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Column: The nights of an Oxford insomniac

Matthew Arnold once described Oxford as the city of dreaming spires. Thing is you can only dream, if you can sleep, which sometimes I can’t. I’ve suffered from bouts of insomnia for years and it has taught me a lot. I know every mindfulness technique in the book, my sleep hygiene is immaculate, and when being perfect doesn’t do the trick, I’ve found dozens of other ways to occupy the time without waking my flatmates. 

Long before my first involuntarily sleepless night, I remember binge-reading the Twilight series secretly under the covers. Edward Cullen’s account of being alone after dark accurately captured the boredom, but unfortunately all this extra time spent awake hasn’t given me intellectual super powers, only bags under my eyes, and an intolerance for the mundane drudgery of the day. Insomnia didn’t make me a vampire, it made me a bitch.

Oxford is a completely different city at night, and one in which I truly feel at home.

That’s not to say nothing good has come out of the extra time I spend awake. In the small hours, when there’s no one but yourself and whatever monsters your mind conjures up in the dark for company, there is ample time for self reflection. Oxford is a completely different city at night, and one in which I truly feel at home. When the kebab vans have driven off, and the last of the ATIK crowd has staggered to one bed or another, the city is transformed to a dim kind of peace.

I don’t think Arnold was the only writer to draw inspiration from these dreaming spires. Without the trademark tourists of the modern city, the magic Lewis, Carroll, Tolkien and so many others saw in these streets begins to creep into view. Winding alleys, yellow street lamps, cobblestone pavements, devoid of the bustle of busy people and bikes, are laid bare. 

But maybe that’s the tiredness talking. When you are fighting to stay upright, but unable to really let go, your senses begin to take some creative liberties with what they tell you. The longer you go without sleep, the more the magic of the night starts to creep into the day time, and the world becomes a whirlwind of madness as waking dreams take over from reality.

Like I said, insomnia can teach you a lot. I wouldn’t recommend trying it yourself. Instead, read this column, where I hope to chronicle the weird and wonderful of the world between dusk and dawn, and share the ways I have gotten through these periods of my life, and emerged more energised than ever.

Image: Image created by the author using AI