For many years, I had a cartoon by Michael Leunig on my noticeboard, which articulated one of the hilarious paradoxes of modern life. A father and son sit together, transfixed by a beautiful sunrise on their TV screen, while the real sun rises, unnoticed outside the window behind them.
If it was true fifteen years ago, it’s worryingly, ubiquitously true today. We’re so busy ‘experiencing’ things via our computers, TVs, cameras, phones and social media, that it’s quite possible we’re missing out on actually experiencing anything at all. Think about the last time you went to a concert. When you looked out across the crowd, what did you see? Thousands of blue mobile phone screens, as people held their phones up to photograph or video the show. Remember the good old days, way back in the 80s, when we’d sway through the power ballads, holding a lighter above our heads? There are lots of reasons why that’s not a good idea anymore: naked flames in a crowded concert venue, hardly anyone smokes anymore, and anyway, power ballads just aren’t what they used to be now that artists’ hair is so much smaller. Nevertheless, I’m sure you grasp the analogy. There was a naïve, cheesy, in-the-moment pleasure to be had from the lighter, which is missing when you’re holding up your iPhone and plotting to be the first to upload to YouTube.
Indeed, is anything in life fascinating, funny or tragic anymore if we’re not OMGing or LOLing about it on facebook or twitter? Do you also translate everything in your life into 140-character epigrams as it happens? The Internet is an amazing and wonderful thing and I welcome the way it’s blasted the world of communication wide open in ways we could never have imagined. But I do sometimes wonder if it means we live an externalised, and somehow slightly emptier life than we used to. Yes, yes, we’re all expressing ourselves. And we are, like mad. Social networking, blogging (and I do not miss the irony that I’m blogging this thought right now), discussion forums, comment threads on every news story we read… we’re expressing until we’re blue in the fingers.
It’s a trend which predates the current age of the Internet. Think of the recent tradition of marking road accident sites with flowers and tributes. Think of slogan t-shirts and bumper stickers. Witness the enormous rise of people with tattoos, expressing their affiliations.
I read a report in the paper some months ago about happiness, where the researchers discovered that the happiest group of people were people without financial worries and in good health – and in their seventies. While it’s by no means the whole story, I think that a small part of that happiness may come from having spent the majority of their lives in a pre-‘expression’ era. Maybe they’re just better than us at recognising that a simple, ordinary, everyday moment can contain pure happiness. A perfect cup of tea, the laughter of your children and grandchildren, a lovely garden, a much-loved song. And maybe they’re better at just sitting quietly, happily and alone, in that moment, and then letting it pass.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to turn away from the screen, and look out of the window.
On Friday, I took Ted to the park. It was a glorious evening, a real English summer idyll. Dogs gambolled, children ran laughing and the sun shone on the beautiful gardens. At the top of a grassy slope, a man had set up his easel and was painting a view of the park. I glanced idly at his picture – it wasn’t up to much – and Ted and I walked by. We stopped a few yards away, and a breeze sent me a scent of the man’s paint box. Suddenly, without warning, my eyes were full of tears.
Standing in a park in North West London in 2011, I found myself time-and-place-warped 15 years and 6,000 miles, to my parents’ dining room in Greenside, Johannesburg. Every weekend of my childhood and beyond, if you came into the house, my father would be sitting on a dining room chair, working on his latest painting. The smell of oil paint and turpentine brought that image to me, and with it a flood of memories of my father and, absurdly, all sorts of long-forgotten details of my childhood home: the cool, smooth feel of the granite windowsills and the curly burglar bars, the taste of my mother’s Beef Stroganoff, and the wonderful 80s corduroy couch, which, after all these years, still holds the title of Official Best Sofa to Have a Nap on Ever.
The painter and the other visitors to the park must have thought I was barking: a grown woman following a toddler around and crying big tears, but to be honest, no one was more surprised than I. I hadn’t been thinking about my father, about South Africa, even about the past. But all it took was one whiff of paint smell and everything changed. I experienced a profound emotional reaction, much more powerful than I would have had if someone had rung me up and said, “Remember your dad painting?” or if I’d seen a photo of our old dining room. And I wasn’t quite sure why.
So I asked my friend Dr Catherine Loveday . It’s immensely convenient having a friend who is a cognitive neuroscientist when these questions arise. I’ll paraphrase her explanation, and I hope she’ll forgive me for any errors I make: she did explain it to me on the balcony at a very loud party when I’d had a few glasses of wine.
The human brain handles sensory information in two different ways. Apparently sight, hearing, touch and taste feed into a part of the brain called the Thalamus, a sort of multi-media centre which processes the information and allocates it to the right bits of the brain. Smell goes to the Thalamus too, but it also feeds straight into the emotional and memory part of the brain, triggering a more instant and unthinking reaction. This, of course, dates back to our more dangerous past, when we were by no means the top of the food chain. If you caught a whiff of meaty halitosis and fur, you needed to be off and up a tree before you had time to muse about whether or not it was a sabre tooth tiger.
