FOR most of my life I have suffered from vertigo and claustrophobia, both of which can be traced to the same fortnight in 1970.
In the summer of our fourth year at Nelson Grammar, with O-levels still 12 months away, we were obliged to serve our time at Whitehough Camp School. This was not where you learned to mince like Larry Grayson, but to fend for yourself in the great outdoors.
The school was near Barley, at the foot of Pendle Hill, and comprised several fields where tents were pitched (there were also dormitories for if the weather got too foul, which was often).
It was run by an enthusiastic chap named Ken Oldham (shirts off, boys!) who led a variety of expeditions into the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District.
One such trip involved climbing Helvellyn, known to Lakes veterans as one of the easier rambles from one direction, but which can also be tackled via a narrow ridge known as Striding Edge (you can see some great pictures here), with a sheer drop of thousands of feet on both sides. Until then, I had never had a problem with heights but looking down at what seemed like certain death in either direction I was stricken with a dizzying terror and clung to the rocks unable to move.
Seeing my predicament, the saintly Ken tried to reassure me and finally persuaded me to carry on while he walked beside and below me, at great risk to himself, in case I should fall. It goes without saying that I emerged physically unscathed but the damage was done. From then on any hint of heights has given me nausea and a pain in the groin never felt under any other circumstances (sorry, probably too much information there).
Worse was yet to come. On another excursion, we visited a cave named Long Churn in the Dales, described here as ‘probably the best way to introduce an absolute beginner to the Ingleborough underworld’.
With light on head and fear in heart, I shuffled with the others through dank, dripping, stinking caverns. We came to a pool which apparently had an invisible causeway through the middle – if you fell off you’d be up to your neck in freezing water. We were cheerily informed that the cave was particularly susceptible to flooding and several people had died in there.
That negotiated, it was time for an obstacle which Ken referred to as ‘the letterbox’ or ‘fat man’s agony’, although it is now commonly known as the ‘cheese press’. This involved crawling for some distance through a narrow horizontal slit in a rock face. With several layers of clothing, and not being the slenderest of our cohort, I got stuck. Again my head spun and I was about to start screaming when someone seized my legs and dragged me out. It turned out that there was an alternative and much easier route which was presumably regarded as less character-building.
Another tough incident, if less harrowing, was my own stupid fault. It came when we climbed Pendle Hill en masse and a friend and I decided it would be a good idea to scratch our names on the cairn marking its summit at 1,831ft. On our return, a teacher who had witnessed our vandalism presented us with two lots of wire wool and made us go back to the top and erase the damage. By the time we got back we had missed dinner.
The fortnight did have its moments, notably when I spent the night of my 15th birthday at a camp site in Stainforth sharing illicit bottles of Guinness with a lass from form 4G, but the scars of Striding Edge and Long Churn remain.
I have since generally managed to avoid such phobia attacks, with the exception firstly of the Wales v Scotland World Cup football qualifier in October 1977. Because of previous crowd trouble involving Wales supporters, the match was switched from Ninian Park, Cardiff, to Liverpool.
Persuaded to attend by a Scots colleague, I was one of a group of four sub-editors who arrived at Anfield to be confronted by a sea of huge drunken kilt-wearers wielding flags and claymores. There were clearly more than could be accommodated in the stadium.
We had found our place at the back of the Kop end to await the kick-off when thousands of ticketless Jocks began pouring in after knocking down a wall. By the time play began I was jammed between four of them, my feet not touching the ground. The first half came and went with me unable to move. I can’t comment on the justice of Scotland being awarded a deeply dubious second-half penalty or the quality of Kenny Dalglish’s late goal to make it 2-0, because I could see nothing through a barrier of swaying tam o’shanters.
The Welsh goalkeeper Dai Davies has since said it was a good job they lost, otherwise the Tartan Army would have gone on a murderous rampage.
How I made it out of that ordeal with some vestiges of sanity left remains a mystery to me. I’ve never been to Liverpool since.
The most recent panic attack was a double-header. My better half and I took a coach trip to the top of 12,000ft Mount Teide in Tenerife. Or rather, almost to the top. The last bit involved riding in a cable car. I gritted my teeth and climbed in, consoling myself with the fact that it least there weren’t many on board. Then a school party poured in and we were jammed like sardines, swaying hundreds of feet in the air. Vertigo and claustrophobia, two for the price of one.
Drunken days with Ollie Reed
ON a more cheerful note, my regular correspondent Bob Lee emailed me about a ten-day drinking session involving his old Burnley school friend Bill Peart and the legendarily thirsty actor Oliver Reed.
The pair met at a cocktail party in Barbados aboard HMS Fearless in the early 70s, when Bill was a lieutenant in the Royal Marines.
‘As the most visible VIP invited aboard, Reed was the centre of attention for the young officers, ladies and guests. Bill, something of an iconoclast and a typical Burnley cynic in his early 20s, gave Reed a wide berth, deliberately not joining what he considered to be sycophants at the bar in their backslapping and gladhanding of the great man. Reed noticed this behaviour and approached Bill to find a reason for his standoffishness. Given his honest opinion, Reed declared, “You’re my sort of company, we’ll meet up tomorrow for drinks.”
‘The title “Lieut Bill Peart” was thought far too anodyne by Ollie, so Bill was given the soubriquet “Lord Kimberly of Pretoria” for the duration of their time together. Women were like flies round a honeypot when Reed was around the pool and Bill and he spent afternoons being waited on with “would you care for another drink my lord?” by bikini-clad beauties. The two macho men were busy racing each other up and down the pool, with the loser having to down a Bacardi punch in one. Bill, having been school swimming champion by some margin, won every time, so Ollie (not unnaturally) drank pints of the stuff.
‘Reed’s brother Simon was responsible for settling all bills. It was thought too dangerous to allow Ollie loose with a chequebook or credit card.
‘One day Bill, who was 6ft 3in and a former Northern Counties heavyweight boxing champ, threw Ollie into the pool. Reed responded by doing likewise to Bill, who was wearing his Gieves and Hawkes suit at the time.
‘On return to the UK, Reed wrote a short letter to Bill. He showed it to me and I recall the opening lines to this day. “Dear dog robber. (A dog robber is the RAF equivalent of a batman). Thank you very much for completely f***ing up my quiet stay in Barbados . . .”.’
Old jokes’ home
I tried to warn my son about playing Russian roulette. It went in one ear and out the other.
A PS from PG
I don’t know if you have had the same experience, but a thing I have found in life is that from time to time, as you jog along, there occur moments which you are able to recognise immediately with the naked eye as high spots. Something tells you that they are going to remain etched, if etched is the word I want, for ever on the memory and will come back to you at intervals down the years, as you are dropping off to sleep, banishing that drowsy feeling and causing you to leap on the pillow like a gaffed salmon.
PG Wodehouse: The Code of the Woosters