, where they watched him flee across the Nile into Gezira. They watched him run until he was swallowed up in the night among the tall trees of Zamalek where he could do no harm.

6th October Bridge shook with traffic as the hawkers carried on their shouting match and a flashing plastic train careered around its yellow plastic track. The streets had forgotten him.

City of Dust

It was a time of dust. It was a time for decay.

The year was turning, slowly, from quiet winter to noisy spring – but Cairo doesn’t notice. The cars barricade the roads and buses blockade roundabouts. A woman sitting behind a cart of roasting chick peas, shoe shiners scrub, scrap metal merchants clatter from gutter to gutter and the dust settles around them.

He awoke with a choke. Thick mucus caught in his tonsils and he’s bolt upright hacking into his sheets. Scrambling for consciousness, scrabbling for a fight or flight response. This was the return to Cairo. The Hilton looked over into his room, across the Nile. The constant lazy motion of the Nile washing steadily to the sea, the constant frantic jerk of the cars beating their way to City Stars, to Talat Harb, to Agouza, the smiling swagger of loose limbed Cairenes swaying through the dust.

But he didn’t have time for metaphors, for adjectives vermilion; she was here. He could sense her in every speck of dust, even if she was only three parts per million, he could detect her in the air, on the pavements, in the dust thickened trees. They took on the appearance of a house plant that hasn’t been taken care of. Left in a corner, forgotten. No rain touches them, no cleaner dusts their waxy leaves. They lean over the roads in Zamalek, begging to be touched, begging to be shaken out of their torpor.

But he had no time for trees either. He hacked one last time into a tissue and got out of bed. He moved over to the bathroom and washed his hands. There was dust on the mirror and his face looked back through the haze. He looked older. Or younger. Or foreign. Happy. Sad. Tired. Excited. But he didn’t have time for making faces either.

Downstairs in the hotel he left the key with the manager and stepped into the evening. The dust rose to meet him carrying smells of gasoline, of searing meat, of crushed herbs, of sweat. He cleared his throat and set off towards her. He felt like a blood hound on the scent of a memory. He turned instinctively, feeling his way towards her. He could find her blind, he could stretch out his arms and his feet would carry him to her, borne like the dust on the loose wind of Cairo. Mohammad Mazhar, Mohammed al-Maraashly, Bahgat Ali: the names floated back from a year ago, binding memory to reality. The embassies and the days they walked these streets: there’s Iraq surrounded by tall palms, Myanmar isolated behind crumbling walls, Sweden with every brick in place like it was sent over flat-packed. As he walked, the Nile pleaded with him to drag his feet, but he bent his head and turned towards her scent.

Broken pavement, crushed Baraka bottle, branches with leaves resigning, dog shit smeared. The road passed below him, marking time, playing a show reel of human waste. The cafe was ahead. He could see its lights. He could remember its lights. His memory was racing to meet him. He was suspended in time and his memory was swelling every moment. Soon it would join his reality and he would be enveloped by the same words, the same touches, the same caresses that belonged a year ago.

The entrance swallowed him and the cafe was delivered to his senses. He must have looked lost because an immediate waiter bobbed into his vision, “Sir?” He looked down, his head beginning to throb and said automatically through mucus, “ayiz shay min fadhlak”. The man nodded curtly, “hagga tany?” What? He paused, then remembered his lines, “shay bas, binayanaya, shukran.” The man gestured to a chair nearby. He sat down heavily and became aware of the other patrons. Men. Mostly. Mostly smoking. Mostly staring at the new arrival. The tea arrived and he took it in his hands. Too soon. The glass burned, the skin of his palm shriveled in self-preservation.

She would come. He could feel her coming. Like he used to. He could feel her so strongly that he thought it idiotic that they were meeting in a cafe at 7, as if they needed to arrange a time and a place. He could have found her in a sandstorm. He started to relax and replaced his hands on the small glass cup. His hands, reluctant, grew bolder and soon sunk into its warmth. The glass was patterned in gold around the rim. Of course it wasn’t real gold, probably just an alloy. He turned his gaze on the cafe. Its high ceilings and carved decoration spoke of an elegance that it barely tried to maintain. Dust lay everywhere human hands did not care to reach. But the bar was clean enough and there was a man polishing a window. He had seen him doing that earlier in the day. Was it the same window? Was the man a memory? Was there a persistent stain, refusing to be polished, refusing to be scrubbed out of existence?

