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What’s the best time of day?

Ali Smith, Elif Shafak and five other writers give us a good time

March/April 2015

SIMON ARMITAGE  5am
I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I’m a regular visitor to this particular time-slot. There’s a dawn chorus of several unsynchronised alarm calls in our house at about half six, then 30 frantic minutes to get our daughter to the school bus. Being up and about at five implies a change in the routine, and the rarity of the occasion adds to the experience, because to step outside at such a time, once the grogginess has worn off, is to feel the misanthropic thrill of a planet not yet choked by cars or muddled with people. Here is the day in its tentative, inchoate state, often silent, beyond what could accurately be called the night but before morning proper, a kingdom that belongs to those few who inhabit it.

Memories play a part, I think. A paper round when I was 13 meant wandering alone around the streets of a moorland village before it had woken up, before its secret was out. And camping on the hills in summer, I’d lie there as the fabric of the tent began to glow with the barely perceptible illumination of dawn. Like light through skin or the shell of an egg. And maybe the memory goes further back, into the subconscious. Book-ended as we are between eternities of darkness, the great privilege of being alive is to encounter the inexplicable properties of light, and in that scenario to witness the coming of the morning is a form of rebirth, but with an adult brain capable of appreciating it.

Recently I caught a train in London at 7.30pm for the two-hour ride back to Yorkshire. Through a series of technical mishaps and human incompetence, it finally dragged into Wakefield Westgate at 3.40am, by which time most of the passengers had passed through every level of frustration and anger and entered a kind of compliant trance. It was five o’clock when I got home, and instead of going into the house I sat in the garden. It was still dark but the woods beyond the field were quietly fidgeting and the birds had started to sing. There was a tingling, anticipatory ambience in the air. I was so late I was early, and for a short while the world was mine.


ALI SMITH  4pm
Four o’clock on a January afternoon and the birds have started to sing. It’s the most promissory of the year’s dusks, the first nudge to winter to know its place, since from here on in it’s going to get lighter.

Four o’clock in the afternoon 45 years ago, February/March, school done for the day. Now that it’s winter-spring it’s all of a sudden a time of different light, sort of miraculous, unlikely light, not long till it’s dark, but look—still light. The time of year for marbles in the street; so we let the other kids drift away and we settle in the gutter away from the traffic, below the great black windows of the undertaker’s. I lose the blue cat’s-eye to John MacDonald. But I’ll win it back tomorrow with any luck, so I shoulder my schoolbag and trek off across the river into town to my father’s shop, dragging my bag against the bridge’s railings, the kind of bridge, if enough of you jump up and down on it at once, that can be made to give a bit, move about under your feet: suspension.

When I get to the door of the shop my father will check his watch. An hour upstairs at his desk sitting among the pliers that look like long-nosed prehistoric crocodiles, the coils of fuse wire, the little phials of mercury, me reading a book before the lift home; then he switches the lights off and shuts the shop and we go over to the grassy back road behind the station. I’m not the only one cadging a lift, since the small dog, Rogie, the black-and-white Heinz 57 who lives four houses along from us, and who often waits by my dad’s car for lifts into town or home again, is there by the back bumper, ears forward.

Four pm right now. I always feel freed-up at this time of day. The birds singing, but not about end—it’s not the end of the day at all. The original bridge-time between work and play, the original suspension-time, the day now over enough to begin.

Four pm, is it? Good. I’ve been putting off work all day. I’ll start now.
 

MARK VANHOENACKER  The small hours
I like to fly at night, which means I like long-haul flying. Many of the north-south routes I pilot from London—to São Paulo, Cape Town, Johannesburg—are night journeys in both directions. In the long middle miles lie inky volumes of the Atlantic that I have only ever seen under dark skies, deserts that I may never see in colour, and African cities I know only from the light-palmistries visible on the darkened sphere: the up-cast electric signatures of Douala, Libreville, Kinshasa.

The quiet solitude of a journey across the world’s small hours is easy to love. Nearly everyone on the plane is asleep. The plane sleeps, and the world below sleeps. The radios are quieter, because there are fewer aircraft aloft—many of the world’s innumerable short-haul aircraft return like birds to the Earth to rest each night, even as a smaller fleet of larger, long-haul aeroplanes is setting out across the planet. The air itself is often smoother.

At night the cockpit lights are dimmed so that we may more easily keep our lookout. On the flight computers the digits of our latitude count steadily down to zero, down to the equator, then rise again as we cross it. Stars above, the lights of the world below; the occasional red-and-green navigation beacons of another “company ship”, lights arranged on our vessels just as they would be at sea. Our two jets cross at a combined speed of 1,000 miles per hour, each bound for morning in the city the other has left.

Our only contacts on the Earth are the air-traffic controllers. We are bound to them; they, too, are awake at all hours, awake only for us. But they’re more like lighthouse keepers than fellow travellers. Each soon hands us on to the next, our flight’s call sign like a baton or a word whispered around a table in a game, in accents that change over the invisible fences of the air-borders. Sometimes we hear a shift change below. One controller’s voice replaces another, and we know someone has gone—on their break, or home to an unknowable life.


KATHLEEN JAMIE  9-11am
Our front door closes with a satisfying thunk. It’s a sound I like to hear from within the house. For one privileged to work from home, at least a couple of days a week, the post-thunk silence is one to be relished.

