The search for perfection

It is a dangerous thing to ask a literature graduate to name their favourite book. Firstly, there is the possibility of intellectual brinkmanship that may tempt the insecure to name books they don’t even like: I knew a girl at university who used to say that Great Expectations was her favourite book, even though she had only read the first twenty pages and hated them all, because (as well as implying that she had read the whole thing at least once), to misquote Alice in Wonderland, it sounded like a nice grand thing to say. As you’ll see from the books I’m about to suggest, I don’t suffer from a surfeit of respect for the established canon.[1] Secondly, there is the temporary nature of all preferences: I may enjoy Jane Eyre today, but be in more of an LA Confidential mood tomorrow.[2] Finally, there is the impossibility of the task. On what basis can a person (particularly a person who has spent three years doing nothing but reading and giving their opinion on what they have read) choose a single work from the hundreds and hundreds of candidates? What should our criteria be here?

One could choose a book that can be read over and over again without becoming dull or ceasing to give up new and interesting ideas; a book that makes repetition comforting rather than deadening, and which maybe even reminds one of the first time one read it, or the person one was then. For me, this book is My Family and Other Animals, which I think I have read twenty times (or maybe more, as they say in the poorer class of personal ads). Or you could choose a book that changed the way you think about yourself (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit; Surfacing; The Goshawk), the way you think about your relationships with other people (The Flame Trees of Thika; Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) or the way you think about literature (American Psycho (see House of Holes); The Writing Life; The Triple Echo; Cannery Row; LA Confidential). There are books that can make you laugh (Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About) or cry (Quartet in Autumn) every time you read them. Then there are books that take on an intense personal significance largely separate from their literary merit, because of a chance conjunction: that book at that moment. The book I chose to read while outside the interview room at Selwyn College, for example, was Rites of Passage (I turned out not to like either very much, but you take my point. Apparently, I needed to learn the hard way that an apt title does not a satisfying reading experience make). There are also those (possibly for reasons of content, possibly not) that go on to warp one’s sexual development (Little Women, which has surely given rise to my weakness for bearded over-educated foreigners; Knowledge of Angels, loaned to me by a scrummy blonde who then conspired admirably in turning my repeated attempts to return it into the early stages of sexual pursuit; She, in retrospect an odd choice for an eleven-year-old).

Finally, there are books that stand alone as works of art: those that come closest to our own internal idea of a perfect book. A perfect idea, perfectly executed. Those that fall just short of perfection still astonish me.[3] Is there such a thing as a perfect book? I wonder if I would actually like The Secret History better if the troublesome repetition of “utter, utter” was removed, or if I would miss that little wrinkle. In a recent edition of Economic History Review[4], the historian Niall Ferguson said that his most recent publication was “designed to be slightly annoying, so that you talk about it”. Donna Tartt, Karen Blixen, John Steinbeck, Jennifer Johnston, Sir Terry Pratchett and T.H. White are all more than skilled enough to have worked this out for themselves and so perhaps they have added the blemishes deliberately. Unlike the categories I have mentioned above where I have given examples to stand for a larger group, the following list of books that fall into the almost-perfect category is exhaustive: The Secret History; Out of Africa[5]; The Grapes of Wrath; The Railway Station ManThud![6]; and The Once and Future King.

If you try to purchase The Once and Future King, you will find that it is often categorized as a children’s book. This is for reasons that I cannot begin to fathom: presumably, since it has King Arthur in it, it must be a children’s book (the very first paragraph describes a red-haired governess offering to show Sir Ector a ‘mysterious wound’, which was ‘believed to be where she sat down, and to have been caused by sitting on some armour at a picnic’). If so, it is a children’s book about power, adultery, human frailty, animal folklore, politics, tragedy and incest. I don’t cry over books very often (I read Watership Down entirely dry-eyed, even though I was eight), but I did sit down on the bare boards of my study and cry when my aged paperback copy of The Once and Future King, with its ancient advert for Camelot on the front cover, split down the spine and shed the whole section in the ants’ nest onto the floor in a sad, yellowish pile. I wanted to read the description of the King of the Moat to one of my students this week, but of course I had forgotten that the only part of this wonderful book that remains in my house is the quotation I have painted on the wall by the front door (‘…to dig, and love your home. This is the end of all philosophy’. This piece of excellent advice is given to the Wart by Badger, whom we assume is referring to the digging of tunnels, rather than the digging of the vegetable garden, as we have taken it to mean). The description of the King of the Moat is one of my favourite pieces of writing in all the world: the great and terrible pike, suspended in the water, stricken and deadly, while the Wart (in the shape of a perch this time) hovers nearby with Merlin, trying to learn what it is to be a king:

