People often characterise themselves as ‘owls’ or ‘larks’. Some people like to stay up late and hide under the duvet until midday whilst others get up with the rising sun and fall asleep before the 10 o’clock news. If I’m honest I don’t know what I am because like so many shift workers, for too many years, I have forced myself to be both. The thing is it never gets any easier and it never stops hurting. Now with a change in jobs I feel like I have moved to a different time zone and its taking some time for my body to catch up.
From the early 1980’s I have forced myself to get out of bed when every fibre of my body has been screaming at me to turn over and go back to sleep. The reason was I had returned from late night life in London as a musician and found myself as a producer on an early morning radio show at BBC Radio Wales. At first I couldn’t trust myself to wake up and not ignore the alarm clock so in the end I had 3 different alarm clocks strategically placed around the house, each one placed further and further away from my bed. It wasn’t easy and I never really got used to it, but I never missed the start of a programme.
After a few years I moved from producing to presenting radio shows and a move back to Swansea meant that my day would start at 4.10am with a quick wash allowing me to be on the M4 by 4.20am.
Another change in career in the 90’s meant going back on the road with a band. The gigs didn’t start until 10pm. Then you have the pack down and the drive home. There was many a night I would be pinching myself on that last few miles with the window open to make sure I didn’t fall asleep. I would often thank Chris Needs for his late night show for helping me get back safely. The show was eccentric and funny and full of great characters that helped me stay awake with the long drive home.
And so, it continued as I would force my body clock to reset once again. A return to morning radio in 2008 brought a 4.20 am alarm call only to be replaced by lazy morning lie ins when the contract came to an end last year.
Whether it was because of the ever changing, crazy hours I have worked over the years, but I have been blessed with the ability to fall asleep just about anywhere and at any time. The sleep itself doesn’t have to be that long, in fact if I sleep too long I wake up groggy and a little grumpy. No, the sleep itself has to be short enough to reset my addled brain but not too deep as to make the waking up a painful experience.
In this I am not alone, in fact I’m in the company of Einstein, Aristotle and Salvador Dali. To make this work efficiently you need a tea spoon or metal key and a cup and saucer. You sit in a comfy chair holding the tea spoon but beneath the tea spoon you strategically place the saucer. The idea is that when you just about fall asleep you hand relaxes, and you drop the teaspoon. It falls onto the saucer waking you up and that means you don’t get to the groggy part of the sleep, and you awake refreshed. Of course, sometimes there is no tea spoon or saucer to hand so I just close my eyes in the car or on a sofa and hope for the best, but I guarantee that when it works that short sleep is one of the sweetest sleeps you will ever have.
So, after all these years of alarm clocks and early morning radio shows I might well have trained my body to be a lark. This is no help at all now because at the moment I am currently presenting the late night show on BBC Radio Wales from 10pm until 1 am the following morning.
I was asked to look after the show when my dear friend Chris Needs passed away suddenly a number of weeks ago.
It’s a wonderful show to present because it has an amazingly dedicated group of people who tune in every night (more of that in a moment). It has just been difficult physically to adapt. After years of early mornings, even though I left my morning show over 18 months ago, I still wake up at 4am. Now after winding down post radio show, I find myself going to bed around that time and it’hous taking its toll. I sleep late, then want a siesta and quite often I have 5 minutes in the chair before my alarm goes off at 8.30pm and I head to the garden shed to present the late night show.
The thing is you have to be on your toes because as they used to say in the old Stingray puppet TV series ‘Anything could happen in the next half an hour’ or in the case of the late night show the next 3 hours.
What Chris Needs had managed to do was create something unique on radio. He was the ‘head gardener’ of the late night ‘Friendly Garden’ but all of his listeners knew they could ring in for a chat about anything…and they did. We have tried to keep that ethos going over the past few weeks which is great, but it does mean you have to be on your toes at all times.
Take for example Doreen from Merthyr. She had originally rung up for a bit of a chat about her day and request a song. So far so good, nice and straight forward. But within minutes things took a completely different turn. Asking how she had coped with lockdown it soon became clear that she had found comfort in her pets or as I soon discovered her small animal sanctuary. She had 2 budgies, Joey and Baily, a long ear rabbit called Misty and 2 cats. One was a rather shy tabby called Lucky the other was a pedigree grey called Smokey. Of course, one question leads to another and before long Doreen had explained how she would take Smokey out for a walk a few times every day on a lead like a dog. He liked going for walks although when he got tired he turned into a ‘grumpy old man’.
The next week Doreen rang in again. We went through each member of her animal family. I checked how the walks were going with Smokey. She then explained that that afternoon Smokey had gone into her next door neighbour’s house and made himself at home until he was chased out by the owners cat Jodie who lived in a drawer. The cat lived in a drawer???? Now to be honest if I hadn’t had a power nap before doing the show I’m pretty sure I would have wondered if I had been hallucinating the whole episode due to lack of sleep. Anyway, I’ve made Doreen promise she’ll call next week with another instalment from Merthyr’s answer to Dr Doolittle.
As you can probably tell I’m loving the late night chats. Some, like Doreen’s are very funny, others are poignant. Some people need consolation as I might be the only person they have spoken to all day. It’s a responsibility that I love and take seriously. If that means I have to move to a different time zone to be able to stay awake all night and even turn myself into an owl, well it’s a price I’m more than willing to pay.