She would come. She was here. He took a first sip of the tea and the warm liquid left a breath of mint before sliding down his sore throat. He could feel, now, a warmth in his stomach. The tea had settled and was making itself at home. It was a shame, he thought, that in a short time the tea would cool and digest and he would be left with nothing but an urgent need to relieve himself. A short moment of warmth followed by a repulsion. He looked at the tea in disgust. He was just looking at his future. He was inevitably on the way to pissing out the contents of that glass, gold rimmed cup. In fact, looking at it closely, it was already a sepia yellow colour. It wouldn’t even look any different coming out as it did going in. Maybe his piss would even taste of mint. Why should he piss? Why couldn’t he enjoy his memories of mint tea without the hassle of pissing? After all, this particular cup of tea would add nothing to his memory. He could already classify, identify the taste and feeling of mint tea, the warmth, the slight clean taste, the roughness of the scorched tongue – so why should he bother with the drinking and the pissing? He knew he would though, eventually. Just like he knew she was going to come, eventually. And what else could he do whilst he waited? So he lifted the glass and put his lips to the gold rim and tilted his head back a little.

The liquid, predictably, slid over his lower lip and over his tongue, which he lifted so that the mint flavour slipped down onto his lower palate before gently swallowing through his thick throat. Thereafter the sensation was of warmth. He tried to follow the warmth down to his stomach but was disappointed to notice that only the first sip can be traced that far. Subsequent sips seem to get stuck somewhere higher up. He almost felt full. He should stop focusing on the tea. It was just tea. Just something to do while he waited. Time didn’t seem to be passing. The same cars droned past outside, the same combination of lights and horns, shouts and breaking screeches. The waiter in the cafe made the same movements, back and forth, sheesha, tofaah, shay, ahwa, sukkar. The patrons made the same gestures to one another and the speech was indecipherable. They seemed to be talking about the football. Or the weather. Or memories. Or the dust. One is pointing. One raises his glass. One pulls on a sheesha pipe. One just sits, still. An old man is sitting near a large plate mirror, staring. Time didn’t seem to be moving at all. Time didn’t seem to be moving at all. Time didn’t smee toby moo thing at all. Team dad int smeethabee moofin atorl. Moofin atorl. Orl.

He jerked up with a start. What had happened? The waiter looked over at him sharply, but continued his movements. He was choreographed and couldn’t miss a step. She was coming, wasn’t she? He could feel her coming, just like he used to. He could. The smoke in the cafe mingled with the dust, filling his lungs with a weight. That must have been what made him drift off. It had got so smoky that he wasn’t even sure if he could still see the old man across the room. He could see the mirror, or thought he could, it was hard to tell what was reflected and what was real. He could feel time receding now, the moment was reeling away from him. His memory was clouded in a haze of smoke and dust, he wasn’t sure anymore about anything. Was she coming? Was she still? He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate, but behind his eyes his memory was out of control, it was lurching about, making him feel nauseous. It wasn’t that he was forgetting, it was that the time was gone: an impenetrable haze of dust had settled between him and his past. She wasn’t coming. It was a time of dust. It was a time of decay.

How to enjoy waking up at dawn

After waking up at the Krakadorn every day for forty days, I’ve become something of an expert in how to enjoy waking up that early.