The couple of hours before nine are conditioned by others’ needs. Oh, I’ll miss them when they’ve gone, the children, and I don’t really want to wake to a hushed house—I want to earn my couple of hours’ peace. The years are over when lunches had to be packed, and gym shoes found. The words “Mum! I forgot! I have to go as a pirate today!” will never again be uttered in this house. Nowadays, when the door thunks it means our younger child, in her last year at school, has left to catch the bus. Then follows 40 minutes to acknowledge the weather and the season by taking the dog round the park, and then, at 9ish, the time is my own. (I am a morning person, my husband almost nocturnal. He won’t put in an appearance till after 11. He’s the one for late-night teen-taxi duty.)

It’s hard to say what happens in those hours between the thunk and the 11am coffee craving. It’s when I do most of my thinking, whether engaged in a longish piece of work, or drafting a new piece. It’s actual old-fashioned paper-and-pen time. It is the time I climb into my own mind. The result, as a writer, might be 1,500 new words—never more. A good glittering haul. I love this time for its sense of something being made. If it’s going to happen at all, it’s then. And though it is marked by the clock, something odd happens to time when one is in that mental state. It slips. One emerges from a concentrated moment to discover that an hour has passed, maybe more.

But this is the really jammy bit: by 11am, certainly by noon, it’s over. There’s always other stuff to be done, admin, mundane tasks, but the real creative concentration is spent. If it went well, the sense of accomplishment lasts all day, and the day is still young.

 

ROMESH GUNESEKERA  7.23am
It is 7.23 in Mumbai. I have been in Mumbai at this time of the morning two or maybe three times in my life but this time it is different. I am in a stylish hotel where you make your own early-morning tea. It is quiet in this part of town—full of huge, incomplete, empty tower blocks; you can almost forget the 20m people around you. Twice as many as in London, where there is still the best part of sleep to pass before the allotted time comes knocking.

Why 7.23? Forget digital. Look at a traditional clock. It’s all in the hands, as my mother would say, demonstrating the shape of a flower, a Bharatanatyam smile, with her hands. We die, as each moment does, but the gesture remains in someone’s eye.

At 7.23 it is as if the hands of the clock are closing together, sweeping down to meet in a prelude to the dance. As if to say, “Wait. Be patient. By noon, we will be flying, our hands our wings.”

Most mornings, these days, 7.23 is the time I notice the clock. Often feeling already guilty. Why am I still waiting? The day is nearly gone. The tea is brewed. Where are the words? By breakfast I should have covered the ground I need to cover. The story should be on the road. But there is still time—just enough time—to save the day.

When I was a boy, by 7.23 the crows in our Colombo neighbourhood would be maddeningly noisy. My father would be knotting his tie. In my mind, he still is, although it sometimes feels the whole countryno, maybe the whole world—has something stuck in its throat. Guilty for not having done what we should have done by now. But there is time. At 7.23, there is still time—time to save the day. Time for those hands to turn from a frown to a smile.


ELIF SHAFAK  Midnight
Like animals, novelists come in three types: the diurnal, the crepuscular and the nocturnal. Each type is represented by a different animalthe cat, the beaver and the owl. I am one of the night creatures.

For me, midnight is the best time to write. In fact, it is the best time to do anything: to read, to think, to contemplate, to meditate. During the day we run from one task to another, always in a hurry, our energy seeping outwards. We multi-task in order to survive.

There is something brutally arrogant about the sun, especially in the summer: too high-handed, too proud, looking down at us from above. Its beams are invisible tubes that sap our energy and inject lethargy into our souls.

Once, in Istanbul, I met a Zoroastrian painter whose family had had to escape from Iran. We got along wonderfully, except in one respect: he worshipped the sun. We raised a toast to all the persecuted minorities of the Middle East, and he told me beautiful stories from Iran, but the more he idolised the sun, the more I missed the Moon.

The Moon is subtle, mysterious, calm, composed and complicated, with a strength that comes from deep within. The Moon does not need to shout to be heard. It is enough for her to whisper. Midnight is the moment when all the nocturnal artists stop talking and prick their ears to listen to the sounds of the universe.

I cannot write every midnight. Sometimes I come home tired from a party; sometimes sleep is too sweet. But there is a ritual I cherish. Whenever I start a new novel, or need to delve deeper into a story, I make sure I am in the zone of the Moon.


ANN WROE  Twilight
 In common parlance dusk and twilight are often assumed to be the same. But they are deeply different, and this shows in their etymology. Dusk emerges from the Sanskrit for dust, drifting through Icelandic mists to Old English darkness and obscurity. Twilight comes from “two” and “between”. It embraces two possibilities; twin lights that are doubtful in their origins, strange in their effects, but nonetheless light, and not its opposite. On some days twilight does not appear at all. When it does it often lasts no longer than a moment, the time it takes to run to the window, grab a coat, lift the camera-phone. But it is always, for me, the best time of that day.

At twilight the sun has left the sky. The light of the upper sphere is now a mere reflected glow; and it is particular fields, or patches of sea, or the tops of woods, that carry what is left of daylight. That lower light is heavy, honeyed, like a distillation of the radiance in which the scene has bathed all afternoon; or like a last concentrated memory, before the night.

Or before the dusk, which creeps after. But dusk blurs, where twilight sharpens. Dusk cools and cloaks, encouraging the walker to turn up his collar, hasten his step and head for a welcoming door. Twilight, on the other hand, strikes with a beauty so keen and unexpected that the walker stops, and hopes by stopping to prolong it. Twilight catches a tree, and fires it like a torch; takes the lacy edge of the waves, and curls them to improbable gold along half a mile of beach; turns a hillside, for an instant, a deeper viridian than noon could ever manage, and makes a rare jewel of water in a glass.

Yet, for all this vividness, doubt remains. Twilight deserves its derivation. It is hard to say whether this moment is the incandescence of the sky or the land, heaven or Earth; and whether this compelling, curious glow comes from without, or from within.

 

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