Mark continues his attempt to make sense of the world for his grandson – and for himself. Theo was six months old at the time.
I have never been good at heights, edges, ledges, precipitous drops that draw you dizzyingly forwards, buckle your knees, threaten to pitch you down.
Which is a great shame because, as I’ve discovered, so much of the world is best seen from on high.
I’m okay behind the safety of glass in tall buildings: we were on top of The Shard last year on a perfect cloudless February day with all of London spread in hushed miniature majesty far beneath us. I’m fine in planes: we landed recently at Gatwick, circling over the patchwork of Sussex with views that stretched like an invitation all the way home to Brighton. I can even cope in a hot air balloon: we rose before dawn, crossed the dark waters of the Nile in a thrumming boat and then in a creaking basket climbed hissingly into the air above the Valley of the Kings as the sun slowly rose.
But put me on a path that winds narrowly along a Dorset cliff top, or on the open iron-work of the Santa Justa elevator tower in Lisbon, or on the low-walled platform at the top St Paul’s and it’s another matter. I can taste the tension, feel a rigid clumsiness suddenly in my legs, my breath coming shorter.
Under the circumstances, you would think I would avoid such places. And yet I keep ending up precisely where I don’t want to be because, as my wife insists, you must always climb to the highest point. And anyway, she says cheerfully, it’s aversion therapy: good for me.
While I’m not so sure about the ‘therapy’ – there has been no discernible improvement despite years of her most conscientious efforts – I know that she’s right about aiming high. Metaphorically, of course, but literally too.
Because the world does look a better place from above. And part of the reason for that, I think, is because you can understand it more.
From the top of a tower, you can see a city’s topography, of course; it’s hills and hollows, the river running through. But you can also glimpse something of its evolution, its history in a way you rarely can from the ground: there’s the old town, hunched around the cathedral, it’s mediaeval streets narrowly climbing the hill, it’s later broad avenues and great squares opening to the river. And there, beyond, is the commercial district, rooted in the nineteenth century, studded now with tall glass palaces, gleaming monuments to success. And out further still, where the trams and buses haltingly run, is the distant residential sprawl.
Something similar is true in the country. From the top of a hill, not only can you appreciate the roll and sweep of the landscape you can also see for the first time why that village – the one you walked through an hour before – was built just there. In the hook of the river, in the lee of that hill.
So you can make better sense of the world from on high. It looks meant; ordered in a way that you perhaps hadn’t suspected.
It can look beautiful too, defying description. In the Lake District, after a breathless climb, we ate a picnic and watched transfixed as the shadows of clouds danced on the hills around us; in Spain’s Sierra Nevada, more breathless still, we sat in awe, silenced by the plain that extended further than the eye could see.
I could go on. There are so many such memories I hold tight.
But too often there’s that anxiety too: that vertiginous tension, the sudden lurch and churn of the stomach.
And curiously, it’s an anxiety not just for myself but for others too. In fact it’s worse with others. I am more afraid of my wife falling, than I am for myself. I always ask her to stop yards short of where she would choose adventurously to go. I have to keep her safe, feel that I am keeping her safe.
And it’s not just an anxiety for those I love, it’s for strangers too.
The Cliffs of Moher in Ireland’s County Clare rise sheer for more than two hundred metres from the sea: on the day we visited, there were people lying on the grass on the very edge, peering over and down to the crashing waters below. It was physically uncomfortable for me to watch; it made me feel precarious, unsafe. I had to turn away.
Where this comes from, I have no idea. All I know is that it has been with me almost from the beginning.
My mother has a distinct memory of one day nearly sixty years ago on the towering cliff tops of Beachy Head in Sussex. I was little more than a toddler and, as we walked in the summer sunshine, I apparently suddenly became alarmed, agitated and finally inconsolable.
The cause? Someone had ventured too close to the cliff edge.
So even then it was with me. I have carried it from childhood and I would not have wished it so.
Which brings me at last to you, Theo.
Such fears can, I think, be contagious. And I would not have you catch it from me.
And so a promise.
In the same way that even now, at seven months old, you are learning to swim so that water will hold no terrors, what we are going to do is this.
Wherever we are, I will bury my fears deep and we will always take you high to show you the glory of the world from above. And then we’ll be sure to make you laugh. So that all you’ll ever know is the joy of it.
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