Diary

John Lanchester

I am agoraphobic – though when I hear case-histories of some of my fellow agoraphobics, who have to slay mental dragons and scale psychological Matterhorns before they can even begin to think about going out of the house, I feel pretty lucky. There are people who haven’t been outdoors for twenty or thirty years. In my own case, I have extended periods of complete equilibrium before what behaviourists would call a ‘bad learning experience’ intervenes, and seems somehow to teach me about the possibility of the phobia all over again.

The most recent of the ‘bad learning experiences’ – which have an odd similarity to hallucinogenic ‘bad trips’ – was in the Lake District in March. A friend and I were walking up a mountain in the Langdale Pikes. We had visited the Dungeon Ghyll Force, a narrow cascade which was allegedly a crucial influence on Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ – a visit made more impressive by the mist-wreathed, deserted approach to the Ghyll: it’s supposed normally to be so crowded that you risk being trampled to death if you pause to tie your sneakers. That day, though, was so lonely that the whole planet might have been abandoned.

We carried on up the mountain, with me out of shape, out of breath, and feeling slightly spooked by the weather, which had started off miraculously sunny until the descent of a heavy mist. Then we mislaid the path we were supposed to be climbing and found ourselves scrambling up a longish patch of hostile scree. My agoraphobic episode – my ‘wobbly’, in the words of my companion – was triggered by emergence from the mist into the sudden clarity of the sunshine, and the terrifying extensiveness of the panorama that opened up above the cloud level. (‘You get one day like this every twenty years,’ a fell-walking old-timer later exultedly assured me.) I suffered a full-scale panic attack – a gasping, palpitating, trembling panic attack – and had to get down off the mountain as fast as possible.

Once it’s happened, it tends to happen again. You become afraid of the fear: you start to monitor yourself for the physical symptoms of raised pulse rate, shallow breathing and so on, which in themselves help to precipitate you onto what they call the ‘panic spiral’. An episode like the one I’ve described tends to lead to others, and then to a few months of consciously fighting off the phobia, exercising a small panoply of tricks and techniques to keep it at bay until one has acquired the knowledge that it’s somehow dealable-with – and then it goes away. The good learning experiences, eventually and with luck, gang up and cancel the bad. Intellectually speaking, I’m not a terrific fan of behaviourism, but the fact is that in the past it’s been behavioural exercises of the crudest sort that have helped me with my agoraphobia.

When, in May, I started a three-month sabbatical from the London Review, I was still suffering the effects of that earlier wobbly: I was still having to be careful, and still having to fight off mini-wobblies and anxiety attacks more or less every time I went out. One of the consequences of that was that I never really got the full benefit of the place I was staying, a Cumbrian village called Bardsea whose chief glory is its location. A hundred and fifty yards away, down a footpath beside the house, was Morecambe Bay: with the assistance of a guide it’s still possible to take a 14-mile route across the sands to Lancaster, which is about fifty miles away by road. The tide is often a very long way out, turning Morecambe Bay into an extraordinarily impressive and dramatic expanse of sand, sky and distant water, which can look exuberantly Mediterranean in good weather and loweringly, oppressively Nordic when under cloud. The same phenomena turn the Bay, as seen from Bardsea, into a perfect horrorshow for agoraphobics, and I’m afraid that in three months I never really came to terms with that view: even when I was able to march up the hill behind the house to the sheep-infested expanses of Birkrigg Common I had to be careful not to turn around until I knew that the Bay was out of sight.