The great body, shadowy and almost invisible among the stems, ended in a face which had been ravaged by all the passions of an absolute monarch – by cruelty, sorrow, age, pride, selfishness, loneliness and thoughts too strong for individual brains … He was remorseless, disillusioned, logical, predatory, fierce, pitiless – but his great jewel of an eye was that of a stricken deer, large, fearful, sensitive and full of griefs. He made no movement, but looked upon them with his bitter eye.[7] 

Marvellous stuff, and of admirable use when teaching a fourteen-year-old. Not to worry, I thought. The Sword and the Stone includes that scene, after all (along with a load of made-up Disneyfied nonsense that White would never have sullied his mind with). I must be able to find the relevant paragraph on the interblag somewhere. Surely, apart from times when only seventeen kinds of porn will do, this is the sort of moment when the web comes into its own? Not so, gentle reader. The top item provided by Google contained the following sentence, which sums up everything that is wrong with modern culture: “The television series One Tree Hill quotes the book in episode 202”.


[1] Notice in particular the total lack of nineteenth-century English fiction. This is because I don’t care who marries whom (or who was formerly married to whom, as in the case of Jane Eyre, thereby rendering it a cut above the rest). Does it really matter so much? Look at Dorothea in Middlemarch expecting other people to care that she’s married the wrong person. I don’t care, Dorothea. If you marry a man on the grounds that he’s about to complete a long and dreary book, I don’t think you should be surprised when he also turns out to be dull.

[2] A mish-mash of the two would be most likely to go to the top of my list: a windswept melodrama set on the Yorkshire moors, rendered entirely in 1950s American street slang; or else Charlotte Brontë’s take on the Bloody Christmas murders (“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, that I have no connection to the Night Owl?”). Observant readers will note that, as in Twin Peaks, the presence of an owl once again indicates that murder, death and pornography are about to ensue (see Strigiphobia). Also, don’t be fooled into thinking that seeing the quite brilliant film in any way approaches the experience of reading the even more brilliant book: to get the thing into less than six hours, the adapters have done away with approximately three-fifths of the slang and half the plot.

[3] “Darling!” I say to my husband who is peacefully reading something else and minding his own business, “this is so brilliant,” and I read him some particularly gorgeous passage from a book he has probably read for himself. He nods and smiles and agrees that it is spiffing, and that I am a woman of impeccable taste and judgement. Satisfied, we turn our attention back to our respective reading matter. Just as he has picked up the thread of the paragraph, I interrupt him again. “Darling!” I say … it is a wonder that he hasn’t beaten me to death with a rolled-up copy of the London Review of Books.

[4] Issue 65.3, in Paul Strong’s review of Catherine R. Schenk’s book International Economic Relations since 1945.

[5] I know that I’ve named several works of non-fiction here, and several more that are wedged in the seam between fiction and non-fiction, and I don’t care at all.

[6] I realise that I’m risking having my degree certificate reclaimed by putting Sir Terry Pratchett alongside John Steinbeck, but this is because i. Pratchett is a satirist on a par with Jonathan Swift; and ii. Thud! is masterful. It skims along with such ease (how often I read books where I can hear the twang of sinew as the writer strains to convey something or other. Umberto Eco, I’m looking at you). Pratchett never puts a foot wrong here in terms of characterisation, pacing, structure, language or plot, and the denouement is moving, dark and terribly funny all at once. If you’re wondering, the one flaw (and there is only one, I think) is the title. Why didn’t he call it Mr Shine?

[7] T.H. White, The Once and Future King (London: Collins, 1958), pp. 49-50.

