Only once before I moved to London had I suffered from insomnia, in the weeks leading up to a long trip to Madagascar. Deeply unsure of what I had let myself in for, going to work as a research assistant on a project based in the middle of a forest, miles from civilisation, and with a brain mightily addled by pre-trip anti-malarials, I tossed and turned for weeks. My first night in Antananarivo, the wild island's capital, on a damp foam mattress shared with 3 other people, I slept like a baby. The following 2 months, on a deflating air-mattress, under nothing more than a sheet and a mosquito net, watched by orange-eyed lemurs and noisy night-chattering birds, I slept better than I could remember ever before.
Yet here, in a comfortable double bed, in a silent street in London, I am currently struggling. So I stop fighting and listen. London at night has a particular sound for me. When I was little my parents would bring me to the city to visit my grandparents, who lived right in the middle of the action, in a large house near the city centre. As the grown-ups dined downstairs, I remember being put to bed, at the very top of my grandparents terraced house. In an unfamiliar bed, and totally overexcited to be in the big city, I never wanted to go to sleep. As the faint sound of glassware tinkling and adults chattering wound up to the top floor, I would slide out of bed and creep to the window-seat, which was the perfect size for a small fidgety girl to perch on. Staring out I could see little, except dark night and the odd light behind shutters in a house opposite, so I would just listen.
I heard cars zoom by, the Kings Road finally unclogged by this time in the day, and buses swishing doors open and closed. Taxis stopped to pick up passengers from pavements and I heard them request destinations I could not make out (and frankly they would not have meant much to me if I had been able). I loved the thrum of airplanes criss-crossing the sky; I would doze to this sound, dreaming of glamorous people arriving back home from exotic holidays in the dead of night. Somewhere there was always the wail of an emergency services siren; a nippy police car or a heavy swaying ambulance. This response to a cry for help, to many cries across the city, should have made me fear this place - here was a city where people were being hurt or were in danger a lot, if the siren count was anything to go by. But for the 10 year old me it was a lullaby of city-music, weaving together voices, vehicles, and the odd bird's nighttime serenade.
Ask me to shut my eyes and play me those exact same sounds and I am right back in my grandparents house, and in my 10 year old self's London. As I lie in my own house now, no longer a wide-eyed child, I cannot hear the cars and the buses, the lorries or taxis - I live on a pedestrianised street, however, so I'm not suggesting a great sea-change in the late-night symphony of the city. I still hear the omnipresent sirens, signaling pain and wrong-doing somewhere near. The reminder of the hideous extremes of life within a city; the mixture of wealth and poverty, of danger and safety. I still hear the planes overhead (even nearer now that my slumbering-place is closer to Heathrow). When the weather is bad, and they descend to a lower altitude, our street could almost be part of the runway they sound so close. A keen plane-spotter could probably tell the time from their regular sky-high to-ings and fro-ings. I sometimes hear our local fox yelping; an immensely tame and jolly chap totally unfazed by late-night drunken residents crashing home or young people on bikes tearing through his patch. Once I swear I even heard an unlikely barn-owl.
Tossing and turning and listening, these sounds vocalise for me the 24 hour life of a city such as London. Across the streets and roads and parks and river there must be thousands of other people awake and hearing these sounds, gripped by insomnia or with a valid reason for such late night/early morning activity. But, as ever in the city, every individual is part of something bigger, a thought in which my frustrated sleepless self finds consolation, and even sometimes the peace to drift off again.