Birkrigg Common wasn’t the only reason for climbing the hill. There was also a Neolithic stone circle, one of quite a few in Cumbria, hidden by high grass near an overgrown quarry. The stones – which immediately became a place of pilgrimage for hippy friends, who would trudge dutifully up the hill to smoke a joint inside them – was one of several sites of religious interest around Bardsea. Within two miles there was a church, at Pennington, with an 1170 Norse inscription and also a recently excavated sheelagh-na-gig (a pre-Christian mother-goddess exposing her vulva); Swarthmoor Hall, where George Fox established the Society of Friends, and got the squire who was protecting him in trouble with the locals; and Conishead Priory, a magnificent piece of 19th-century phoney Gothic whose building and upkeep bankrupted the Bradyll family. In the early days, according to Frank Welsh’s unimprovably good Companion Guide to the Lake District,[1] the Priory came ‘complete with hermit in his cell, contractually obliged to refrain from haircuts and too-frequent washing’. The building is now run and maintained by a likeable sect of Tibetan Buddhists, who are often seen in and around Ulverston, the nearby market town, wearing red robes, shaved heads and the zonked smiles of day-long meditators. The residential community has its numbers swelled by influxes of visiting Buddhists on residential courses – Buddhists who sometimes seem to indicate through their City jobs and Golf GTi’s that attachment to the material world hasn’t yet been completely severed.

I suppose this concentration of places of religious import isn’t all that unusual in Britain: whenever you stay somewhere long enough to look into its history, the experience is always vertiginous. At times, I had the feeling that the whole of Cumbria was the invention of a novelist – a novelist, moreover, who has a penchant for dealing out none-too-subtle historical parallels and ironies. Take Barrow-in-Furness, the nearest town of size, about ten miles from Bardsea. Barrow is a bleak and isolated place, which gives off a very strong (and entirely justified) feeling of being an extremely long way from anywhere else. The area has been surviving on industry and ingenuity since the 12th century, when the monks of Furness Abbey farmed and exploited resources on an industrial scale: as with everywhere else in this country, it’s getting on for a millennium since the landscape could genuinely be described as not man-made.

The wonderfully suggestive ruin of the Abbey now stands on the outskirts of Barrow town, which was more or less invented by the railway in the 19th century, and survives – with a population of 75,000 – entirely thanks to Vickers the ship-builders, who have a contract to make Trident submarines. Everyone in Barrow works for Vickers, and Trident dominates the town’s landscape literally as well as metaphorically: the subs are being built in a vast white shed, hundreds of yards long and hundreds of feet high, visible from all over Barrow, and presiding over the landscape in the way that a Medieval cathedral would have. Trident, though, stands to be one of the first casualties of the ‘peace dividend’: and the cancellation of Trident will effectively destroy Barrow-in Furness. In a novel, if you came across a piece of grandstanding symbolism like the giant submarine shed and the ruined abbey you’d think: nah, come off it – give me a break ...

That feeling of literariness, of being inside a giant fiction, is not accidental. The area in and around the Lake District, as well as being the usual type of historical palimpsest, is also a literary palimpsest – specifically, a Romantic one. When the railway was being extended past Furness Abbey to Barrow, Wordsworth wrote one of his dodgy sonnets to complain about it and to praise the pious workmen for lunching in the Abbey’s precincts:

Well have yon Railway Labourers to this ground
Withdrawn for noontide rest.

(Oh well, that’s all right then, the navvies must have thought.) Wordsworth was, in fact, a pioneer nimby, strongly and successfully opposing extension of the railway to his own Grasmere, on the grounds that the influx of trippers would destroy the character of the Lakes. Graham Coster’s terrific novel Train, Train,[2] about a group of train buffs who renovate a disused railway, gets considerable mileage out of this, which was perhaps Wordsworth’s first inkling that the movement he had helped to start contained the seeds of its own destruction: it’s almost axiomatic that the greater the number of people who go looking for the picturesque, the less of the picturesque there’s going to be for them to enjoy, what with the crowds and the traffic. The Romantic sublime segues to the touristic ridiculous. Last year’s August Bank Holiday saw the A591 hosting the worst traffic jam in the country, with the Windermere-to-Ambleside road locked solid by stationary vehicles, boiling cars full of boiling families. Getting on for a year later, locals were still describing the jam with headshaking incredulity.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that the place which was so important in the crystallisation of the modern world’s attitude to nature – a romantic and sentimental attitude, in the capitalised and uncapitalised senses of both words – is one of the first places where one can see that we are going to have to reach a new accommodation with our planet. The thesis of Bill McKibben’s book, The End of Nature,[3] is surely true: there’s no such thing as a natural world external to us, untouched by us, any more: we have, in some scarily Promethean way, invented the world we live in, and if we want to keep some of it apparently intact from our own depredations we are going to have to make a conscious decision to do so. In the Lake District, that means that the number of cars and visitors is going to have to be limited, and the notion that everyone has the right to unmediated access to its ‘natural beauty’ will come to an end – not an important change in the global order of things, perhaps, but one with a certain symbolic resonance.