Here’s how I did it:

  1. Get a good alarm clock.
  2. Get excited about the novelty of getting up so early. It’s so ridiculous that it’s funny – now jump out of that bed!
  3. Imagine you are going somewhere really cool and exciting.
  4. Go somewhere really cool and exciting (use your imagination).
  5. Stare at the Sun, wonder at the natural miracle of dawn. It does this every day, while you are normally snoring your head off. Be happy about how lucky you are to be watching this event.
  6. Take pictures, have fun! Use your creativity to get inside the morning.
  7. Find something / someone to laugh at (not hard – there are plenty of commuters).
  8. Look closely at the world as it is waking up. These are things you don’t see normally. The frost still on the ground, rubbish bags ripped open by rats overnight, the morning call of the birds, the soft hum of the milkman’s float. Appreciate.
  9. Return home and reward yourself with a breakfast fit for a King / Queen. Make it a real feast of tasty goodness, none of this muesli rubbish. Cook something you love – why does breakfast have to be boring? Fry up some sausages, eggs, tomatoes, make pancakes or an omelette. Use your imagination.
  10. Forget the hasty shower – have a real long hot bath. Yeah!
  11. Then look at the clock and see it’s only half eight.

That is how you learn to love the dawn.

Outside Mornington Crescent Tube Station

Right now outside Mornington Crescent tube station in London (at 1825 on Thursday) a man in a green, black and pale blue striped jumper, peaked cap and khaki trousers talks on his mobile telephone, one hand in his pocket, he just strides up and down the street.

In the background some scaffolding has been erected against Greater London house and there is graffiti against the slate grey hoarding. The trees stand and at their foot are eight mopeds and an assortment of parked cars. The traffic on the main road is busy.

The man is wearing earphones around his neck and a bag slung over his shoulder

“This area is covered by CCTV.” A yellow sign with a stark black image of a camera in 2D above the lettering. A discarded television lies beneath this sign

Two cyclists drift across the main road casually, with no regard for the traffic. Three black youths, one riding standing up, tall on the back wheel with his hands on the shoulders of the guy pedalling. They are not wearing helmets.

The scaffolding is by a company called Beacon. There is red and white tape around some of the poles. The building rises to six stories high. The trees are patterned like camouflage, mottled lichen greys, ash whites, greens, browns. The leaves are dark green, light green, leaves cut out from a pattern using those scissors that automatically cut serrated edges.

Russell Square

The warmth of the sun and the idle chatter of Spanish transports me, a dog sniffing the ground and people walking, talking, sitting, relaxing, soaking up the sun. Mothers with young children – one fallen flat on her face – the dangers of her scooter are obvious. The fountain blows foaming water. She’s back on the scooter, the Spanish turns faultlessly to English as a friend approaches. Round and round the fountain goes the little girl on the scooter. Another girl joins her, observes the water’s edge, doing nothing but enjoying the movement of the scooter. She pushes, pushes, pushes and then lets it roll – oop – one foot in the water. She goes and parks up next to mother.

A man in a scarf, thick black coat, heeled leather shoes and a black hat walks swiftly by – a swarthy look contrasting to the pink and fuchsia of the little girl.

Opposite, two police officers talk to a man, standing, pointing. Another man sits and the dog plays around them. They are taking details. The man sits and I can see that he is aged, with a flat cap and white beard. The mother bends to take a photo of the child and the dog interrupts, sniffing at whatever that is. He leaves to take a piss. The man talking to the police I can see is holding a can of beer – seems a little early to be enjoying that. Perhaps they are homeless. The mothers are beautiful, well made up and sporting sunglasses and accoutrements of fashion. You can tell the people who were dressed by seven a.m. – they have coats folded over their arms, not expecting the heat of this sun, which has been hidden by the cold winds blowing through town.

The gardener talks to the old woman during a break- he is a Rastafarian – gumboots, green combats, black t-shirt and black hat holding his hair in. He seems to be an engaging man and I’ve frequently seen him in the parks around here. He does a good job and I like to think of him, living with the land, even in the city. His beard and face bear the marks of a life lived. His priorities are obvious: the land comes first. The city would be nothing without the green of the earth and spring. What would the office workers do without the thought of a stroll through the park en-route, or the lunch hour spent lying flat out on the warmed grass? He has a couple of jumpers and a rainbow scarf of some description – a piece of fabric he always wears.

A group of three men sitting on a bench split up to take their leave – the third stands slowly – they are all old, but he is older and moves even more slowly in the same direction, his blue coat having a waterproof complexion.

The Spaniards say goodbye – I say goodbye quietly. Everyone is very casual around here, the circular shape of the centre of the park provides a natural cat walk for the passing people, in a good mood on account of the sun and vaguely smiling because they know they are on show, the runners even more so – not running around the park but bisecting it – cutting a diameter through it.

