Food writer and editor, Allan Jenkins, extols the benefits of being an early riser and says that 4am starts should be treasured rather than dreaded, he spoke to committed night owl Marjorie Brennan.
YOU can’t say Allan Jenkins doesn’t practise what he preaches. It’s 10.30am when I ring him to talk about his new book, Morning — How to Make Time: A Manifesto, which examines the many benefits of rising in the early hours. I’m on my second coffee of the day and eager for insights on how I can transform myself from a night owl into a lark. When I ask him what time he got up at, he laughs.
“Honestly … I didn’t do this particularly for you but I was at my allotment at about 4.30am this morning. I know it sounds crazy but I’ve been away for a few days and there was a lot of stuff to do.”
Jenkins, who is editor of the esteemed Observer Food Monthly magazine, has previously written the acclaimed Plot 29, a memoir/diary about the therapeutic effects of gardening in his London allotment. In his latest book, he speaks to well-known early risers, neuroscientists, poets, painters and philosophers about dawn and morning, a time of the day he believes should be treasured.
“There is something magical about it. For me, mornings are like Narnia. Most people get up timed to when they have to leave the house or get the kids out. You start off chasing the day.”
According to Jenkins, modern society has evolved to a stage where, because of the lure of technology, we don’t even know when or how to switch off.
“When we were kids, we knew what time we had to go to sleep. Our parents would tell us, or the BBC — it would shut down at 10pm, it was almost saying ‘that’s it, you all go to bed now, like good children’. Now, we are so connected — and disconnected at the same time, it seems — we don’t know when to go to bed anymore. That means we sleep in different ways. I decided I didn’t really want to be looking at my phone at 1am in the morning or watching Netflix.”
When Jenkins decided to change his schedule, going to bed by 10pm, and getting up before sunrise, it transformed his life.
"There is a quiet and wonder about being awake when the rest of the world is asleep. My energy is different — if I write at that time of the day, it comes cleanly, quickly and clearly. For other people, they might want to paint, write a poem, or even just get up and cook … take that time for you, because you are not taking it out of anyone else’s time."
It’s also fitting that I’m talking to Jenkins the day before the summer solstice. This is the best time to make the most of the day, he says — the sun is shining and Mother Nature is very much in tune with his manifesto.
“At the moment, the blackbirds would have you awake at 3am if you wanted to be, anyway. In a month’s time, we will have lost an hour of light a day. If I just get up and go to work, I will have lost something that seems to be essential to who I am. I visited northern Norway, and they sleep a lot longer in winter than they do in summer. Light gives you a certain amount of energy. When it is dark and gloomy, you feel more sleepy and want to stay at home.”
Jenkins says that getting up in the early hours can also help ease anxiety, as there is no-one around to make demands on you or your time.
Jenkins is not advocating that we all pack more work hours in the day “joining the alpha bankers and businessmen at 4am while the rest of us sleep”. He suggests trying to rise early once a month or every few weeks at first.
“People say they don’t have time but the truth is they do, they choose not to. I’m not telling everyone to get up at 4am in the morning, the world would go mad. Also, I wouldn’t enjoy it because they’d all be around, in my way,” he laughs.
Jenkins also points out the obvious benefits that these stolen hours have for mental health.
“It definitely makes me less anxious. If I don’t get up and do something, I just start looking at the news, and at the moment, it’s just unbearable.”
Jenkins is referring to events in the US, and the distressing dispatches from migrant camps filled with babies and children separated from their parents. These have particular resonance for Jenkins, who spent time in an orphanage and in care as a child, an experience he wrote about in his first book, Plot 29.
“That’s why I’m sensitive to it. In my Barnardos records, which I only found about 18 months ago, it said that the day I went into the orphanage, I was 23 inches long — I got a ruler to measure it, that’s not so long. It also describes my demeanour; it said ‘contented’. I thought, how lucky am I that I could be taken away from everything I knew, that I held dear, everything that would smell of comfort, and be put in a long room with rows of cots and I could find contentment.”
The records also revealed the identity of Jenkins’ birth father, who lived in Liverpool and was of Irish descent. He says that this made sense to him as he has always felt a deep connection with Ireland. He is looking forward to visiting Bantry for the West Cork Literary Festival, where, aptly, he will host what is presumably the earliest event at the festival — an 8am walk before coffee at Bantry House.
In his guise as a food editor and writer, Jenkins is well acquainted with the culinary charms of the county. He speaks fondly of the late Myrtle Allen, whom he visited at her home in Ballymaloe late last year.
“I’d heard she was unwell and we went over and saw her in December. I was really glad I did. She was the mothership of modern Irish food.”
He is a big fan of the pioneering plant scientist Madeline McKeever, founder of Brown Envelope Seeds, who sends organic vegetable seeds all over the world from her farm in west Cork. Jenkins has also eulogised the farmer’s market in Skibbereen in Observer Food Monthly, calling it the best small food market in the world and writing: “Worthwhile travelling hours for, whatever the weather.”
Jenkins says he is not evangelical about food and decries ‘poverty shaming’; “I never tell people what chickens they should buy. I never say organic or even free-range, I say the best chicken you can afford. I’m not in the business of making any families feel inferior. It is about the best you can do.”
However, he does take pride in the fresh produce his allotment produces.
“I’ve always been lucky with gardening, stuff grows for me. It sounds odd but I’ve always had quite good hands. I do put in the work though. This morning I brought home some leaves and broad beans that I will cook, along with some fish I got in the fishmongers, which was open at 6am. I will eat like a king this evening. You could to go to Scott’s [famous Mayfair restaurant] and pay a fortune and it still wouldn’t be as good as this.”
AS well as nourishment, gardening offers escape from his hectic work life.
It all seems like common sense but maybe that’s something we’ve lost too along with our ability to shut off. I tell Jenkins that I feel I’m fighting a constant battle with my smartphone, the eternal scroll sucking my attention and energy. Jenkins urges people not to look at their phone when they get up in the morning. He also suggests staying away from Twitter, and sticking with real-life ‘tweets’ instead.
“Don’t look at your phone when you get up — free yourself from it. We are tethered to our phones, like a goat to a stake. Go to bed at 11am, don’t watch Newsnight or go on Twitter. Get up early, when the birds are awake, it really is healing.”
Allan Jenkins will discuss Morning — How to Make Time: A Manifesto at a Coffee and Chat at Bantry House Tearoom as part of the West Cork Literary Festival, July 17, 9.15am, €10. In the spirit of the book, those interested can also join Allan for an 8am walk which is free but ticketed; see westcorkmusic.ie. He will also read from his memoir Plot 29 at 2.30pm alongside Richard Beard.