~ Posted by Anthony Gardner, November 7th 2013

Since London’s new How To Academy launched its programme of talks in September, two have far outsold the rest: the Ballet Masterclass and How To Sleep. If the balletomanes are drawn by enthusiasm, the insomniacs—judging from the 70 of us who gathered at the Condé Nast College in Soho on Tuesday evening—are driven by desperation.

Our lecturer was Professor Adrian Williams, founder of the Sleep Disorders Centre at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital. A benign, white-haired figure, he spoke in a low, gentle voice which seemed guaranteed to set his audience dozing. Instead, we remained as alert as springbok on the savannah as he explained how and why we sleep.

We learnt that it was once considered normal to get up for a couple of hours in the middle of the night; that most of our deep sleep comes early on in the cycle, and we dream more towards morning; that sleep disorders are often inherited. If we feel drowsy in the afternoon, it’s primarily because of our body rhythms, not what we ate for lunch. And, alarmingly, sleeplessness can contribute to any number of ailments, from diabetes to heart disease.

All of this was interesting enough, but not until the last five minutes did he touch on what we all wanted to know—how to sleep better. Four basic rules of “sleep hygiene” were laid down: restrict your caffeine intake; take vigorous exercise between 4 and 7pm (to raise your body temperature before bed); get up at the same time every day; have a bedtime snack.

There remained half an hour for questions, which came thick and fast. “Does alcohol aid sleep?” Yes, to begin with, but once metabolised it works against it, so stop drinking three hours before you turn in. “Is listening to the radio in bed OK?” No, and nor is reading—”The bedroom is for sleep and sex, nothing else.”

As someone who regularly wakes up at around 3am, I asked the question which had plagued me for years: is it better to stay in bed hoping to drop off again, or to get up and do something? “Get up,” Professor Williams advised, “but don’t do anything stimulating, and avoid bright light.” Later that night, as I lay awake in the darkness, I was still trying to think of an activity which could meet both criteria. Reading Morrissey’s autobiography by candlelight? All suggestions gratefully received.

Anthony Gardner is a novelist and editor of the Royal Society of Literature magazine, RSL. His piece “All curators now” appears in our the current issue