Sometimes a person is unintentionally disrespectful. The afternoon had probably been just too strenuous, I had settled in a little too comfortably for my device, and perhaps there was some variation of the Pavlov reaction. Besides, I am, well, a natural. As I emerged from my slumber, there appeared to be a handful of fits of the sleepy first episode of the insomniacs to have come to me. That prehistoric man had no word for insomnia. A woman gave her kitchen a major overhaul in the middle of the night. A fisherman discussed his minimalist sleep schedule when he was at sea for seven days.
Luckily I got a chance to get revenge on Tuesday. Every day this week will be an episode of the insomniacs (KRO-NCRV), a television variant on the post radio programs that Frits Spits made between two and four o’clock in August about the night-watching man. We see images from the radio studio as the camera passes by people who could only be heard in the radio version – all while preserving the muffled sounds that belong to the night.
Spits, who doesn’t always sleep well, had a visit from somnologist Sigrid Pillen who explained that she had ‘sleeped in’ for this night performance, something doctors often do on their night shifts. The presenter wanted to know how important love for sleep is, after which Pillen explained that people like to sleep together and even take the inevitable ‘disruption’ (turning over, snoring, getting out of bed) for granted: “Alone you sleep better, but together you sleep better.”
We could see this up close in a report about a young woman who had been widowed a year and a half ago. She had suffered from night terrors. The program put a camera next to her bed and there we saw her lying on her back with open eyes at night and during the evening. Finally she grabbed the duvet, pillow and telephone to move to the couch in the living room: “There are more things to look at.”
Minke Verdonk also had the cameras from the insomniacs allowed in her bedroom. She has been awakened several times every night for thirteen years by her son Casper, who suffers from spasms and cannot turn over in bed by himself. Her husband can’t help, she explained, because he has rheumatic complaints and goes to sleep badly after being woken up. We saw the same scene a few times: the flickering baby monitor on the bedside table, Verdonk the first “Mama!” slips out of bed.
In the next image she steps into the nursery, sometimes the dog of the house scurrying along with her. There a loving choreography takes place. She switches on a light, flips down the bed rail, lifts Casper in one smooth motion and turns him from left side to right side. In one movement she covers him again, gently rearranging one leg. A most intimate ritual in half-sleep between mother and son, which takes place a thousand times a year in this bedroom. They never talk about it; once, Casper told a nanny that he feels a bit burdened.
The night milker was almost as beautiful: a farmer who likes to milk his cows at the beginning of the night and then first comes to fetch them from the meadow with a light. “As soon as they hear my cart they come up. They stretch a little, they stretch a little, they fatten a lot and come out eating grass.” Indeed, this Kees de Jong is a lyricist of the purest water. In his barn he can’t stop talking about the lethargy of the moment and the tranquility that emanates from “the suction stroke-backstroke ratio of the milking machine”. It is indeed a soothing sound. You can doze off – as close as you know the insomniacs to spend the night.
Correction (1/12): An earlier version of this article stated that the radio version of The Sleepless was broadcast between 2 and 3 am. That has been corrected above.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 1 December 2021