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Just try falling off the roof;Opinion

Champion's touch: France's Emmanuel Petit, left, celebrates his goal against Brazil in the World Cup final in Paris last year

FOR MUCH of my early childhood I had an irrational fear of automatically flushing toilets. This, I am sure, can be traced back to a fright in my toddling years. Fortunately, I was able to take my courage in both hands (as it were) and face my fear (as it were), overcoming it by around the age of eight.

Where I succeeded with urinals, I have failed with heights. Actually, I don't think I am afraid of heights. Rather, I am afraid of falling. I can walk, unfazed, across a suspension bridge over a deep gorge, but put me on a wobbling ladder and the stress chemicals go into production overdrive.

Thus when the Boxing Day gales struck, I was dismayed to find a slate had come loose and lodged in the garden. Worse, it was one that could conceivably be replaced by somebody exiting his daughter's dormer window and climbing the roof. It was a manoeuvre I had tried at my parents' house some years previously. I hadn't enjoyed it then but reasoned that what had been done once could be done again. Not only that, it would certainly be easier the second time.

No it wasn't. My own roof has a steeper pitch and was wet. I clung to the edge of the dormer, feet fighting for traction, and hauled myself up to the flat section above the window. Almost sick, I gibbered to myself for some minutes before getting into a sitting position. Eventually the slate was replaced.

I was then faced with the problem of getting back down. This proved to be much worse. I could doubtless offer a physics-based explanation, but I prefer to draw a veil over the whole incident, which ended with a severe telling-off from a neighbour who had witnessed the spectacle.

While teaching has presented me with no opportunities to be scared witless thus far, there have been classes whose arrival I have anticipated with miserable foreboding. The short-term effects of this are small compared to those invoked by the thought of rapidly approaching the ground with a gravitational acceleration of 10 metres per second per second (or 9.8 metres per second per second if you've done Higher physics).

Long term, it can get you down. I was reassured at an early stage in my career by a teacher who seemed to have more class control in his left eyebrow than I had in my entire body. While he had no quick fixes, he revealed that every time he met a class for the first time he felt a tightness in his gut.

That made me feel better, as did my brother-in-law's confession that he piled up stacks of empty cardboard boxes below his ladder when he had to repair the roof.

Gregor Steele might have landed on his Skoda had he lost his footing.

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