"Fear. What oh what is fear?" is the first line of a poem published in 1967. Perhaps you remember it. I wrote it.
The poem was included in an anthology of school children's writing and it was very bad indeed. The first line is the only one I am going to quote because it is the only line that is a. born of direct experience and b. not an exercise in showing off how many long words I knew.
The genesis of the poem was taking the dog for a walk. I was nine and the dog was called Rebel which is all you need to know about either of us. It was dusk. Rebel, as was his habit, ran off into someone's back garden, lured no doubt by the sort of delicacy that he was forever seeking out, such as a patch of dried vomit. I was too frightened to follow him.
While I waited in the street, dusk became dark. I was pant-fillingly afraid of the dark. By the time Rebel re-appeared, the metaphor in that last sentence was metaphor no longer. Hence, what oh what is fear?
More than half a century later it remains a fair question. The best answer I can offer is the formula that Thomas Hobbes came up with in the 18th century, when he suggested that fear is the obverse of desire.
Desire urges us towards something, said Hobbes, while fear urges us away from it and the thing that we like to refer to as life consists merely of the tension between those two forces. Fear then is half of life and it takes the oddest forms.
"Come with me," I said yesterday to a young woman, and I led her into my garage. "Look!" and I pointed high on the wall where there is a swallows' nest, a fetching little cup of mud of which I am almost as proud as the swallows that rear chicks in it every year.
And, even as I pointed, out flew a swallow that had been feeding nestlings and it buzzed us then swooped out the garage door like a tiny fighter plane.
"Voilà," I cried like a conjuror and turned for my guest's applause but she'd run.
"If I'd only known you were an orniphobe," I said five minutes later as I poured her an emollient Baileys in the kitchen. "I'm so very sorry."
"It's not your fault."
"Tell me, what exactly is it that you find so frightening about …?"
"Don't," she said with urgency. "Please just don't say the word. Let's talk of something else." And we did.
The prize for the most extreme orniphobe I have met, however, goes not to her but to a man called Alan. He was six foot three inches tall, not much less wide, Welsh and devoted to rugby.
He and I were once seated side by side in a minibus in London and unbeknownst to him I had a wounded pigeon in a shoe-box at my feet. The pigeon was dying but it still managed to flap its wings whereupon Alan noticed it for the first time and promptly got out of the minibus.
This was impressive not only because we were going about 20km/h at the time but also because Alan was driving.
When I managed to bring the vehicle to a halt by seizing the handbrake Alan was standing in the road. Before I could ask how he was, he let me know with unimprovable clarity that if I imagined he was going to be getting back into that minibus while there remained any suspicion of a trace of a hint of that ... of that … of that thing, then I was in error.
This presented me with a problem. In the back of the bus sat 15 foreign children at whose urging I had rescued the pigeon from a frenzied assault by its peers and at whose behest I was bringing it back to the school where I was working, ostensibly to nurse it back to health.
Nearby was a little park. I set off for it with the pigeon in its box.
"Hey," cried a French boy, "Joe's going to kill ze bird", and he jumped out of the minibus to chase me.
I rounded a corner, wrung the bird's neck, flung it into a bush and when the lad found me I was pointing high to where the late pigeon was supposedly rowing across the sky on its way home to roost.
I looked at the French boy and he looked at me. "You kill ze bird," he said.
I nodded. I could hardly say it was fear's fault.