What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
—Days, Philip Larkin
Larkin was right, of course: days are where we live. Right now, we cannot go to work or a friend’s house for dinner, or a delightful holiday cottage in Norfolk for a week. Unable to move, all we have are these days. Dozens and dozens of them, one after another: generally similar, with only tiny variances, as when you look at a picture of the young Nolan Sisters on Top of the Pops.
When we were moving around the world and seeing people, the days worked in the background. We didn’t pay much attention to them. But now that we spend the whole day in the same rooms and streets – where the only things that change are the angle of the sunlight and the numbers on the clock face – I feel I’m getting to know the hours of all these days personally. I am experiencing every single minute of these 24 hours in a very detailed and uninterrupted way. I’m noting their weird habits and tics; the presumptions they have, the baggage they bring with them. The sexiness of 6 a.m.; the sheer unreasonableness of midday; the implied threat that comes with the phrase “twenty-one hundred hours”. Two thousand one hundred hours? Has the day really been that long? Come to think of it: yes.
Journey with me now as I review the hours – our hours, in this endless day we keep having at the onset of summer.
6 A.M. – 8 A.M.
BANG! POW! 6 A.M.! Coming RIGHT AT YOU, 6 A.M. – 8 A.M. Start the day confidently, with the best two hours – like Bon Jovi kicking off their career with You Give Love a Bad Name and Livin’ on a Prayer, and then everything going a bit downhill from there. Everyone loves 6 A.M. – 8 A.M. in summer – the pavements and trees box fresh as new trainers; the world empty save for the Perfect People, jogging or walking their dogs. Between 6 A.M. and 8 A.M., everything in the world feels like a Ladybird book or a panning shot of Trumpton: only wholesome, traditional things happen. Freshly baked bread is put in shop windows; milk is delivered; babies in buggies look like a life-enhancing addition, rather than the screaming, mad, sanity-robbing mistake they look like at 3 P.M. (the beginning of the Unreasonable Hours).
Start the day confidently, like Bon Jovi kicking off their career with You Give Love a Bad Name and Livin’ on a Prayer.
When you wake at 6 A.M., you know it is within your grasp for you, too, to be one of the Perfect People. Waking this early means you can do your yoga unhurriedly, breakfast in peace in a deserted kitchen and still get an hour of work done before 8 A.M., when the Stupid People wake and start sending pointless emails about things that can’t happen. You have already won! You will be fit, stretched, relaxed and complete! Oh, what a treasure it is to wake at 6 A.M.!
Thinking of all these beautiful, inspiring things, you go right back to sleep again until…
Finally waking at 8 A.M. just feels right – the familiar, comforting sense that it’s already a bit too late: you have f***ed up your chances to do yoga or take the dog for a walk at a time when it would actively be pleasant. Now, these things will be done half-heartedly, in a rush, later, as is the custom you are so used to.
You’re just a “waking up at 8 A.M., feeling like the best of the day is already squandered” kinda person. You’re in an abusive relationship with 8 A.M. – you find you need to start with the burst of anxiety it gives you in order to get you out of bed. “Starting the day at 6 A.M.” still needs to be a long-term goal you’re working towards, because “having future ambitions” is what gets you through…
9 A.M. – 11:59 A.M.
The Only Hours When Anything Will Get Done. It is mad that people pretend the average working day is between 9 A.M. – 5 P.M., or 10 A.M. – 6 P.M., because it is only between 9 A.M. – 11:59 A.M. that things actually happen. Our teeth still feel clean, we have lunch to look forward to and nothing else is happening: you can’t be distracted by a dawn chorus or moonrise, and all the other human beings are similarly Doing Their Three Hours Of Work, so there will be no exciting, diverting dramas. Yes, if anything is going to be achieved in the world today, it will have to happen before 11:59 A.M., because then we run into…
Midday, in summer, is a tedious time; the most obvious of all the hours. The sun is loud and offensive, like a Texan in a Tube train. Midday sun makes everything uncharming. There’s no art, or skill, in putting the sun right overhead. Tsk. It’s the work of a jejune amateur. All the shadows disappear; hot bins start to smell; walking anywhere seems to take twice the normal time because you’re half-blind and headachy, wincing at the glare bouncing off the pavement.