Busting a gut

My local high street shops are about a twenty-minute walk from my house. There is a fancy butcher (by which I mean that it is expensive and also sells halloumi), an organic hairdresser, a Post Office, a church converted into a centre for amateur dramatics, a sooty hole halfway up a building where the Chinese nail studio used to be (I’m not making that up. It exploded in the middle of the night a few months ago), an independent optician, a Turkish supermarket, the best bakery in the city, and any number of assorted coffee shops. I was in one of these when a woman in an ugly jumper and shoes that she appeared to have made herself from the corpses of dead handbags flopped into a chair at the next table. I wouldn’t normally listen in on the conversation at someone else’s table (I would be having a far more interesting conversation of my own, or possibly reading something racy), but as I was turning my attention back to the question of whether or not Hates Commas was standing me up, another woman in a similarly offensive jumper arrived and embraced the first woman in a jangle of homemade earrings and after some highly unnecessary shrieking they ordered coffee and some kind of lentil-based snack and sat down and I went back to my book (The Jacaranda Tree by the greatly underrated H.E. Bates). In fact, I was about to remove the two women from my mind altogether (easier said than done when one takes the fit-inducing knitwear into account), when the first woman leaned confidentially across the tiny table.

‘Oh, but haven’t you heard, Jobiska [or Rushlight, or Sunset, or whatever]? Yoga is what I do instead of drugs!’ she exclaimed. Having suppressed the urge to slap her espresso out of her hand for her own good, it occurred to me that, while this is a profoundly stupid statement, in my case it approaches the truth.

I have had stress-related bowel disease for the last five years and originally was put onto two different drugs, to be taken together: an anti-inflammatory and a pain-killer. The anti-inflammatory pills were white, small and innocuous; the pain-killers were giant fuchsia-coloured horse tranquilizers, and if (as instructed) I took the two together they used to make me cry, for no reason and with no warning: I freaked out many a student, innocently visiting the office (shortly after I had taken my second dose) in the hope of handing in an essay. Having returned to the specialist and informed him that I was no longer going to take said pills as they didn’t seem to be having any other discernible effect, he replied ‘I see. I think I’ll double your dose’. This was the point at which I ceased to take any pills at all, on the grounds that, firstly, my specialist was a madman with a grasp of the English language in general, and the statement ‘the drugs don’t work’ in particular, that was shaky at best (did the 1990s pass him by completely?); and, secondly, he failed to understand basic maths (nothing multiplied by two is still nothing). I was also offered an operation to remove the troublesome section of bowel. The operation essentially involved pulling out the entire bowel, cutting out the nasty bit, and then stuffing my innards back where they belong. It had a 40% success rate and would leave me with an enormous scar. The specialist helpfully suggested they put this on the right, where it would look like an appendectomy scar ‘only bigger’ (the fact that I already have an appendectomy scar having also passed him by); it would therefore also make any future Caesarean tricky at best, and I would need a mere six weeks off work to recover, assuming that nothing went wrong, which it might well, given that what we are describing here is essentially a controlled disembowelling. Since I was ill in the first place because of work-related stress, I suggested that he could simply sign me off work for a few weeks and have much the same effect without the need for major surgery, but I must have said this in my mind rather than out loud because he swept on, speculating cheerfully on how likely it was that the surgery might go wrong (massive internal infection, perforated bowel and internal bleeding were among the jolly possibilities) long after I had said ‘I don’t think I’ll be doing that’. We concluded our interview with me asking whether there were any further lifestyle changes I should make. Bowel disease, I already knew from my excellent GP, carried all sorts of risk factors in later life, like liver disease, leg ulcers, colorectal cancer, and the delightfully named toxic megacolon (essentially, the colon swells up and then bursts, causing all sorts of nasty things and, if not treated, death, presumably from a combination of shock, blood loss, internal infection, embarrassment and rage). His response was that ‘not much research’ had been done in this area and he was unable to advise me. He then weighed me (for the second time in an hour), commented that I weighed the same as last time he weighed me (who knew?) and suggested I take up watercolours.

I now manage the condition by other methods, all of which I am sure my many-bangléd friends in the coffee shop would approve of whole-heartedly. I have cut down on meat (my favourite thing), bread and pastries; I have no nicotine, no alcohol, no drugs and almost no caffeine. Instead, I dose myself with aloe vera juice (which tastes like sperm), fruit, cod liver oil, evening primrose oil, water and herbal tea (which don’t). God help me, I even tried to switch to soya milk (very good for the bowel. Got a question about what’s good for your bowel and what’s not? I am the bowel-related magic eight ball), but honestly, soya milk is so disgusting that just typing the words ‘soya milk’ is making my mouth turn down at the corners in case I have to throw up. And then of course, in addition to all of this, there is yoga, once (or if I am feeling really keen, twice) a day, on a homemade mat.

