I’ve discovered a brilliant way to cure my phobias. It’s so easy, so ingenious and so cheap (it cost me nothing), that I want to share it with as many people as possible. My technique will work its magic on any trivial or unreasonable fear you suffer from. Mine happens to be flying. Or it used to be. Until 28 July this year I hadn’t travelled in a plane, or even visited an airport, for 16 years. I was perfectly content as a flightless species, but my wife likes to flit off to the Med whenever possible and enjoy a week of sunstroke and food poisoning, so she booked us a holiday in the island paradise of Gozo, a tuffet of volcanic rock near Malta. I wasn’t keen to go but I felt I owed my wife a thank-you present for rearing our lusty little lad to the age of three without offering a single murmur of complaint — at least not while she’s asleep.
I researched our destination. In July the temperature of Gozo is about the same as the temperature of a forest fire. Photographs indicated that the island’s chief attraction (apart from eating couscous and watching jet-ski accidents) is a collection of poorly repaired churches. Gozo’s residents express themselves in Italian and Arabic, languages I don’t speak, so my conversational sallies would be limited to package-tour English. Sun hot. Tummy painful. Doctor quick.
I had a higher motive too. Spurred by manly pride, and a modicum of social embarrassment, I was determined to do battle with my fear of flying. The swiftest way to disempower a phobia, as we all know, is to embrace it and assimilate it by a simple process of habituation. Our flight was at noon. At 8.30 a.m. my wife was upstairs filling three suitcases with an edited version of her life’s complexities while I was down in the kitchen with little Isaac, searching for the perfect pre-flight stiffener. I poured half a litre of vodka into a plastic bottle and added a spoonful of orange juice. And there it was. A ‘screwdriver’, I believe it’s called. Fluids aren’t permitted on aeroplanes these days, apparently, so I necked the lot as our train bowled through south London towards Gatwick.
Reaching the terminal, I knew I wasn’t quite ‘there’ yet, even though I’d taken the additional precaution of having a glass of Valpolicella for breakfast. Luckily, I’d secreted a can of Special Brew in my jacket, just in case, and having downed the super-strength wonder-beer while trundling along a travelator I began to feel absolutely tickety-boo, as they used to say in Bomber Command. Climb aboard a 737? I’d have flown the damn thing if I could have found it. But I couldn’t. And it’s at this point that my holiday memoir becomes a little hazy. Not only could I not find the plane, the plane couldn’t find me. Nor could the flight attendants. Not could my wife who, temporarily beguiled by some overpriced sunglasses, had failed to spot me ambling towards an unmarked stairwell. For two hours the full deployment of Gatwick’s locate-and-detain team scoured every inch of their patch and failed to discover me. (Note to SO19 — if you can’t identify one paralytic holiday-maker, what chance do you have against waves of highly trained terrorists?)
Resigned to her status as an abandoned party, my wife wiped away her briney mascara and boarded the plane with my son and our luggage. But as soon as the on-board bureaucracy registered my absence she was chucked straight back off. ‘Security’ was cited. Obviously it’s standard practice for a terrorist to put his family on a plane, smuggle an exploding knapsack into the baggage-hold, and then toddle home to watch the fireball on the news.
I returned to our house, somehow or other, and settled down to a well-earned snooze. My wife showed up a few hours later. After some interesting discussions we decided to try again. Noon, next day. Gatwick. As we returned to the check-in, little Isaac had a flashback which emerged in a burst of merry chatter. ‘Mummy crying,’ he trilled. ‘Lost aspen, lost aspen.’ I chuckled nostalgically. My mood this time was sober and serene, bordering on positively radiant. That’s because I wasn’t getting on an aero-plane. My task was merely to wave goodbye to the Evans duo from the safety of the good sweet earth. Terra never felt firma.
Six days later my understrength family returned from the sub-tropics, faces glowing like lumps of uranium, intestines bubbling with toxic bacteria. A perfect holiday all round. Mind you, I couldn’t help noticing I didn’t get a present.
It didn’t matter. A far greater prize was now mine. I had trounced my demons. I had conquered my fears. Never again would I be afraid of flying, because never again would I take to the clouds. Simple as that. Phobia dispatched. Now at this point you’ll be thinking I’ve cheated. I haven’t cured my phobia. I’ve surrendered to it. And that’s not allowed.
Well, here’s the fascinating thing. A phobia is a two-pronged beast. One prong is the phobia itself. Prong two is the fear of social disapproval if you treat your phobia in unorthodox fashion. Phobics are under invisible pressure to adopt the correct procedures. A good phobic enlarges on his panic attacks and feverish sweats. He bores his peers with tales of mantra-chanting and crystal-fondling, of psychic refits and soul overhauls.
All that stuff’s acceptable, even glamorous. What’s beyond the pale is to junk the therapy cult altogether and sign an unconditional surrender pact. I’ve tried telling people I’m scared of flying and I’m not going to do anything about it and they’re appalled. They look away in disgust. They cross the room. It’s like telling them I’ve taken up bear-baiting. Or shooting orphans in the sewers.
It’s not as if I’ve turned into a xenophobic little Englander. The world is still my oyster. A ferry to Dieppe and I can penetrate the farthest crannies of Africa and Asia in my hiking boots, and if the Bering Straits stay frozen, my overland range extends to the tranny-shacks of New York and the scrublands of Tierra del Fuego. Travel is possible. Over-rapid, transcontinental travel isn’t.
The outrage I’ve encountered must be a form of religious abhorrence. I’m a heretic, a denier of the orthodoxy that science and its first ministers, analysis and technology, are an invincible force making our lives ever happier, richer, longer and more enjoyable. Every problem can be solved by the application of sophisticated thinking.
But it can’t. Fear of flying, I’ve discovered, isn’t confined to a handful of neurotics. Nor is it widespread. It’s universal. The most seasoned traveller is apprehensive during take off and landing. And when the plane lurches into a thunderstorm, even the pilot grips the controls a little tighter. That’s common sense. To hurtle through the sky at 600mph in a sitting-room made of tin is inherently risky. It’s unnatural too. And those who refuse to do it, or who openly fear it, are classed as ‘phobics’, as sufferers from a form of lunacy. To me that’s the oddest thing of all. Some readers will agree with my family and conclude that I’m a head-case. I’m mental. Suits me fine. Bring a strait-jacket. I’d rather be strapped into that than into economy.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 19, 2009