Acrophobia (or why I like the valleys)

I live with acrophobia, a psychological nuisance more commonly known as a fear of heights, and which loosely translated means being scared of peaks, summits or edges. In other words, when I am in high places I am frequently and irrationally frightened.

I can’t define how ‘high’ high is, sometimes it’s very high, sometimes it’s not so high. I have no fear of flying, for example, or of cleaning the gutters or of looking out of a fifth-floor window. But when it comes to crossing bridges, standing on balconies, dining on rooftop restaurants, walking along cliff-top pathways, or hiking through mountainous terrain, then it’s a different matter.

Beautiful but daunting

Instead of being pleasant and enjoyable, these activities usually trigger an over-developed sense of survival in which my mind and my imagination become out of kilter. I become aware of myself, of my position in relation to the ground, and of the edge – particularly the edge.

An image of me falling takes on the trappings of a bona fide probability and my body reacts as if I were in genuine danger – which, of course, I am, but no more so than if I were about to cross a road, or if I were standing on a platform awaiting a train.

At these times I realise that the only thing between me and death is an electrical connection in my brain. A decision, a notion, an idea. None of which seem as substantial as ropes and harnesses. I am left wondering: can a thought be stronger than physical movement? If my body receives an impulse is to jump then can my mind stop it? Can I rebel against myself; start a civil war; launch a synaptic coup? I’m frightened that if I imagine it, it might happen.

Sudden and genuine fear is an ugly experience. I’m not used to it and I don’t know how to deal with it. When adrenalin floods my system and freezes my brain, my thoughts become lumpy, less to do with thinking and more to do with thinking about thinking, of simulating thinking, as if each thought is a single, shaky snapshot rather than part of a smooth, continuous film. The first touch of panic, as gentle as a cobweb, soon paralyses and suffocates my reason.

But it’s not the act of being in a high place that’s the problem. If there is no possibility of me falling, then no matter how high I am, I’m fine. The tallest building with glass floors holds no terror for me if it’s sealed, or caged, or otherwise locked down.

The fear arises when there is the possibility of me falling and there is no way of getting down quickly and safely. It’s the fear of panicking. It’s the fear of being trapped and doing something stupid; of doing something impulsive; of behaving like hunted prey which, rather than evading danger, gives itself up to it, embraces it; and gets it over with.

If I’m about to walk across a bridge then the fear increases because I am walking away from safety. If I’m halfway across then the fear subsides because I am walking towards safety. These height-related imaginings are irrational and inconvenient and, excuse the pun, they get me down.

I console myself with the words of GK Chesterton who, to paraphrase, would rather live in the valleys from where everything looks grand and majestic, than live in the mountains from where everything appears small and insignificant.

It would be nice, however, once in a while, to look down rather than up.

Notes on The III International Flann O’Brien Conference

Last week I spent four days in the company of Flanneurs, Mylesians, academics, authors, onlookers and whiskey-drinkers. All drawn together by a fascination with the works of… well, it depends. For some he’s Brother Barnabas of Comhthrom Féinne fame; to the Cruiskeen Lawn aficionados he’s Myles na gCopaleen; a few refer to him as George Knowall or John Doe; the strictly accurate call him by his real name, Brian O’Nolan (or even more accurately, Brian Ó Nualláin); but to me, he is and will always be, Flann O’Brien, the author of a perfect novel.

James Ellis
The plausible impossible

We had gathered together in Prague, at Charles University, for ‘Metamorphoses: The III International Flann O’Brien Conference’. I was there to present my paper titled: Parallel Explorations of the Boundaries between Fiction and Real-Life.

I felt on the boundary myself. At least two of the authors I was citing were also at the conference and the range of papers being presented was so wide it genuinely made my head spin (although there is some speculation that the Kozel beer was a greater cause of my giddiness). There were over 40 papers to be read, and the panels within which they were framed had themes as diverse as modernist poetics, politics, philosophy, humour, sport, metafiction, translation, transliteration, alcohol and alchemy.