I do hatha yoga (i.e. not the jumping around kind; not the chanting kind; and not the very high temperature kind). There are a few poses that I can manage with a modicum of dignity, as follows: Chair Pose (in a brilliant non-sequitur, my rather wonderful 1970s yoga book suggests I imagine I am a wizard); Eagle Pose (bend into unlikely shape while balanced on one leg); the Dancer (ditto, but this time with one foot above your head); Warrior Pose (‘imagine you are poking an assailant in the eye’); Tree Pose (back to balancing on one leg while doing things with the other); the Cobra (at least you get to lie down for this one); Happy Baby Pose (surprisingly literal); Reclining Hero Pose (look, that’s just what’s it called. I don’t make the rules); and Camel Pose (not at all like a camel). A pathetic little list. Bat Pose, which I believe is also known as putting-your-head-on-the-floor-while-clutching-your-ankles pose, is particularly tricky. A few months ago, a major Bat Pose fail ended in me flicking a terracotta pot, an African violet and about two pounds of soil onto the floor with my buttocks. I’m still not entirely sure how I did this; I was probably concentrating on releasing my kneecaps or similar at the time. I mention this because it demonstrates my favourite thing about yoga: even if you do it really, really badly, it still works. It stimulates the internal organs, relieves stress, aids concentration, strengthens the back, tones all sorts of muscles you never knew you had, and clears the mind. It is also the only thing I have found that can beat jet-lag, as the stunned people cleaning the building opposite my hotel in Nanjing could testify.

I really believe that sick people need the help of medical professionals to get well again, and yet here I am, self-medicating with poses I can’t do and supplements I don’t like. I’m doing so because one approach has worked and the other hasn’t. It must be infuriating for doctors to undergo years of training and examination, only to be told by well-educated people that they would prefer to drink raspberry leaf tea and rub valerian into their pressure points, and obviously some of those people are idiots and would do better to read some science and listen to the considered advice of their doctor. However, there are also people like me, who really believe in modern medicine until they become unwell and are then let down by the ‘pills and piss off’ culture (if the drugs had worked, I’d still be taking them). This leaves me with no alternative but to embrace each facet of new age nonsense with as much grace as I can manage. Next up: inappropriate piercings.

Strigiphobia

As promised (see Owl Chess), here is the story of how the choir came by its anti-mascot, The Owl. The year was 2008; the month was August; and for some reason the good people of Truro Cathedral had allowed a choir of nine people to sing their evensong services for a week. The scene is set, gentle reader. Naturally, you suspect nothing. Neither did we.

Our rehearsal space for the week was the song school in the space beneath the cathedral. I hesitate to say ‘crypt’, but it was certainly subterranean and dark, as that word appears to imply.[1] The room contained a grand piano, some rehearsal desks, and approximately two hundred owls. For reasons that we did not dare to enquire into, the vergers had accumulated and maintained a parliament of owls that filled a shelf running the whole length of the room. Apart from a live owl in a cage, there was every kind of owl an owl-fancier could possibly desire: plastic owls, fluffy owls, stuffed owls, china owls, glass owls, wooden owls. There were owls that doubled as nocturnal pencil sharpeners; owls small enough to be slipped into a handbag and others emphatically not; owls with friendly, querulous expressions, and others that could peck the face off a child. The old adage about the eyes of a portrait appearing to follow you around the room had nothing on this shelf of accusing faces.

At the time of our trip, my mother had a shop in a nearby coastal village, from whence she sold souvenirs and other non-essential items. Cathedrals usually take pity on visiting choirs and allow them one day in the week on which they are not required to do six or more hours of singing. Accordingly, on our day off, a select band of adventurers drove over to Mother’s shop for fish-and-chips and a walk on the cliffs, and we mentioned the shelf of owls to her over a cup of tea. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I might have something’ and proceeded to rummage around in a glass-fronted cabinet that to the casual observer was already filled to bursting with china puffins. From some inner recess, she produced two fluffy toy owls. They were about the size of tennis balls, mostly white and with sticky-up ‘ears’, from whence projected another inch or so of diabolical whisker. Both wall-eyed abominations appeared to be scowling. We bought these horrors (i.e. regardless of how vile they were, she still wanted actual money in exchange for exorcism), and, when we finished our week in Truro, we left them back-to-back on the piano in the song school as a present to the vergers. This should have been the end of the matter.

