I have never jumped off a cliff before. In my heart of hearts, though, I am pretty sure that I am more than capable of such a feat. It is the sort of thing that you would do once, on a gap year. You would be surrounded by suntanned, blissed-out friends in various stages of undress, who would whoop and cheer you on. You would step amazingly into sheer air, off some wobbly ledge, and plunge down into the basin of a glittering tropical waterfall. I have seen the same scenario at least three hundred times over the years, on gap year photos on Facebook. This is going off the cliff in its most clichéd and readily accessible form.
I have an uneasy memory from my childhood of doing something that was psychologically akin to jumping off a cliff. I have been trying to massage this memory into reliable life again over the last few days.
I was on a residential school trip to Wales. Myself and some school friends (all boys) were loitering, unattended, at the base of a castle that had been built up on a steep hill. In my memory, it was evening, the air was cooling, and we had been driven up to this castle in a white minibus. The lone adult of the party was still sitting in the minibus. We boys were meant to hang about outside the walls of the unopened castle and simply look at them, because the week was scrappily organised and this evening we had been left at a loose end. By now, I have such a distrust of my memory that I suspect that none of these details are true. It was probably morning. The minibus was probably blue. The castle was probably not the starkly silhouetted crumbling tower that presents itself to me now.
I can no longer remember the name of the Welsh activity centre and I cannot find anything on Google Image Search that corresponds with my memory of how this castle had appeared. Let us nonetheless adhere to how the memory unfolds in my mind.
Bored with looking at the walls of the castle, we gravitated towards the brink of the hill. Grass plummeted down almost vertically and the bottom looked terrifyingly far away. We were all rather listlessly daring each other to run down the hill when I suddenly announced that I would do it. This decision startled me immensely. It was like hearing an imposter make the lunatic announcement on my behalf, in a bemused faraway voice. I should explain that in any group of male children, I was normally the physically slightest, so this bravery had a natural improbability to it. Even so, I knew immediately that I couldn’t back out and so I set off on my run.
A third of the way down the hill and my legs were scrabbling so quickly and jerkily that they went numb and stopped functioning. I slipped into a roll, head over heels. That clear-as-a-bell realisation came to me – as it will come to you one day when you are being hit by a car or having a heart attack – that “At last, this is it. Something is going significantly wrong.” Yet wondrously nothing snapped or tore. I gradually rolled myself out and slithered to a stop. To my dismay, deep grass stains were smeared across my trousers. I twisted my face back to gaze up at the castle and its distance was now readjusted so that it was disconcertingly small. Its frank face looked levelly down at me. Next, I could hear the tiny voices of my friends exclaiming from the top of the hill, piping like astonished insects.
Now they all had to jump as well. I lay at the bottom of the hill, dizzy and sore and laughing, as bodies hurled themselves over the precipice and clattered inelegantly down the slope. Nobody broke anything. Our bodies were young and flexible; the gradient of the hill was no doubt not as dramatic as it had seemed from the top.
This is more or less the complete psychological terrain of cliff leaping. I feel that I have been there and planted my flag. When George Mallory was asked in 1923 why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, his laconic reply was, “Because it’s there.” But cliffs, when they are contemplated by aspirant jumpers, are not simply there, as some objectively quantifiable input. They are built – out of our fears and our dire imaginings and our failures to prepare for them.