A midnight flit

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 July, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 July, 1995, 12:00am

Rum topic for a book, this. Night has been tamed and tethered to the point where it has almost disappeared, in Hong Kong at least. The lights never go out, the party never stops, and the last of the evening's revellers take breakfast in the same dim sum restaurants as the first workers of the morning shift. We have almost abolished night. It has become a mere inconvenience to golfers.

Perhaps this is an illusion. As Alvarez shows in this 'exploration of night life, night language, sleep and dreams', there is a good deal more to the dark than what doesn't meet the eye. His book is a curious mixture. Alvarez, a poet and novelist when he is not producing unclassifiable non-fiction, always writes with wit and distinction, but flits between genres.

We open with a historical survey of the way people have dealt with the darkness. An amazing variety of things have been burned to make light, including whole fishes on sticks and certain greasy varieties of duck.

We then explore our author's childhood fear of the dark, which was considerable. From these highly personal reminiscences we turn to the Atkinson Morley Hospital, which has a sleep laboratory. Here the tone is calm and lucid journalism as we watch a patient have a meticulously monitored night's sleep, and Alvarez tries his luck as well.

This leads to a scientific discourse on what happens when we sleep, what happens when we dream, and hence to what happens when we think. Then we consider the interpretation of dreams, which brings us, inevitably, to Freud, who turned it from a cottage industry into a major academic preoccupation.

Then another complete change of pace, and we spend two chapters on patrol with night-shift policemen in New York and London. This is followed by some musings on the night shift in general. And we conclude with nocturnal meditations at the author's cottage in the Italian countryside, where the night is still dark and populated by predatory owls.

What are we to make of this? I have a simple rule: whenever the publisher gets the name of Montaigne on the cover, as he does here, the reader is going to be left wondering what is going on. This is not a book with a strong sense of direction.

On the other hand, whatever our destination, we have a great deal of civilised pleasure getting there. Alvarez is a deft writer with a fine ear for a quotation. He is consistently both interested and interesting.

He is also a careful and accurate observer. I have never had any of those detailed dreams pregnant with hidden meanings which seem to have been so common in Freud's Vienna. But I worked night shifts for several years and Alvarez's description of the inconvenience and strange allure of night work is spot on.

One could complain that the approach adopted here is really North European, even Scandinavian. Daylight is a time of welcome warmth, the night threatening in its cold as well as its darkness. In more tropical climates where the sun comes up like thunder and much of the day is necessarily spent panting in the shade, perhaps the night appears more welcome as a time of cool recovery from the relentless assault of too much light.

It is a happy feature of this book that it leaves you with a few good answers and a lot of good questions.

Night by A Alvarez Jonathan Cape $272