On returning home, I started to unpack my case (I’m one of those annoying people who like to unpack as soon as possible) and there, in my suitcase, was an owl. Not one of the evil twins we had purchased from my capitalist parent; and not one of the smaller specimens from the cathedral that I might have stolen in a moment of mental blankness. This was a third owl, exactly like its demonic cathedral-bound siblings, except for two important facts. One, the other two owls were in Truro Cathedral rather than in my house; and two, this owl was, in some mysterious way, able to insert itself into a pair of tight like an evil sausage and a suitcase without human help. I looked at it. It looked at me. I blinked first.

Over the next twelve months, he bided his time. Every member of the choir denied strenuously that they had placed him in my suitcase (as did my mother) and I gradually came to the conclusion that, odd and unexplained as it was, it probably didn’t matter very much. Accordingly, when cathedral tour rolled around (this time our destination was Peterborough, the armpit of England), I felt that the trip would not be complete without him, so I packed him in my suitcase, prodding my memory all the while for spasms of déjà vu (there weren’t any). I was very careful to put him right at the bottom wrapped in a sock so that he didn’t peck holes in my underwear during the trip. When we arrived and I opened the suitcase, there he was. Houdini-like, he had worked his way through eight inches of clothing to the very top of the case, entirely devoid of sock and fixing me with what I think Edgar Allen Poe would call a basilisk eye. He then spent the rest of the day showing me what he could do. Our second tenor’s car, with half the choir in it, exploded on the Bristol ring-road; another tenor arrived in Peterborough six hours late and raving about trains; and the strap of my favourite bag snapped and wrapped itself around my leg as I scurried across a busy road. Upon opening the bag, there was the owl, which I distinctly remembered locking in a cupboard. The inevitable game of Owl Chess took on a disturbing flavour. He was drawing-pinned to a notice-board by his wings; he was taped to the ceiling; he was present at a twenty-first birthday party; he took a turn in the microwave, where he revolved much as the bodies of the hanged might swing gently in the wind. He was even strapped to a tiny remote-controlled car (purchased specially) and driven around my bedroom at night, an event which I recorded in my diary as follows:

[There was] a knock on my door about twenty minutes after saying goodnight. Had just removed bra so was a while getting to the door. Opened it to find the wretched OWL strapped to a remote-controlled car with plasters (T having used all the tape in sticking IT to the ceiling). T, B and M all wetting themselves with laughter in the corridor (apparently unaware that I had already seen Unnecessary Winklepickers sprinting down the corridor earlier when I launched myself in the direction of the bathroom somewhat unexpectedly). I think M had intended the Owl Express to lurch menacingly into my darkened room and then round and round in a series of sinister ellipses, but in fact it stuck in the carpet, making urgent and constipated chewing noises. M said, “that’s a dead waste of £25”, but I couldn’t disagree more.

These days, safely returned to the vestry, he stubbornly refuses to behave like a normal stuffed toy. Having got the merest smear of chocolate icing on his wing at a fund-raising cake sale, he remained unclean until I had put him through the washing machine (twice); at the subsequent concert, it was with real fear in my heart that I sandwiched him between two Bibles and locked him in the music cupboard. It is unquestionably The Owl who puts the creepy cardboard hands in the hymnbooks; The Owl who breaks the heating over and over again; The Owl who creates holes in the church roof and floods the church floor; The Owl who causes the notices to last fifteen minutes every week, the organ to go slowly but persistently sharp, the crumhorn to deploy without warning, the church bluebottle to buzz around our heads, the basses to sing alto and tuning forks to roam around the church of their own accord. My friends, Satan walks among us, and his name is Owl.

