Hand on a thigh: waking with a difference on a long haul flight

On my recent overnight flight from China to Australia, I found myself seated in a row of four with two seats free and a woman at the other end of the row. Dinner was eaten, a movie watched and then each of us sttempted to get comfortable for the night. We tried to stretch out on two seats each, without much success. So I suggested she stretch out her legs and lie against the seat backs and I would stretch out in reverse and lie down in the remaining space. So we were able to lie down at full stretch, heads at either end of the row of four seats. I found a pair of smelly socks close to my nose, my consolation being that my socks were even more aromatic beside her nose. But I soon fell asleep. Some hours later I woke to find my hand resting on her somewhat ample thigh. I sheepishly removed it and smiled a good morning.

I was not quite sure what to expect: a slap or a kiss good morning. Instead, she was keen to talk and asked me what I did. I mentioned writing on Marxism and religion, researching in Australia and teaching in China, my children, travel etc. She, it turned out, was the head of a major company, married and with a brood of children. To top it off, she was a fundamentalist Christian who had found the command to obey her husband immensely helpful – she told me with Bible in hand. She was used to calling all the shots, so it was a relief to be able to let him do so some of the time. So on we chatted until the plane landed. But neither of us mentioned my wandering hand or her thigh. At least it broke the ice.


Should you provide clean sheets when guests stay the night?

At this time of year, more people than usual tend to stay the night for whatever reason. The polite thing to do as a host is provide clean sheets, clean towels, and a clean bathroom (at least). But then you have to wash the whole damn lot after they leave. So may I suggest a more practical approach: save the washing until after they have left. Who will notice that the sheets have been slept in already, that the towels are a bit on the nose, or that the bathroom has scum and streaks all over it? Alternatively, it may be more practical to keep some linen for guests – just wash it after, say, a dozen guests have used it.

The myth of the three hour sleeper

The more I hear this one, the more I am skeptical: ‘I need only three hours sleep a night’. The catch is that you can do that only with the cursed alarm clock. And you might be able to kid yourself after many years that you are operating at your best after that brief horizontal stretch. But not so, zombie. Most people know that sleep goes roughly in 1.5 hour cycles, ranging from deep sleep to rapid eye movement sleep (REM).

But it also changes after about 3-4 hours. The deep sleep of that first phase does all those necessary things to your body – process alcohol, repair wounds, muscles and nerves, ease those wrinkles. But then you get hit with the second phase and all its REM. This is the time for grand voyages, scary moments, horny dreams, and whatnot. It’s when the brain processes a whole pile of crap, solving problems that seemed insurmountable the night before. Get that sleep and in the morning you’re carvin’ it. Miss it and you get distracted and cranky, make mistakes, manage mechanical tasks but not sustained thought. In other words, life is crap and you feel like death warmed up.

All this reminds me of the triple-8 campaign by the unions. It wasn’t a campaign for the 8-hour day; it was for 8 hours work, 8 hours sleep and 8 hours leisure. I guess it all comes from living in a solar system with one sun, on a planet that does its impressive spin roughly every 24 hours. It would of course be somewhat different if we had two suns and different cycles, but we’re stuck with this one.

Three hours sleep a night, or a proposal to ban coffee

I come across more and more people who claim they can manage perfectly well on three or four hours sleep a night. Some people, it is pointed out, simply need less sleep than others. I’m an eight or nine hour man myself, so am happy to grant this desire for less sleep to those less fortunate than me. But I can’t help noticing the permanent bags under the eyes, the deep wrinkles around eyes and mouths that are normally associated with those in their sixties and seventies, the short fuses, the curious accidents that seem to happen when one is running on adrenaline and chronic lack of sleep. This short-sleep thing seems more prevalent among those who like to exercise some sort of power (however small), feeling perhaps that the extra hours of wakefulness will give them the edge over their rivals.

Actually, I suspect this zombie phenomenon has been assisted magnificently by the Western addiction to caffeine. Since I have not been able to imbibe caffeine or alcohol, I have noticed how prevalent are those takeaway mugs in the hands of people rushing to work in the morning, the various caffeine soft drinks knocked back with impressive speed, the scruffy burnt-finger baristas plying their dubious craft on nearly every street corner, addicts hanging out for what claims to be the best coffee in town. And then, having wound the body up into crisis mode with caffeine, in comes the alcohol in the evenings to wind down – the suppressant to negate the stimulant of earlier, beating away at the heart’s sino-atrial node. Come to think of it, Hitler had a liking for uppers and downers … and look what happened to him.

So what would the West look like if coffee were suddenly banned? A massive sleep-in to catch up, an impossibly irritable population, a revolution? Nah, revolutions need more substance, but I’d love to be the one enacting the ban.

Lost in Transylvania

As some of you may know, I have recently spent a week in Transylvania with some of the best hosts in the world. It began in Bucharest, from where I took the ‘express’ to Baia Mare, the second last stop on the route.