The Rasta laughs loudly and the old woman’s body shakes quietly. They are talking earnestly and happily. The child wants to play in the water and the fountain doubles in size. The girl lets out a controlled squeel of excitement. The wind catches the water and blows it softly over them, air-conditioning two blonde girls, daughters of two black-haired beauties.

A man walks through the park, head bent low, suit grey and open but head and shoulders still tucked over himself, still in winter stance, a typical Englishman, broken by the weather. The weather which governs our constitution coats, which breaks our necks and our spirit. Heavy clothes which can only weigh us down, lead coats that take us to the bottom of the ocean of drizzle.

The Rasta has gone, the old woman too. The dog plays on the bench between the two old men, the police are gone, the old men stand and drift away, stopping to talk to a woman on a wheelchair motorised, the dog yelps excitedly and jumps up at his master. A woman is making the rounds with a microphone asking questions, getting vox pop (which I suppose is Latin – vox populi – voice of the people). She has red hair.
“If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?” She’s from SOAS radio. She almost vanishes in the sunlight. The girl next to me answers, “Romania, because that’s my home.” I answer, “Vietnam, because my friend’s there.” I don’t tell her that I study at SOAS too.

The man in the grey suit walks back again, the same step, the same stride and the tie flowing over his shoulder. The Romanian’s perfume fills my nostrils. The raven haired mother’s husband arrives – he looks Mediterranean and plays with the girl, lifting her and attacking her with his teeth, burying his face in her side.

An old man, grizzled beard, wearing a woolly grey-blue hat with Tottenham written on the side comes to empty the bins. He is wearing a fluorescent jacket, a marker of his officialdom. The fountain falls to an ambient trickle of water, just a small puff of water surrounded by two rings of six acolytes – twelve, like the apostles. A man comes to the centre of the circle, mutters something and then sprints off in the direction of the tube. The girl splashes in the water, the sunlight sparkling off the surface of the concrete. They are in silhouette and the flakes of sunlight, starlight, jump up and she tries to go deeper, but is drawn back – where did the scooter girl go?

An old man in a wheelchair, thoroughly wrapped up, takes the air, pushed along by his aide. His aide, wearing a mischievous grin, pushes him towards the water, but swerves away at the last. The old man leans up and mutters something to him from inside the folds of his scarf and hat and coat and blanket. The aide beams on.

I could stay here all day, but the family have left in unison and the pigeons go back to their paddling. The Romanian reads, the tourists struggle with a map, the bin-man finds more litter. Two more tourists enter the scene, a man on the phone enters the circle, stands and leaves the way he came. A woman with a puffa jacket and a shoulder-swinging stride goes from left to right and the whole world is a stage, everyone is performing, even the old man, eyes closed, hands folded in his lap, his stick between his legs, relaxed, facing the sun, whispering, “Take me away, take me away.”

Spring in the City

It’s Spring in the city!
But how can you tell?
The concrete’s the same,
And so is the smell.
It’s Spring in the city!
But how would you know?
The bus is still late,
The tube still runs slow.

It’s Spring in the city.
You haven’t a clue.
Your pay is still bad,
Your rent is still due.
Spring in the city.
One hour’s less sleep
Is all that you notice.
Monday morning. BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.

But look! In the parks, the gardens, the squares-
All the accountants have abandoned their chairs,
The stock-brokers have forgotten their shares!
Secretaries, actuaries, bankers, newsanchors-
All the adults have turned six in the sun.
Boys – Frisbee toys radio noise all the joys –
Girls – dancing whorls spinning twirls hair that curls –
Looking sooooooooooooooooooooooooo pretty –
And that’s when we know it’s Spring in the city!

Orion, DC From the days of Gilgamesh, the days of Achilles, the days of Saladin he’s been drawing that bow and the barb will always lodge in my heart: a merciless wound that, never fatal, will bleed whenever the night draws in.