What would the great man have made of it all? Why, he would have loved it, of course: the debates, the detailed academic analysis, the occasional tenuous leaps of interpretation, the frankly wild flights of fancy, the social side – oh yes, especially the social side. This was a conference that looked after its attendees. Take a look at this programme of social events:

James Ellis
Meeting Charles Sheehan
  • a reception hosted by Charles Sheehan, Ambassador of Ireland to the Czech republic;

    Val O'Donnell
    Val O’Donnell
  • a lunchtime performance by Val O’Donnell from his Flann’s Yer Only Man & Other Mylesiana;
  • Kevin Barry, author of City of Bohane in conversation with Maebh Long;
  • a walking tour of literary Prague;
  • a theatre performance of Will the Real Flann O’Brien…? A Life in Five Scenes by Gerry Smyth & Co.;
  • a whiskey tasting with Fionnan O’Connor, author of A Glass Apart: Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey; and of course
  • a final, farewell dinner.

It was no coincidence that the theme of the conference was metamorphosis and the venue was Prague – Kafka’s neck of the woods. Nor was it a coincidence that so many of the speakers felt that through books such as An Béal Bocht, At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman they could point to their own process of transformation. Certainly my attitude to bicycle saddles underwent a profound change after reading The Third Policeman.

Next year, on April the 1st, it will be fifty years to the day since Flann O’Brien died. He was only 54. It doesn’t matter how you know him – Myles, Flann, Brian – it’s his work that matters. It matters to me and it matters to all the people at the conference who made it such an enjoyable, informative and inclusive experience.

And it should matter to you because he was a genuinely great writer, and such creatures are few and far between.

Thanks to the conference organisers: Ondřej Pilný, Ruben Borg, Paul Fagan; to the Centre for Irish Studies at Charles University; and to the International Flann O’Brien Society. Also to Val O’Donnell, John Wyse Jackson and Rachel Darling – hope to see you all again soon. 

Life in the slow lane: a swimmer’s guide to the pool’s natural hazards

I like to go swimming two or three times a week, and I like to swim a length for every year I’ve been alive. Up and down I go, counting the lengths, thinking about how old I’m getting and keeping an eye out for natural hazards. There are a lot of natural hazards in swimming pools.

You see that object face-down in the water? That’s the Drifter. He’s actually doing the breast-stroke but, like driftwood, he needs the ripples and currents caused by other swimmers to move him. It will take him twenty minutes to complete the length.

The large creature that’s just launched itself at the water and landed like a plank is the Bone-Digger. He thinks he’s a shark but he swims like a dog digging up a bone. He is a localised commotion; a splashing and thrashing of arms and legs; a tangle of movement unconnected with swimming. Sometimes I think I can hear him shouting. He manages two lengths and then clings to the side, head down, shuddering, sucking in air.

The pale woman with the chapped legs and the blotchy face is the Weaver. She sets off near-right and arrives far-left, crossing lanes at random, nodding and waving apologetically, peering anxiously through the choppy waters that lie ahead. She knows that soon, inevitably, a preternatural force will draw her into the path of the Swan Ladies.

The Swan Ladies move in a pack, three abreast, an expensive fragrance lingering in their wake. Length after length they glide up and down, heads clear of the water; talking, laughing, drinking tea. They can go on like this for ever, as poised as carousel horses. Despite her efforts, the Weaver bobs helplessly into their path. She disappears and then reappears behind them, bewildered but unharmed. They give no sign of having noticed her.

The tall elderly man standing up to his waist in water at the far end of the pool is the Wader. This veteran hoists his trunks up to his chest and gazes fiercely at his own feet before falling forwards. Below the surface he hovers a few inches above the floor, propelling himself forward with tiny hand movements until half-way along the length he stands up and strides slowly back to the starting point. He’ll do that for the next hour – amassing a vast distance in tiny segments.

The Club Swimmer arrives. She is magnificent. She wears goggles, earplugs, a nose-clip and a rubber swimming-cap. She brings with her fins, bricks and weights. She ties herself up in complicated knots and undulates through the water like a dolphin. We all fear her.

All, that is, except West Coast Boy. He arrives in his brightly patterned board-shorts, slips silently into the water, completes thirty lazy lengths (tumble-turning at each end), and then vaults lightly onto the side, leaving scarcely a ripple. He shakes his floppy hair and ambles off.

There are other hazards – Bubbles Man, The Floater, the Love-Birds and of course, the horrifying Tiny Speedo. I’ve grown accustomed to them. They have been my watery companions for a long, long time; my fellow swimmers, gamely pursuing a means of locomotion for which none of us are designed – and I suppose, as I plow up and down the lengths counting out the years, I should spare a thought for what they might call me.