“Starting the day at 6 A.M.” still needs to be a long-term goal you’re working towards, because “having future ambitions” is what gets you through…
Whatever room you’re working in will suddenly become very hot – between midday and 12:59 P.M. you will try to work, but be constantly distracted by having to take off another item of clothing. Midday at work is an hour-long slo-mo stripping session, until you’re sitting at your desk and trying to take your shoes off, obsessed with the idea of getting an iced coffee. Because there are no iced coffees in the world right now, it is inevitable that…
1 P.M. – 3 P.M.
1 P.M. – 3 P.M. are the Stupid Hours – the stretch of the day when your brain, deprived of iced coffee, becomes very angry about being British. It whines, “In other countries, they are having a long lunch and a siesta now. In Spain and Greece and Mexico, people are lying in hammocks under lemon trees, digesting half a bottle of wine and having a pleasant daydream. Why are you making me look at a spreadsheet, or deal with a toddler, sober? I don’t care what you think we’re doing – I am shutting down 90 per cent of my functionality. You’re basically on standby mode now. You’re going to have to eat so much sugar to re-energise! Go! Eat biscuits with a sugar cube on top! You know you want to!”
3 P.M. – 6 P.M.
“O where is my better life?” Late afternoon marks the point in our circadian rhythms where we are most able to envision what our lives should be like. The sun’s more louche angle in the sky rents asunder the veil that separates our actual lives from our lives in a parallel universe in which we had excelled.
In Spain and Greece and Mexico, people are lying in hammocks under lemon trees, digesting half a bottle of wine.
There is something about the sunlight around 4.30 P.M. that makes you imagine those selfsame rays falling on the verandah of your Somerset manor house, sparkling swimming pool, better husband or fewer children. You will spend these hours on Rightmove and Tinder, while working out which one of Three Possible Dinners you will cook from your list. This list is like the Three Tenors, except everyone now hates it.
6 P.M. – 8 P.M.
By 6 P.M., the day is starting to be reasonable again. The sunshine has stopped being so vexatiously “extra”, work is finished, you have eaten dinner, and this is when you are most likely to experience wellbeing. “This house and life aren’t so bad,” you think, observing how pretty the encroaching evening makes the broken door handle look and how pleasing the swish of the dishwasher sounds. This surge of wellbeing is interrupted by remembering all the things you were supposed to do at 6 A.M., but put off. You now walk the dog and do your yoga, all the while thinking, “I would really enjoy these more if I were doing them at 6 A.M. Tomorrow, I will wake early, and live a better life.”
The sun starts to go down. The teenagers in your house finally wake. You think about telling them about daytime and sunlight, and the fascinating, multifarious difference between midday and 3 P.M. that you have so assiduously observed and catalogued, and then you remember: when you are young, daytime is boring. All of it. Each mutating hour.
Two thousand one hundred hours? Has the day really been that long?
When you are young, you yearn for the onset of night – one long, dark, monolithic block of fun when the elders are asleep and the world is yours, and there are no ebbs and flows of circadian rhythms because everything is set to “HIGH EXCITEMENT”. Because you are 45 now, even thinking the phrase “HIGH EXCITEMENT” makes you feel very tired. You have a bath watching the moon rise and feel HIGH SLEEPINESS while reading Mrs Dalloway.
9 P.M. – 6 A.M.
Hopefully, you will be sleeping. But it may be that you have entered the realm of…
1 A.M. – 5 A.M.
“Bad Fluids”. In life, if you are ever awake between the hours of 1 A.M. and 5 A.M. it will be because of Bad Fluids. Either because you are still up, drinking Bad Fluids – “one glass of wine before bed” has suddenly multiplied, and now you are surrounded by empty bottles – or because you, or a loved one, are ill and expressing Bad Fluids, which you will be trying to catch in a towel or bowl.
Either way, 1 A.M. – 5 A.M., the hours of Bad Fluids, will always feel feverish and confusing. People will be falling over, or calling out incoherently. Clothes will be ruined. Affections will be tested. You will find out who is really there for you. When talking about it afterwards, people will wince and say, “This all sounds really bad, dude.” Having sex at this time is an incredibly bad idea.
Whatever happens, you will become increasingly anxious, as the hours go by, about the approach of 6 A.M.
“Tomorrow, I will wake early, and live a better life.”
“Somehow I must get over this, conclude it and be asleep by 5.59 A.M.,” you think to yourself. “I can’t let 6 A.M. see me like this. 6 A.M. is all about New Beginnings. I can’t let it see me while I’m still getting over yesterday. Oh Lord, please let me be asleep by 6 A.M. So I might ruin tomorrow with a completely blank slate.”