I wrote this last night after reading a passage in Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy – where he writes so beautifully it makes you want to give up trying – on the subject of an unrequited love. But it got me thinking about the phantasma that is the imagination and specifically about the water and powder of fantasy and memory…

I have a fantasy about lying in the summer grass with a girl – we lie at right angles to each other; she rests her head on my chest, and plays with a piece of grass, laughing sporadically and gazes, twisting her head back, into my eyes which focus on the skies above. One hand rests, cradling her head; the other, holding a straw, casts a swathe across the heavens.

I’m talking into the soft evening twilight, speaking gently of Cassiopeia, of Cygnus, of Cepheus. As the pink fades into violet velvet, the stars pick their patterns through this tapestry thrown across the horizon. Summer suffocates our senses and the evening releases a hundred herbal scents into the air, the earthy planet warms our bodies and the softening grass supports us. Continue reading Orion, DC From the days of Gilgamesh, the days of Achilles, the days of Saladin he’s been drawing that bow and the barb will always lodge in my heart: a merciless wound that, never fatal, will bleed whenever the night draws in.

Don’t Feed the Human

It is now illegal to give food to scruffy looking types in two US cities: Las Vegas and Orlando.

Two new ordinances in these cities, passed on the 20th of July in Las Vegas and the 26th of July in Orlando, mean that people on government support cannot eat in a public place for free or a negligible fee. The punishment? Well the recipient stays hungry and homeless (unless he or she can be squeezed into the local jailhouse) and the feeder could get $1000 fine and six months in prison. Now that’s an expensive sandwich by anyone’s standards (although some City delis come pretty close).

But how will this be enforced? How on earth can Marshals know who is on government support when they come across a suspect sandwich transaction? Well luckily the Mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman, has the answer: “Certain truths are self-evident. You know who’s homeless.”

Now he mentions it, I guess they do look a bit different to us don’t they? Skinny, drawn, probably with a beer can in hand and eyes bulging as a result of some kind of substance misuse. Clothes a bit ripped and messed up; hair unkempt and certainly unshaven. And then there’s the smell of course: a vile cocktail of human excrement and alcohol.

Quite apart from the difficulties of policing this new law, just imagine the bourgeois nightmare: you’re just sitting down with Timmy, Gemima and Clarence the dog for your delightful picnic in the park after a splendid morning feeding the ducks (legal). As you unpack the smashing sandwiches that cook prepared from the rems of last night’s charming soiree a down-at-heel type approaches you (note: he has not shaved recently – beware!). You signal calmly to the children who have retreated to cower behind you; brave Clarence sniffs disdainfully. The man (who, you quickly realise, is not wearing the latest style at ALL) removes his beaten cap and asks if he could possibly have a sandwich. What on earth do you DO? Give him a sandwich and risk criminal proceedings (heaven alone knows: he could be an undercover Park Attendant!), or refuse the sandwich and almost certainly risk losing the kids in a brutal daylight kidnapping?

The implications are wide-reaching: there was a famous summer during my schooldays in Reading when both Doritos and Tango were promoting new products simultaneously. They would generously hand out packets of crisps and bottles of drink to all comers in Reading station. It was beautiful: the perfect way to end the day, relaxed, feet up, on the train home with 14 packs of Doritos and a six bottles of Tango Still (it took a lot of nerve and a large bag to pull off, but it was certainly possible). But now, in the light of this legislation, presumably the promotion would only be open to those who could produce a gas bill or some other proof of address. This provokes the troubling thought: would they have accepted one in my Dad’s name?

Allen Lichtenstein, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney puts it another way: “So the only people who get to eat are those who have enough money? Those who get (government) assistance can’t eat at your picnic?” Surely this is madness!

Luckily, Las Vegas councilman Steve Wolfson raised this exact point with the city attorney Brad Jerbic. Wolfson was understandably worried that a hypothetical kind-hearted individual would be prevented from giving some homeless guy a hypothetical bite to eat. Jerbic clarified the matter for him: “If you bought a couple of burgers and wanted to give them out, you technically would be in violation, but you wouldn’t be cited.” Great! The Las Vegas ordinance was passed unanimously.

I guess they’re just after the big boys then; the people who go out and just hand out burgers to ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred, a thousand, no, maybe five thousand hungry people!

