What’s the earliest age it is possible to develop a phobia? I ask because my younger daughter E, who is seventeen months old, has taken to seeing spiders everywhere. She will be playing happily enough when, suddenly spying some bit of fluff or black smudge on the floor, she will squeak ‘Pider!’ and leap into the nearest available pair of arms. When she’s really in the zone it’s fifty Piders a minute. Pider! Pider! Pider! Piders under the table, Piders on the stairs. When lowering her into the bath she will curl up her legs like a refusenik cat, imagining Piders in the water. It is becoming tiresome. Yet at other times she satirises her own obsession, pointing at everything – chairs, teddies, parents – and saying ‘Pider’ while cackling with laughter. And a few days ago she picked up an ant and nonchalantly popped it into her mouth.
I see a lot of myself in E, more so than in C, who is like her mother. My own arachnophobia is significant but I have learnt to live with it as just another irritating background feature of life. Tarantulas are frequent guest stars in my dreams, as are zombies and Noseybonks, but even my recurring nightmares don’t really frighten me any more – they’re more like a wearying chore. Oh well, here come the flesh eating zombies plodding up the stairs, suppose I ought to run away then, sigh. That said, the other night I dreamt that E and I were wedged into a triangular space in the corner of an attic, and when the monstrous spider that lurked in the beam overhead came scuttling towards us the surge of icy adrenaline that went through my spine was so severe that I woke instantly, gasping.
Despite the above I am the least arachnophobic adult in the house, and as such the spider-removing duties fall to me. For this I have developed a couple of psychological tricks, which I hereby pass on free of charge.
Arachnophobia tip 1: when using the pint-glass-and-piece-of-card method of removal, it helps to unfocus your eyes a bit, so that the unspeakable hideousness of the spider’s anatomy becomes a relatively benign black blur. (Naturally the pint glass method only applies to middle-sized house spiders. Anything bigger than the diameter of a pint glass is obviously out of the question and should be destroyed with a nearby object, preferably one with a long handle. Very small spiders, meanwhile, are for some reason ‘not worth’ sparing and can be similarly killed, e.g. by stamping. We live in a cruel, illogical world.)
Arachnophobia tip 2: spiders are evil creatures from hell, but fortunately they are quite small. ‘Small’ is of course a relative term – a hairy arachnid the size of your face does not seem ‘small’ when it appears in the sink one bleary morning. But you can turn relativity to your advantage with this ingenious self-deceptive trick which I invented some years ago and which is always appreciated when I pass it on to fellow arachnophobes. When confronted with a ‘big’ spider, you must imagine that it was once impossibly huge – a gargantuan slobbering Shelob, the size of a tractor – but that a wizard has cast a shrinking spell on it to reduce it to its current dimensions. Seen that way, even a real biggie loses much of its horror. At least until it starts scuttling towards you.
In this diary on 2 March I suggested that, come election day, a great many people “might toddle along to the voting booth and put a cross in the UKIP box” as a specific protest about the scale of Eastern European immigration. And on 2 May that’s exactly what they did. UKIP came from nowhere to second in my ward, a traditional Labour stronghold.
For myself, I am pro-immigration, primarily because we must import young workers to fund our ageing population. But immigration should be a steady trickle, spread as evenly as possible across the country to allow for painless absorption. Instead, what we have had is a flash flood, like when a month’s worth of rain was dumped in one night earlier this year and the infrastructure couldn’t cope. News reports tend to talk about immigration stats in national terms, but these are only obliquely relevant because the practical effects are very local – i.e. flash flood immigrants live together. In my ward three Polski Skleps have opened within a hundred yards of each other. The doctor’s surgery has signs in Polish and English and, as anyone who has tried to make an appointment there will know, the local public services have been put under unreasonable strain. The UKIP vote was a “That’s enough for now”, not, I fancy, a wish that Bristol St George West secede from the European Union.
But on the subject of exiting the EU, has anybody seen a single argument advanced by a British pro-European that isn’t based on economic scare tactics? I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising since, as a ‘democratic’ institution, the EU is indefensible. Call-me-Dave’s fear of UKIP means that he’ll be fighting the next election on the centre-ground but with the promise of an EU referendum. I reckon this formula could see him, against all odds, squeak to a minority Tory government. It almost never happens that a government increases its share of the vote at an election, which the Tories must do to win, but these are strange times and in Ed Miliband he couldn’t wish for a less Prime Ministerial opponent. I have no idea how Cameron would deal with the referendum he would then be presiding over, given that he’ll presumably be arguing for staying in. Politics was so dull under Blair and Brown, but we’re heading for interesting times.
So Sir Alex Ferguson has retired, and in doing so has severed the last link between the current professional game and the football that was my innocent passion and joy as a schoolboy. He is a Celtic Giant and the managerial landscape looks featureless in his absence. How I hated him and his numerous brilliant Manchester United teams – particularly the Roy Keane-led skinhead manifestation that invented choreographed referee-intimidation. In the end though my feelings toward Ferguson are of respect and sympathy. Respect for his achievements, and sympathy because in football no achievement is ever enough. He wanted to ‘knock Liverpool off their perch’, which he did when Man Utd surpassed their record of 18 league titles. But then what happened? Football just carried on, is what. It is a race without a finishing line, there is always another season hurtling along as soon as the last one is ended. There can never be a moment when you say ‘Now we’ve done it, we’ve Won Football once and for all!” Which is why he took so long to retire, poor old bastard. Such is my theory, but at any rate, one thing we can say for absolutely certain about Sir Alex Ferguson is that nobody in the history of football has ever chewed gum more disagreeably.
Talking of old bastards, the new David Bowie album is a treat. Having heard the single Where are we now? I was expecting a croaky, meandering meditation on old age and death. Far from it, the single is anomalous and The Next Day is full of huge, hammering tunes and rocks like a mutha. A glorious surprise, do check it out.
As I said earlier, I see a lot of myself in E. Her arachnophobia seemed to start on Bank Holiday Monday, when we put her on the grass in the back garden and she became spooked by the crawlies therein (she hasn’t had much practice in the garden, bless her: of her 500-odd days on the planet, approximately three have been sunny). I’ve never been entirely comfortable with grass, especially long grass. Peripheral horror of the hidden stickies and creepers and biters and dog turds. I grew up on the coast, give me shingle, sand dune, slabs of granite. I’d rather stretch lizardlike on a rock than loll in a meadow. Boiling hot tarmac is the smell of summer for me.
Besides, grass isn’t natural. It’s an effete affectation, probably imported from France. The real Britain – before the bronze age and before the stone age – had no grass and was made of bare rock, thistles and dead mollusc shells. In those days Celtic Giants bestrode the country, pounding up and down in herds from the North Sea to the Welsh mountains. They were called things like Benandonner na bhFomhóraigh, or Gog, and they patrolled the edges of the tangled black forests of Ancient Mercia, and whenever one of the huge, Shelob-like spiders dared to venture out into the light they would splatter it with a big crude club.