Prometheus came to mind quite often while I was in Bardsea. Ulverston, three miles away, houses a large chemical factory, perched on the edge of Morecambe Bay; just across the bay, visible in all weathers, is the nuclear power station at Heysham in Lancashire, lit up at night like a recently-landed spaceship; submarines being built at Barrow-in-Furness ten miles away will carry 24 missiles, each of which will carry eight independently-targeted warheads, each of which will have a destructive capacity of 100 kilotons; at Sellafield, thirty miles further round the coast and the next major employer after Barrow, is a nuclear waste reprocessing plant which has discharged millions of gallons of ‘low-grade’ radioactive waste into the Irish Sea. Just before I went up to Cumbria, the news broke that the area’s notoriously high incidence of child leukaemia was associated, not with the discharge of nuclear waste, but with the fact that the children’s fathers had worked in Sellafield. This, because it means that the leukaemia risk isn’t distributed among the general population, is, by contemporary standards, a piece of good news – though the people who work inside Sellafield may not see it quite that way. British Nuclear Fuels Limited – consistently bumptious, cocksure and lacking in gravitas through all public dealings – simply don’t deserve to have a work-force at all.

At first I thought that fears about waste from Sellafield accounted for the fact that one never saw anyone swimming in Morecambe Bay, which at times would look like someone’s fantasy of the ideal beach, miles of deserted sand. The real reason, though, turned out to be grimmer and more basic: the water in Morecambe Bay is full of human excrement. It is polluted by having raw sewage (wonderful name) dumped into it: every beach around the Bay – including Blackpool, the most famous pleasure beach in the country – fails EC health criteria.

There’s something very shocking about the idea that one can’t swim in the sea. Like most people, I seem to have somehow got used to the idea that one shouldn’t swim in rivers (though how did that assumption ever come to feel so natural?), but the idea that we have managed to fuck up the ocean to such an extent that one can’t swim in it is still very disturbing. I gradually began to notice other things about the Bay, such as the absence of seagulls – presumably caused by the fact that the expanses of mud flats left by the retreating tide, a food-rich environment which would normally be crawling with gulls, contained nothing alive for them to eat. (The birds aren’t alone in the paucity of their dietic choice, given the mad cow scare, the radioactive Cumbrian lamb alert and the prospect of eating fish who feast daily off a carte of effluents, human and radioactive.) A circumnavigation of the Bay by train takes one through a series of towns – Grange-over-Sands, Cartmel – which were built around the idea that the sea was good for you: their architecture and lay-out addresses itself towards the sea, and towards the association of sea-water with health. Now it’s impossible to think of that sea-water without disgust – swim in it, and you’re swimming in shit. I’d heard all the arguments about our relationship to the environment, and I’d given them intellectual assent, but I’m not sure I really believed in the urgency of the whole environmentalist project until I went to Cumbria. By the end of my time in Bardsea, though, I’d come to think that there are less appropriate things to feel when looking at Morecambe Bay than the onset of a panic attack.

[1] Collins, 416 pp., £12, 1989, 0 00 217768 4.

[2] Minerva, 224 pp., £4.99, 5 July 1990, 0 7493 9084 0.

[3] Penguin, 212 pp., £4.99, 30 August 1990, 0 14 012306 7.