This certainly appears to be the case with Orlando’s apparently less extreme ordinance. The City Council voted to prohibit serving meals to groups of 25 or more people in parks and other public property within two miles of City Hall without a special permit. The reason given (according to WFTV) was that “transients gathering for weekly meals create safety and sanitary problems for businesses”. Well, of course, the smelly buggers, coming here with their wee and poo and beards – yuk! Banish them! Two miles should do it… No wonder that negotiations between the city council and the American Civil Liberties Union ended badly due to a suspicion of bad faith.

***

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is some kind of crazy US social fuckup; remember that what happens over there will happen over here sooner or later. Sorry, that is a terrible generalisation and a frankly exhausted tabloid cliché: ignore me – but just ponder the following:

A couple of weeks ago Westminster City Council criticised soup kitchens: “We appreciate they are trying to help but all they are doing is helping to sustain people on the streets.” The BBC reported that “a spokesman for Westminster City Council said soup runs fail to reduce the number of homeless people and can disturb residents in surrounding areas.” This seems to echo the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude expressed by the city councils of Las Vegas and Orlando.

With withering simplicity, Mr Samson, director of Shelter, pointed out “It is not lack of soup that causes homelessness”. Wise words.

***

The French, meanwhile, have been busy closing down soup kitchens for other reasons.

Soup kitchens run by right wing groups, serving soup somewhat provocatively made with smoked bacon, pigs’ ears, pigs’ feet, pigs’ tails and sausages, were targeted by French authorities last February. This was in response to the growing alienation felt by Muslim groups in France and during a period when the whole of Europe seemed to be in the grip of cartoon-related civil unrest.

The kindly matron of one such soup kitchen in Paris made the point, however, that “Other communities don’t hesitate to help their own, so why can’t we?” – shortly before climbing on top of a car and screaming, “We are all pig eaters! We are all pig eaters!”

And it is true that Islamic and Jewish charities dole out (shock!) halal and kosher food respectively. But it wouldn’t be too hard to argue that these special diet kitchens don’t actually exclude certain social groups. It’s hard to say the same about a soup kitchen who baldly state: “The only condition required for dining with us: eat pork.”

***

It is easy for me; I could happily live a life in which food was not an issue of great social and political importance, but every now and again something nudges me awake.

The Man on the Train

The man on the train leans forward: ‘I did not put my ticket in the machine – is okay? I have not used the train before.’
‘It’s fine, as long as you have a ticket, yeah?’
‘I have’

He is tanned, with a friendly fatty face, roughened by stubble. His eyes and nose bulge disarmingly. Spanish.

He complains about the number of stops to Oxford: ‘Is 20 stops!’
‘You going to Oxford then?’ I ask.
‘No, Hayes,’ he replies. ‘I have never been outside London. Except to Brighton.’
‘London-On-Sea.’
‘Yeah, if London had the sea…’
‘Oxford is quite nice though- the river and the, um… forests.’
I’m not too good on conversation.

Now I notice his red Ferrari shirt. I am confused. Italian? Surely not; he’s far too engaging.

Couldn’t he just be a Spaniard wearing a Ferrari shirt? I begin to doubt myself. Not Italian, not Spanish. I’m out of ideas.

‘Where are you from?’ I ask.
He replies: ‘Lebanon.’

The smile on my face freezes for a moment as I ponder where I have heard that name recently.

Holy shit, I remember: World War III just broke out.

‘Oh…’ I manage, eloquently, as I feel the muscles of my face frantically reconfiguring to register Concern.
‘… Gosh.’
‘Yeah. It is bad.’

At this point I am thrown into shock mode: I follow his monologue with little more than nods, shakes, tuts, buts and ahs.

‘Last night was the worst. My street, I live in South of Beirut, my street is bombed.’
‘Your family?’
He wrings his phone in frustration: ‘I have been trying. I cannot. My sister. They’re not answering.’

He looks pained: ‘No electric, no water – it’s summer, yes? People will die without fan, without water. They forget what is water, what is electric.’

I look down at my bottle of water.

‘South Beirut is like Zone 6 London: all tall houses for all the people, not small houses like this,’ he gestures out the window to a field of warehouses.

