Some of my earliest memories are of sitting up with my equally insomniac mother in the middle of the night, drinking milky tea and eating Barmouth biscuits in the kitchen of our Glasgow flat. Because it was on the top storey, you could see the windows of all the flats in the next street along, and there would always be a sprinkling of lit windows, besides ours. Another person who couldn’t sleep? A mother up with a fractious baby? Someone working odd shifts? A sign that we weren’t the only people awake in our small universe anyway.
Fast forward several years and I was a student in Edinburgh, always finding somewhere to live that was within walking distance of the George Square campus. And I did walk, specially at night when I couldn’t sleep. It was safe in those days, even for a teenage girl.
Since the 1980s I’ve lived in predominantly rural areas — firstly in a village which had street-lighting but no particularly interesting streets or buildings, and where walking around at night would have (perversely, I admit) felt much more risky than walking in a large town. For the last ten years, my home’s been in an even more rural spot, with no street lighting and no prospect of seeing the occasional reassuring lit window. I couldn’t imagine being a nighthawk here. It’s a distinctly urban privilege, I think. Perhaps, in my case at least, it’s a matter of ‘born a townie, always a townie’. I’ve resorted to listening to Radio 4 all night with earbuds while cosily tucked up in bed.
The insomnia has stayed with me — but not the opportunity to walk at night along urban streets with comforting prospects of not only the occasional late-night cafe or shop but the odd lit window in a house or flat that offers a frisson of fellow-feeling in an otherwise silent and deserted world. I think it’s what has always drawn me to the paintings of Edward Hopper — because the most famous, Nighthawks, is far from being Hopper’s only depiction of the urban insomniac.
So nowadays I need to get my fix of the nighthawk experience vicariously. Via people such as Cambridge street photographer Martin Bond, whose daily @acambridgediary shots on Twitter are always a delight — particularly (to me, at least) his #sleeplessincambridge series.
A commentator on one of Martin’s pics also led me to the ‘Cambridge Wartime Mysteries’ series of novels by Jim Kelly, which features a lead character and various supporting ones who are most definitely nighthawks.
The main character in my last novel and in the one I’m currently working on is, like me, a frustrated nighthawk — though she does at least still live in Glasgow! I’m just left wondering: how do the other rural nighthawks like me cope? Owl-spotting doesn’t (to me) hold anything like the attraction of those moody, edgy night-time streets.
Many thanks to Martin Bond for giving me permission to use some of his photos.