We may not need it to survive anymore, but smell still has the power to evoke memory powerfully, and to arouse intense emotional response. Don’t believe me? Go and sniff a baby’s head. Wander through the perfume section of a department store and spray a squirt of something an old lover used to wear. Smell some flowers. I know that every time I smell jasmine,
I find myself back at high school. Every spring, we’d all pluck sprigs off the jasmine bush in the quad and put them in the house buttons on our gymslips so we could sniff them walking between classes. The smell of bus diesel in the rain takes me back to my first visit to London when I was five. If I’m walking through a crowded station and I catch a trace of CKOne, my heart leaps and I look around for my husband. It’s the aftershave he wore on our first few dates. He still wears it today, but the smell of it takes me back to those crazy, sleepless days and nights when we fell in love.
Cath also told me that the parts of our brain that handle smell and the memory centre are in such close proximity that Alzheimer’s patients often lose their sense of smell as they lose their memories. That made me very sad for those who suffer that terrible loss, but immensely grateful that I still have most of my marbles and the ability to smell and remember. In a funny way, as long as I still have turpentine and oil paint, I still have my crazy, wonderful, difficult father with me.
Last night, Ted slept through the night. Well, as close to through the night as he ever does, which means he didn't stir until 4am, when he got in with me, and then woke up for good around 6. I went to bed at 11pm, which means I slept undisturbed for five hours, the single longest stretch I have had in more than two years.
Yes, as many of you will know, Ted is a hard-core non-sleeper. When he was tiny, around four months, he began what Tom and I now refer to as the twilight time… a six-month stretch where he woke every 45 minutes to an hour from the time we put him down until the morning. For most of that time, Tom was his primary carer, and I was working full-time.
It is apparently illegal under the Geneva Convention to use sleep deprivation as a torture technique, so we took a kind of perverse pleasure in thinking that there were probably prisoners in Guantanamo Bay having an easier time than we were. If you’ve not experienced it, let me tell you that extreme tiredness feels like flu. Your joints ache, you feel feverish, your skin is sensitive and you’re convinced you’re coming down with a virus. That is until the instrument of your torture shows you some mercy and you get a few hours’ sleep, whereupon your symptoms disappear immediately.
Everyone we know has had an opinion on what we should do about it, from co-sleeping to shutting him in another room and letting him scream it out. We’ve done loads of research, sought professional advice and tried quite a few things, none of which have worked long-term, and ultimately we’ve just decided that this is who he is. He’s a light sleeper, easily disturbed, and needs less sleep than most children (and many adults). Still, he’s better now… not a great sleeper, but better than the bad old nights. From waking 11 times a night, he’s down to once or twice, and ultimately, he’ll grow out of it. If there’s one thing having an older child teaches you, it’s that this too shall pass. Every phase they go through that you agonise over, Google, join a discussion forum about… well, most of them will be gone before you know it. I’ve never met a teenager that didn't sleep through the night. So in ten years’ time, I should be getting my full eight hours. It’s a scant comfort, but it’s all I’ve got.
That is, of course, if Ted’s evil twin is as merciful. You see, it’s not always my darling toddler that wakes me in the small hours. More often than not, as he breathes quietly beside me, it’s my other, impish offspring… Insomnia. She’s a fiendish little rascal. Often, as I lie in bed, trying to fall asleep, she’ll whisper in my ear. “What about that load of laundry?” she’ll say, or, “So have you really brought in enough money this month? How are you going to find more work?” If I manage to ignore her and start drifting off, she’ll tug at the duvet. “He’s going to wake up any minute,” Insomnia says reasonably, pointing to Ted. “No point in going to sleep.”
If I do fall asleep, she’ll often scratch at my toes, giggle hysterically and point at the clock, just so I know it’s only been 15 minute since I dozed off. Then, in the small hours, she jerks me awake, and then lies beside me muttering an endless stream of words and thoughts until my head buzzes, all the while pointing out the ever-diminishing tally of hours until I have to get up.
Yes, I know it’s an extended metaphor, but no, I am not mad (or not yet anyway). And in case you were thinking it, I have no plans to name any future daughter Insomnia. No one would ever do that. Or would they?
I’ve made a habit over the last while of collecting the most outlandish children’s names I’ve heard in parks and playgrounds. There’s a clear correlation between the poshness of the park and the lunacy of the names. In Queen’s Park we met little Horatio. In a park near Highgate, an adorable toddler called Geronimo. In Hampstead the other day, a lovely brother and sister called Inigo and Armanelle. All of these children bore their unusual labels with charm and innocent grace. However this week, on the Tube, I encountered a formidable lady accompanied by her teenage son. He must have been about 14, at that stage where teenage boys are crippled with awkwardness, where the act of travelling in public view on the underground with your MOTHER is enough to make every cell in your body cringe. His name, which she uttered in piercing, posh tones? Mortimer. Now that’s parental revenge if I ever heard it. Maybe he was named John at birth, and then he refused to sleep. Be warned, Ted… or should I say… Norbert?
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.