I am not a good sleeper, though I am not exactly an insomniac.  I do put in quite a few hours in turbulent unconsciousness, but I have always had frequent wakeful spells.  This is particularly true if I’ve been working on mind-stuff during the day, because I usually go on doing it in bed – whether I like it or not – and sleep is the casualty.  It’s been particularly bad this year because I’ve been writing a book – now finished, thank God – and the damned thing never knew when to turn off and let me alone.

All the more need, therefore, for some friends by the bedside to help me through the wee small hours when everyone else is asleep.  Luckily,  I’ve had some good companions recently.  The most spectacular came from Graeme Gibson, Margaret Atwood’s husband, and a distinguished author in his own right.  The volume in question is The Bedside Book of Birds: An Avian Miscellany,  and it is an absolute treasure.  As the name suggests, it’s a book about the ancient relationship between birds and humans.  Ideal watches-of-the-night reading, it is full of short observations, longer essays and terrific poetry.  For instance, I was moved all over again by re-acquainting myself with Robinson Jeffers’ wrenching poem about a defiant raptor with a broken wing, ‘Hurt Hawks’.  Look it up and thrill with pride and sorrow.

And I’ve been dipping into C P Cavafy again, after a friend reminded me of Che Fece…Il Gran Rifiuto:

              For some people the day comes
             when they have to declare the great Yes
             or the great No.

Louis MacNeice is by my bedside too, writing his Autumn Journal.  I love MacNeice.  The decent uncertainties of his mind, and that tugging undercurrent of loss that beset him early: Come back early or never come…Great stuff for the watches of the night.

Finally, there’s Byron Rogers’ fabulous biography of R.S.Thomas, The Man Who Went into The West.  I heard RST do a reading at Edinburgh University in the 1970s and he looked like God with a migraine.  Now I am beginning to think he was playing with us all the time.  Getting his own back, maybe, because of the way God kept playing with him.

Richard Holloway is one of the most outspoken and best-loved figures in the modern church. In 2000 he stood down as the Bishop of Edinburgh. He was Gresham Professor of Divinity in the City of London and remains a Fellow of the Royal Society. He has written for many newspapers in Britain including The Times, the Guardian, the Sunday Herald and the Scotsman and presented his own series on BBC Television. His books include On ForgivenessLooking in the DistanceGodless Morality and Doubts and Loves. This piece first appeared in our Poetry Reader, issue 2.