I have used the word ‘strigiphobia’ on the grounds that owls are strigiformes (an order that also includes birds of prey), but in fact there is no consensus on the correct word for a fear and hatred of owls. The two main candidates seem to be oclophobia and variations on noctoornithophobia. Oclophobia is not satisfying because it is very close in both spelling and pronounciation to ochlophobia (fear and hatred of crowds), and also because phobos is a Greek word, while oclos is Latin. Noctoornithophobia (fear and hatred of nocturnal birds) annoys me simply because it is an unnecessary work-around, implying (again) that there is no suitable Greek word for owl. In fact, Greek has several words for owl, and the list that follows here is by no means exhaustive. Firstly, there is glaux, meaning specifically a small owl, as in Glaucidium sanchezi, the Tamaulipas pigmy owl. Named after the region of Mexico in which it lives, this is one of the smallest owls in the world, measuring less than six inches in length and weighing less than two ounces. You can also find part of this wonderful word in the Latin name of the delightfully Ken Dodd-ish long-whiskered owlet, Xenoglaux loweryi (literally, ‘strange owl’. It lives in Peru and is also smaller than my fist). Glaucophobia seems a reasonable term, but might confuse the unwary in that it could be taken to mean fear and hatred of things that are blueish. Then there is tuto, as in Tytonidae (barn owls). However, tutophobia shares its pronunciation with the real and actual word Teutophobia (fear and hatred of Germans). Another possibility is athene, found in the name of the elf owl Micrathene whitneyi (the third candidate for World’s Smallest Owl. Again, pleasingly, the clue is in the name). Like the Tamaulipas pygmy owl, the elf owl also lives in Mexico, and makes its nests in cacti. However, athenephobia is also a problematic term.[2] The most apt word I could find is the Latin word aegolius, meaning a bird of prey, and very similar to the Greek word aigolios, meaning an evil omen in bird form, but again this is not owl-specific enough for me – an evil omen in bird form could be anything from an ostentiferous roc to a menacing swan. Finally, we have strix (the same word in both Latin and Greek). The plural form is strig, as in Strigidae (‘true’ owls), and hence strigiphobia[3], fear and hatred of owls.

companions
Magritte’s Les Compagnons de la Peur (the companions of fear) 

There is a specific word for the fear and hatred of chickens (alektorophobia), so why am I having to go to all this trouble to coin a new word for the fear and hatred of owls? There are two obvious possibilities. Firstly, there has been no need for a word for the fear and hatred of owls because owls are not frightening (or at least not as frightening as chickens with their mad eyes and alien, throaty calls. Melodia Rascal was in the right here, I think). We can discount this theory immediately: owls are scary. With the possible exceptions of the teeny-tiny owls mentioned above, the vast majority of owl species have no natural predators once the owls have reached adulthood (“Wild boar? Yeah, up here they mainly subsist on owls”. No, they don’t. NOTHING DOES). From the Romans and the Aztecs right up to Gormenghast, Futurama and Twin Peaks[4], humanity is united in its view of owls as harbingers of doom. Secondly and more plausibly, perhaps there is no need for a word for a phobia of owls, because phobias denote fears that are to some degree irrational. They arise from a traumatic incident in childhood or similar that then leads to a lifelong fear of something that may not have actually wished, done or been capable of doing the sufferer any harm. This is unquestionably the case when it comes to owls. Therefore, it could be argued, since a fear of owls is totally justifiable[5], it cannot be described accurately as a phobia.


[1] Of course the word ‘crypt’ is derived from the Latin crypta, meaning private or concealed (as in cryptography, I assume), and therefore any associations of darkness etc. are modern ideas laid over the top of the original meaning. Where does the word ‘owl’ come from, you ask? My understanding is that the original word was ‘uwwa’ in some kind of proto-German, which was supposed to be an onomatopoeic word imitating the hoot. Eventually, by way of Old English and a bunch of mispronunciation, we ended up with ‘owl’, Fact Fans.

[2] One, it is very close to asthenophobia (fear of fainting or weakness); and two, I feel that Athenaphobia ought to refer to the fear of being engulfed by an oversized poster falling off the wall onto one’s university bed.

[3] Disturbingly similar to stygiophobia, fear and hatred of Hell. I rest my case.

[4] Take a look at this one. He looks to me like a highly developed killing machine with a hatred for all mankind and a desire to kill and eat tiny furry things. ‘The owls are not what they seem’, indeed. I disagree. I think they’re exactly what they seem.

[5] The same could be said of my own so-called phobias, the fear and hatred of coffins (taphophobia) and the fear and hatred of sharks (galeophobia). Irrational? Surely not.