‘All tall buildings, all gone. You must understand: all Lebanon is Hizbollah: they are not army, they are not terrorists, they are people.

‘I am Hizbollah, my family is Hizbollah, you are – like you are English – they want to kill everybody.

‘Like Hitler bombed London in 1940, 1945, 1948, I forget these dates, he aims to get everyone. Israel wants to kill everyone.’

He gestures constantly, out the window, at my water, with his phone, up to the sky. His eyes thrust in every direction; my retinas burn when I meet his look.

‘When will it stop? They say today it will not stop. It will stop when we give them anything they want.

‘Since Wednesday they are bombing the airport. And there is English, American, French there on holiday, you know? Helicopters come to take them away – what about us?

‘How can Lebanon defend itself? It is big country against small country – like England against London.’

He realises this doesn’t capture the scale. ‘Or Britain against Luxembourg or…’ His eyes light up and a finger punches into his palm: ‘Malta.’

‘This morning the Israelis say to the border towns you must leave they want to make it to the ground.’
‘They want to flatten them?’
‘Because they want…’ He stares accusingly at the fields rushing past through the window and slices his hand through the air, palm down. ‘… A clear view.’

‘And all the people in these border towns are poor, not like the people in London, in Oxford – they are all rich more or less, not like in the border towns. They are all poor and the UN says no to these people because you know in 1996 the UN building it gets…’ He punches down through the air.
‘Bombed?’
‘And the UN says no so the people get into trucks you know, trucks that they load with stones and rocks, and the Israelis bomb them.’

‘Newspapers here don’t show anything. You must see these pictures – find an Arabic channel, you’ll see the pictures: a child’s arm, you know,’ he bares his arm and grips his shoulder, ‘without the body.’

‘A baby’s head,’ he cups his hands together, ‘smaller than, smaller than…’ He leans forward describing a small sphere in the air with his hands frantically before throwing himself back in his seat, eyes despairing his linguistic failure.
‘Smaller than… a football.’

‘The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Mirror they are all for the Israelis. Hitler did not do so bad to Jews as they say, he didn’t burn them, kill them… Anyway that was in World War.’ He brings his hands together to indicate global cataclysm.

‘Americans, English, French always with Israelis. We have only god to help us, we forget about these people: we live, we die. Not like here where you live, you enjoy, you die.

‘If we die now, 5 years, 10 years is no matter for us. And then they make a film, Hollywood film, out of our lives and will only show Israelis dying.’

I proffer support: ‘But not everyone is with the Israelis, I mean, the intelligent, none of my friends agree with what the Israelis have done…’

He cuts me off: ‘Well they must do something. They are meeting now in St Petersburg and Bush says Israel are defending themselves. They must stop this now.’

We both see Hayes and Harlington pull into view.

‘I must get off here,’ he says. ‘It’s been nice talking to you.’

I shake his hand as he stands; I struggle to my feet and touch him on the shoulder, desperately signing comradeship.
‘I hope your family are alright.’
‘It is life, my friend.’

He is gone. I sit down heavily and gaze hopelessly at the people around me, they seem unaware of our conversation.

I wish I’d asked his name.


This conversation occurred on Sunday the 16th of July 2006 on the 13:48 train from London Paddington to Oxford, between London Paddington and Hayes and Harlington. I spent the rest of the journey writing down everything he said.

The 2006 Lebanon War is believed to have killed between 1,191 and 1,300 Lebanese people, and 165 Israelis.

It severely damaged Lebanese civil infrastructure, and displaced approximately one million Lebanese and 300,000–500,000 Israelis.

Carmen in Seville

All I knew about my host was that she was called Carmen and was ‘looking forward to poisoning me’. At least that’s what my ‘Welcome To Seville’ introductory letter should have said. Perhaps I might have sensed the dark portents of staying with a Carmen in the city of Seville, but I was optimistic and knew absolutely nothing about opera.

So it was that, in the blistering sunlight of high noon, underneath a sky of the deepest, most photogenic blue, I found myself outside an anonymous looking apartment block. Once I circled it- like a matador about his fated prey. Twice I circled it again- as if I were a bailaor caught up in the flamenco of a furious pasión. Thrice and again around- increasingly like a hapless Englishman who couldn’t find the blasted door.

