Going up pipes, down manholes, through tunnels, into dark dank corners, beneath the sea, beneath roads and ground, deep or shallow, in compressed air or in sludge and sewage, was ever the lot of the inspection engineer, Nature has instilled in us all an instinct for self-preservation, which translates to reactions varying from being startled through apprehension to blind terror. The degree varies from person to person and from situation to situation. Controlling fear is second nature, helped by adrenaline, and often called upon for the most unprepossessing reasons.
Take one instance. I was Resident Engineer on a large contract, constantly under the eye of all of the site workmen. Men in heavy engineering, with their own values, judge you by their own competence, not yours. You have to be prepared to go where you intend sending them, and understand and, within reason, be able to do, what you expect of them. Hesitate and authority is gone. A sheet steel cofferdam, – a steel box – had been constructed off shore to resist the waves and the tides. Access consisted of a slightly springy, eighty foot long, U shaped pile, providing a foot wide walkway over a twenty foot chasm without a hand rail. The men were used not only to running up and down this ribbon of steel but on the tops of the piles and thought nothing of it. For my part, I was in a blue funk. Constructed from birth with a high centre of gravity, I have no confidence without a handhold. With something to grip I’ll go anywhere, up ladders, factory chimneys, I even went to the top of a mast of a ship at sea. Ask me to cross a band of scree or rocks up a mountain or at the sea shore and I become tentative. Under scrutiny I had no choice, I went up that beam and returned. Technically the walkway was not safe, it had no handrail – but I had to make the visit, honour demanded it, to do otherwise would have been a clear admission of fear. The next time I went, and for ever after, there was a handrail. My self-esteem had been upheld, but at some psychological expense.
On the destroyer, at Action-Stations – mostly in alleged mine fields – my station was in an office in the lowest part of the ship, and we were battened down as was everyone else below decks. On the first occasion I was acutely apprehensive, but one can’t remain afraid for ever and it became just a routine. On a ship on the Russian Run, a man I trained with drowned in similar circumstances as the ship was holed but not sunk. During the Blitz in London, if I wasn’t off fire watching, I rarely got up, but one night our district in South London was getting a battering and my Mother and I sat under the stairs. A stick of 6 to 8 bombs, exploding successively, started some considerable distance away and we heard them getting closer until they crossed us and continued away from us. My Mother never normally evinced emotion, but that night I witnessed almost stark terror. By comparison, at 16-17 I and my friends were not so much fearful, as excited by everything to do with the war, the guns on the commons, the shrapnel falling like red hot rain, and fire watching at nights. ‘Crossing the line’ at the Equator, on our way to Africa, aged six, I was afraid of the ceremony to come, and had to steel myself. Fear is as much in the imagination as anything, and those among us with vivid imaginations, suffer more than others, and have to control their anxieties more.
In the past we have been burgled six times in all, and as a result I have what I refer to as burglaritis. If something creaks or bumps, even if I’m asleep. I cannot rest until I have prowled the house to be sure no one has broken in. Because I subconsciously think I’m wasting my time I have no fear, what I would be like faced with a couple of masked men in the house would be something entirely different – probably extreme rage, with murder in my heart.
Fear, I believe, is a reflex, given us by nature for protection and self preservation. Time and experience modifies it, even to the point where we are not aware of fear in the most hazardous circumstances, when urgency, concern for others and experience takes over. To denigrate fear in others shows a lack of appreciation of the make up of fear and the degrees to which it can affect, even paralyse.