being unconscious or dead that they think this might be a good idea in the first place. I'd
get drunk and climb things; city things, like buildings. Well, bits of buildings; I'm not
claiming I used to shin up Centre Point or scale the Houses of Parliament or anything.
Reversion-to-childhood thing: I was always climbing trees and scrambling up rocks
when I was young, and usually going a bit further on and up than my pals. This was not
so much the result of a spirit of competition as the consequence of possessing an oh, shit!
reaction that kicked in after most other people's had. I was always fairly tall and skinny
and I convinced myself that because my mum had been a professional ice skater I must
have inherited a brilliant sense of balance and this gave me an edge.
Even so, climbing, drunk or sober, should never have held this attraction for me; it
nearly killed me when I was a child. The experience ought to have traumatised me out of
such larks and left me with a profound fear of heights.
North Queensferry is sited on a stubby little peninsula sticking out from the south
coast of Fife; behind the village is/are the Ferry Hill/Ferry Hills (depends which map you
consult). When they were building the rail line to link up with the Forth Bridge back in
1890 the engineers decided to put a cutting through the raised ground, but the rock proved
unworkably friable; soft sandstone with scaly boulders of only slightly harder sandstone
embedded in it, and it kept falling into the cutting. They dug down about 60 feet but after
the umpteenth rock slide gave up and built a tunnel underneath instead, taking the same
line as the cutting, which thereafter just sat there, this weird, rock-strewn, overgrown
canyon a quarter of a mile long through the Ferry Hill(s).
One day, back when I was seven or eight, I was climbing up the west side of the cut-
ting with some of my pals; almost at the top, I grabbed this big boulder sticking out of the
cliff face above me and started to pull myself up. The boulder came out of the cliff like
a rotten tooth and both the boulder and I started to fall towards the floor of the cutting,
about 50 feet below.
I let go of the boulder; it crashed into the rocks beneath. I was caught by a whin
bush growing out of a narrow ledge a few feet below where I'd started falling. I got very
scratched and there may have been a degree of whimpering involved. My pals formed a
human chain and hauled me to safety and by the time I got home my legs had pretty much
stopped shaking (naturally, being a considerate little lad and not wanting to upset any-
body, I delayed telling my parents what had happened, waiting a decade and a half or so).
I submit that any sensible kid would have learned a lesson from that. Patently, I didn't.
When I left my friend Dave McCartney's flat in Belsize Road, where I'd crashed for
a few months, and found my own place in London - living first in a flat in Islington Park
Street and later with Ann on Graham Road - my favourite route for handy climbing op-
portunities was along the section of the Grand Union Canal east of the Angel. It was a