Having eventually located an entrance, I struggled up the stairs in the heat. Carmen kindly made herself known by banging something disturbingly metallic against the door; she was the one in pyjamas. I made my way inside and took a sharp intake of breath. Not from any shock or horror, I just don’t find stale air very comfortable on the lungs. Many florid hand gestures exchanged between us and I assumed I was welcomed to her cosy casa.

Taking refuge in my designated cell, I perused a notice on the back of the door. This was, essentially, a list of benevolent injunctions from my host, such as ‘No food in room’, ‘No TV in room’ and ‘No guests in room’. Added to the list were some, rather disparaging, additions made by previous guests, which Carmen had not been astute enough to delete.

A sharp knock startles me, and my host gurns at me from a round the frame:
‘Would you like some lunch?’ (translation of frantic hand-to-mouth signals).
‘Yes please, that would be lovely’ (international language of cheerful nodding).
She closes the door and the sound of pots and pans being clashed together breaks the quiet, still heat: magnífico! Two minutes elapse before another rap on the door – ah! – she’ll be asking if I want an aperitivo with some deliciously smoked jamón and queso before the speciality paella de la casa –
‘Lunch is ready’ she signs.

I take this opportunity to show-off my advanced Spanish: ‘Qué?!’
I enter the kitchen to see on my plate the culinary equivalent of a multi-lane motorway pile-up: a deep-fried sausage juggernaut has smashed into the twisted wreckage of a microwaved meatball and spilled its load of deep-fried potatoes all over the oil drenched tomato salad. The fact that the emergency services were not immediately called is something that astounds me to this day.
We ate in joint silence in front of the television: mine explained by a mixture of disbelief and nausea; hers by a fascination with the death of the pope. I was prepared for a culture shock, but this was a little hard to swallow.

I spent the afternoon prostrate on a park bench, wallowing in gastric distress: bloated and oozing oil and fat, desperately burping and scraping my tongue in some futile effort to cleanse my palate. When the park attendant began to tire of this display, I dragged myself back to the flat, just in time to witness Carmen deep-fry dinner for herself. Although from this evidence I couldn’t be certain that she lived on a diet of battered offal, as I tossed and turned in my bed that night, bowels a-shudder, I thought of the weeks ahead and decided that I wouldn’t be the sucker who found out.

I rose early and composed a fiendishly ambiguous note in my worst Spanish, which I propped, suggestively, against the poisonous deep fryer. Then, taking one last, ill-advised, lungful of Carmen’s air, I skulked out of the apartment.

I bounded down the stairs, sensing freedom so close, but – alas! – blocking the door to the street with razor-sharp teeth and menacing bark was a fierce dog, hackles raised. Ok, ok- he was the size of a rabbit with a bark that was more of an irritating yap, but the teeth looked sharp alright. I dithered uncertainly, then suddenly strode forward and threw the door wide open! Without so much as a backward glance the dog was away, head down, tail up, flying down the open road. Never before have I shared such a feeling of camaraderie with a canine.

As far as mortal operatic revenge goes, loosing the local dog probably seems a little anticlimactic, but I thought, on balance, that a swift dagger to the breast would have been a bit harsh on old Carmen. So I hitched up my bag and stepped out into the early morning sunlight, which was already tangoing playfully over the surface of the languid Guadalquivir.

Travel expenses: Spain & Morocco 2005

In the Spring of 2005, I travelled to Spain and Morocco to study Spanish and tour el-Andalus and the land of the Moors. These were my travel costs:

Flights (to and from Spain):

£84.48

Spanish travel costs:

£1055.06
39 days @ £27.05 / day
Travel primarily by coach: Sevilla, Cordoba, Granada, Madrid, Gibraltar

Spanish language school (including accommodation):

£356.50
14 days @ £25.46 / day

Morocco travel costs:

£177.91
14 days @ £12.71 / day
Travel primarily on bus and train: Tangiers, Rabat, Marrakech, Casablanca, Essaouira, Fes, Chefchaouen