Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Thousand and One Nights

I enjoyed this piece -- Ode To A four-Letter Word, by Kathryn Schulz -- and thought you might, too. It's worth reading just for the word "prisserati". I don't suppose I'll ever actually buy a copy, but just knowing that there now exists a spoof kids' book entitled Go The Fuck To Sleep makes me smile with recognition, as it doubtless will any other parents out there. As I have said before, the secret shame of all parents is how narrow the line can become, at 3 a.m., that divides "perfectly normal response" from "call Social Services".

Now that my kids are virtually indistinguishable from adult human beings -- to the untrained eye, at least -- it is poignant to be reminded how fervently, 15 or 20 years ago, I sometimes wished for the day to arrive when this would be the case. You forget. After all, nursing a sick child into the small hours, and changing bedclothes covered in vomit for the third time, when you have an important meeting first thing in the morning is not a memory to look back on with any fondness, even if it is a true measure of parental commitment. It does, however, explain why those in the higher reaches of any profession tend to be male, childless, or wealthy enough to afford live-in childcare.

But you also forget how charmingly weird small children are. It's like sharing your house with elves, or some other small, bafflingly alien species. I was reading through an old notebook the other day, and was delighted to discover that I had documented my children's early attempts at language, and the ways they found to entertain themselves. These seemed often to cross over into the territory of performance art.

My son had an activity known as "planging", which involved stretching threads of cotton across a room, onto which he would hang carefully-chosen arrays of plastic animal figures and dinosaurs. My daughter pursued a complementary project known as "pic-nics": neat assemblages of items in odd corners of the floor, and quite often composed on a step of the staircase. Given these impediments could remain in place for days, even weeks, to venture out of a bedroom in our house at night required full alertness, and was like the scene in a caper movie where the jewel thief cunningly evades laser detection devices and booby traps. Or, in the absence of full consciousness, it was more like the scene in a Steve Martin movie where the parent steps on a stray skate and takes an elaborate, serial pratfall.

They escaped Planging,
only to be Picnicked

It is a curious fact of human development that a child's memory is pretty much wiped at age three. Virtually no-one has a true memory from their infancy, and anything before age 5 is usually pretty vague or suspiciously clear. This is probably just as well, as it's a humiliatingly helpless time, and no-one should be haunted for the rest of their life by visions of red-eyed, snarling parents fighting back the anger at being woken up yet again to chase away the monsters in the room. We are the monsters in your room, kid.

But, as parents, we'd like to think those thousand and one nights are not completely forgotten, that some kind of karmic reward is stored up, somewhere, for sitting there night after night, hour after hour -- sometimes reading aloud, sometimes muttering angry profanities, sometimes brooding silently in the darkness -- trying to perform the alchemy that converts wakefulness into sleep.

And, if the truth be told, I have never felt so acutely aware of being alive, before or since, or of being so intimately connected to humanity's history, as I did then. Or perhaps I should say, more acutely aware of being awake. Wakefulness is its own reward, perhaps. But now, of course, it's me that can't sleep at 3 a.m. and I have to say I'm beginning to suspect they were right all along about those monsters.


Paul Bradforth said...

Amazing! I'd just read that article myself an hour before, finding it completely by accident, wrote to my daughter in London about it, received her reply telling me how good she thought it was, and then I see your post … it must be one of 'they coincidences'!

Mike C. said...


Well, it is a nice piece, and deserves passing around. I saw it on the "Arts & Letters Daily" digest today, which is my favourite way of postponing getting down to work...

They also point to a nice column by Terry Eagleton (if that's a familiar name to you -- I appreciate he's not a household name) doing a "grumpy old man" schtick. Not something I'd ever thought my favourite Marxist cultural theorist would do.


Paul Bradforth said...

Ah, that was it—Arts & Letters Daily! These things are always simpler than you think, and the Internet can be quite a small place. If I hadn't seen it there though, I'd have picked it up from your post as, although I don't think I've commented before, I always enjoy your posts; many of your pictures speak to me on a level that I don't quite understand, but like a lot.
Terry Eagleton was new to me, but I enjoyed the piece and shall watch out for him in future; thanks!

Mike C. said...


"many of your pictures speak to me on a level that I don't quite understand, but like a lot" -- many thanks for that, which is a fine compliment, and which I appreciate.

N.B. anyone who is wondering about "Arts & Letters Daily", there's a link from this blog over on the right of the main page.


Martyn Cornell said...

"They tuck you up, your mum and dad,
Then sing a lullaby or two;
Or read you stories that THEY'D had,
And add some extra, just for you."

I had a non-sleeping daughter, who had to be sung to (Morningtown Ride" was a favourite), with her hand gripping your finger, until she finally wandered into the Land of Nod (which, as Genesis 4:16 tells us, is East of Eden). This went on until she was six or seven, and it could take half an hour or more before she was irredemably asleep. I found, however, that I never minded: I was giving up not very much of my time, to give her the gift of slumber. Since I WAS generally a fairly crap father, it seemed a small thing to do for her.

Mike C. said...


I like that Adrian Mitchell, almost in proportion to the degree I dislike the Larkin that it parodies (odd, for a parody to be kinder than the original).

I like your story, too -- reminds me of the greater truth that it's love, not anger, that actually gets us out of bed at 3 a.m.

If there's one thing in my life I have never regretted, it's having children. They sign you up to taking part in the world in a way nothing else can. Without them, I'd have been a sour, cynical s-o-b by now (or more so -- for God's sake don't talk to the people that work with me...)