Monday, 1 August 2011
I often talk about fears and phobias at events and school visits as a way of getting in to the business of writing creepy stories. I ask my listeners what their phobias are and I tell them mine: one of which is a fear of heights.
But actually I do not really have a fear of heights. Or it's not quite as simple as that.
A fear of heights - an irrational fear of heights - is called acrophobia. People often use the word vertigo to describe a fear of heights, but vertigo is a sensation of spinning when standing still and can be caused by all kinds of things - including heights of course.
I actually love to be high. If I visit a new city I always want to climb to a high viewpoint and look down on the place like a map. But that's where the trouble starts. . .
I have a problem if the staircase up is spiral and I find it impossible if the steps are pierced so that you can see through them. I find looking down the slope of a roof disturbing. I remember finding the view from the top of the Duomo in Florence especially alarming as it involved looking over the tiled curved dome. In Siena nothing could have made me climb the last, open section of the bell tower. Always there is a tension between my desire for the view and the awful dread that sometimes comes over me when I look down.
It has caused me a few problems at work. I remember the first time I went to The Economist to deliver a cover and stood next to a large window trying to show my work. It was only the 11th floor, but I had a terrible sensation of falling backwards into space. Initially, my days at The Independent were even worse as they were much higher up in Canary Wharf. The windows were floor to ceiling and I found them very distracting at first. Luckily I was too busy most of the time to notice! Looking down from building seems to almost always cause me problems.
Maybe this is no coincidence. Maybe my fear of falling is tied up with a fear of failing. Although that doesn't quite explain why I also get a bit dizzy up a set of step ladders (though that may be a fear of decorating).
I love to be high in the Lake district and yet the route to that summit can be a problem. It is not as simple as the route being close to an edge or even that it is especially difficult as a climb. It seems more to do with the land around me as I walk.
Walking along a path where the path slopes away steeply seems to be the worst thing. This is irrational of course - even if I stumbled I would simply be falling onto a slope of scree or grass - but it does not really help to know that. I am filled with a sense of foreboding and have to use all my powers of concentration to walk past the problem. It is as though something is going to leap at at me. The slightest breeze makes the sensation even worse.
This does obviously mean that sections of a walk are not always enjoyable for me, but I am determined not to be beaten by it. That said, I have been beaten - and more than once. I have had to turn back or change my route when walking on my own. I know that there are paths I could not possibly take and it is often possible to tell just by looking at the map. But once up on the top of a fell I'm usually fine. I love that feeling of being high. I like to see from horizon to horizon.
There are many incidents of falling or near falling in my books. Mohawks are supposed to have no fear of heights and were employed building the skyscrapers of New York (though I have never been clear whether they have no fear or show no fear). I have a Mohawk visit London in the early part of the 18th Century in Death and the Arrow and I have the hero Tom chased to the top of St Paul's cathedral during an eclipse (though it is not he who falls).
The story called The Path in Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror is one of many attempts I have made to try and put my own particular fear into words. The Path is directly inspired by the dread I have sometimes felt on the fells. I re-trod the same path that inspired it with my family and I had forgotten that there was a section that I found almost impossible to walk. It was that feeling of being pursued by something - my own fear I suppose - that made me think of the story in the first place. I was visiting the Lakes on my own and saw a narrow path leading up from Grizedale Tarn and decided to follow it. After I managed to push myself through the difficult stretch I rested and looked back down the slope. Far below was a figure just starting out on the same path. The idea popped into my head there and then.
I did use to wonder if this dread was a kind of wraith - that somehow I was catching a whiff of my own future death by falling. Was I feeling uneasy because on some level I did not trust myself up there. Certainly I was walking alone at a very low point in my life when that story occurred to me. I don't know. It has never dimmed my enthusiasm for the place. If anything I think I just accept it - embrace it even - as a taste of the awe that early tourists experienced when they visited these places. Perhaps they should never feel completely safe or tamed.
But anyway - now I am older I am more minded to believe my problem is simply some kind of crisis caused by an inability to be sure of my horizontals and verticals. In other words, in my case, my fear of falling actually is a kind of vertigo.