One of the last lessons I learnt at university in Birmingham was that vertigo was not a fear of heights but a fear of throwing oneself off buildings. The feeling of weakness in the knees, a slightly tightening in the throat was more a physical expression of a resistance to the will rather than a terror of what might befall us. The irony was not lost on my friend who told me this. He studied theology and is now a catholic priest, and his department was under the shadow of the only building on campus that had permanent netting over the windows up to the 17th floor to prevent the wind from blowing the glass out, or students taking their studies too seriously.
At the end of the first week in my new job at Aurum Press we took a lift to the 33rd floor of Centre Point in the Paramount Bar to raise a glass to one of the big books for 2012, a walking tour of London’s skyline. Written by a London Guide, the book will cover the highest landmarks in the capital and tell the story of the view from everything from Telegraph Hill to Hampstead Heath, including Centre Point, as a way of encouraging Londoners and Olympic visitors to go in search of a new perspective on the familiar. For most of us this was an exceptional and novel experience as we walked the 360 degree view of London that stretched 30 miles in every direction. But for one person, who had spent the day in deep concentration at the sales conference, it was the worst possible end to the day. Around a gallery walkway no more than 6 foot wide he clung as tightly as possible to the railing, and while everyone else had their cameras flashing, he sat with his back to the view anxiously shuffling his feet, and left as soon as it was polite to do so.
The week’s holiday in Portugal before I joined Aurum Press was capped off with one of the best books I have read this year. The boy would wake up around 6am for his milk before going back to sleep, which gave me an hour and half to tuck into Philip Connors’ sublime meditation on solitude in Fire Season: Field notes from a wilderness lookout.
Ostensibly about his life through the summer months in his tower looking out over the American wilderness for fires, it is really a meditation on how to be alone, and how to re-learn seeing the world. On good days he could gaze 120 miles in any direction, and when the fires didn’t burn – as happened through one entire month – he would practice counting off the mountain ranges on the horizon. Even in his 8th season there was still more to learn about the territory and about how he fitted in.
Perhaps then vertigo had another dimension – a resistance to seeing the world anew. One of the great fears of moving job is the idea of starting afresh. Too often we prefer to stick to what we know rather than set ourselves new tests. And the view from Paramount was a reminder that the new job is as much about learning a new perspective as it is about stepping up a gear. This is just as thrilling for me as it is being doing something new. As for Philip Connors, the new fire season starts in April and he can’t wait to return to his outpost.