‘Express’ meant it stopped at every second station, and in between it rolled along at a very leisurely pace – absolutely the best way to travel. 14 hours it took, for 690km:

Once in Transylvania (Maramureş to be exact) I enjoyed the mating rituals of the locals:

Was intrigued by the burial practices:

Was drawn to diabolically spicy Reformed churches:

And even more alluring Orthodox churches in the villages:

I even went to a rock concert:

But what really intrigued me was the fact that students and professors have different toilets – the professors a type of unisex arrangement:

Throughout this time, I kept being offered clear liquid in plastic bottles, which I naturally thought was water. Ţuică is its name, I was told, although I couldn’t figure out why it was served in small earthenware vessels and had a rather fiery taste. Which is probably why I thought this was the main road home:

By the time I realised I had been swilling the 60% proof plum-brandy, the locals were ready to celebrate my departure with gay abandon:

Can’t wait to return …

Of lice, peasants and freedom: Arthur Ransome on the Russian Revolution

Some of the best materials on the Russian Revolution remain those works written at the time, especially those that capture the mood in a way that all-knowing historians pretend to do afterwards. Arthur Ransome’s two little books, Russia in 1919 and The Crisis in Russia, are great examples. He lived in Petrograd from 1903, so pretty much saw it all. He had access to the inner circles of Bolshevik leadership, attending meetings of the executive committee, interviewing the likes of Lenin, Zinoviev, Sverdlov and so on, and he was part of worker meetings and experienced every day life during the best and worst times. Plus the pommie bugger can write.

Translator, folklorist, journalist, Ransome is listed in a Who’s Who at the time as a lover of ‘walking, smoking, fairy tales’. Even more: ‘It is, perhaps, his intimacy with the last named that enables him to distinguish between myth and fact and that makes his activity as an observer and recorder so valuable in a day of bewilderment and betrayal’.

A few snippets:

There was the feeling, from which we could never escape, of the creative effort of the revolution. There was the thing that distinguishes the creative from other artists, the living, vivifying expression of something hitherto hidden in the consciousness of humanity. If this book were to be an accurate record of my impressions, all the drudgery, gossip, quarrels, arguments, events and experiences it contains would have to be set against a background of that extraordinary vitality which obstinately persists in Moscow in these dark days of discomfort, disillusion, pestilence, starvation and unwanted war (Russia in 1919, p. vi-vii, in the midst of the ‘civil’ war, which included 160,000 troops from a dozen countries invading the USSR).

On the train to Moscow:

At last I tried to sleep, but the atmosphere of the carriage, of smoke, babies, stale clothes, and the peculiar smell of the Russian peasantry which no one who has known it can forget, made sleep impossible. But I travelled fairly comfortably, resolutely shutting my ears to the talk … and shifting from one bone to the another as each ached in turn from contact with the plank on which I lay (Russia in 1919, p. 10).

A discussion with Lenin:

More than ever, Lenin struck me as a happy man. Walking home from the Kremlin, I tried to think of any other man of his calibre who had a similar joyous temperament. I could think of none. This little, bald-headed, wrinkled man, who tilts his chair this way and that, laughing over one thing or another, ready at any minute to give serious advice to any who interrupt him to ask for it, advice so well reasoned that it is to his followers far more compelling than any command, every one of his wrinkles is a wrinkle of laughter, not of worry. I think the reason must be that he is the first great leader who utterly discounts the value of his own personality. He is quite without personal ambition. More than that, he believes, as a Marxist, in the movement of the masses which, with or without him, would still move. His whole faith is in the elemental forces that move people, his faith in himself is merely his belief that he justly estimates the direction of those forces. He does not believe that any man could make or stop the revolution which he thinks is inevitable. If the Russian revolution fails, according to him, it fails only temporarily, and because of forces beyond any man’s control. He is consequently free with a freedom no other great man has ever had. It is not so much what he says that inspires confidence in him. It is this sensible freedom, this obvious detachment. With his philosophy he cannot for a moment believe that one man’s mistake might ruin it all. He is, for himself at any rate, the exponent, not the cause, of the events that will be for ever linked with his name (Russia in 1919, p. 56).

Precautions against typhus:

The car seemed very clean, but, as an additional precaution, we began by rubbing turpentine on our necks and wrists and ankles for the discouragement of lice, now generally known as ‘Semashki’ from the name of Semashko, the Commissar of Public Health, who wages unceasing war for their destruction as the carriers of typhus germs. I rubbed the turpentine so energetically in to my neck that it burnt like a collar of fire, and for a long time I was unable to get to sleep (The Crisis in Russia, p. 26).

Trade unions:

When I was in Moscow in the spring of this year the Russian Trades Unions received a telegram from the Trades Union Congress at Amsterdam, a telegram which admirable illustrated the impossibility of separating judgement of the present position of the Unions from judgements of the Russian revolution as a whole. It encouraged the Unions ‘in their struggle’ and promised support in that struggle. The Communists immediately asked ‘What struggle? Against the capitalist system in Russia which does not exist? Or against capitalist systems outside Russia?’ (The Crisis in Russia, p. 36).

Lenin’s medical advice: sun, sleep and milk

Advice given to a certain Fyodor Nikitich Samoilov, in 1914:

Now – quiet, sunshine, sleep, food. Take care of all this. Do they give you enough to eat?

You should drink more milk. Do you?

You should weigh yourself once a week and make a note of it each time.

You should go and see a local doctor at least once in 10 days, so that he can check the progress of your cure. Have you the doctor’s address? If you haven’t, write to me and I shall find it out for you.

The main thing is sleep (how many hours do you sleep?), sun and food, especially milk.

Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 43, pp. 387-8