Fatal attraction

The novelist Louis de Bernieres stands on top of Beachy Head and contemplates other people's mortality. Photograph by Denis Waugh

Louis de Bernieres
Saturday 10 February 1996 01:02 GMT

Last spring, in my travels around my native land, I happened upon Beachy Head, a cliff white with chalk that provides a magnificent view of the sea, a maritime panorama complete with fishing boats and two lighthouses, one of which has red and white stripes and seems to have been designed with the sensibility of a talented Victorian child. This quintessentially scenic cliff is also the most famous suicide spot in England; for centuries, people have leapt to their death from Beachy Head.

Although Eastbourne is the town closest to the cliff, many prospective jumpers mistakenly travel to Dover, remembering the wartime song in which it was claimed that there would be "bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover" and believing that Beachy Head must be one of these. (This lyric remains a most persistent irritation to ornithologists everywhere, since we do not have, and have never had, bluebirds in Britain. We do, however, have white cliffs in Dover, and white cliffs all the way along the eastern half of our southern coast. This makes us visible from France even when France is not visible to us, which is perhaps why we find the French mysterious and they find us immodest.)

The strange and inexplicable thing is that Dover residents actually drive to Beachy Head rather than make use of their own cliffs. Indeed, people who might easily have launched themselves from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle make a point of coming down from Scotland. One young woman drove all the way from Germany, caught a ferry that she had booked in advance, drove straight to the car park, and jumped off. In other words, the place has attracted a stygian form of tourism, and some local people even preferred Beachy Head to Seaford Head, which is a short way off and which is undoubtedly the one that I would use. The fall from Seaford Head is more vertical, and there is a splendid golf course behind it, upon which one could play one's final melancholy round before whacking the last ball out to sea and leaping in its wake.

On the days of my visit the weather was sweet. There were patches of thrift on Seaford Head that smelled of chocolate, and on Beachy Head there were spikes of indigo loosestrife interspersed with dandelions, nettles, dock, whin, cow parsley, and sea kale. Everywhere there were cheerful marguerites, butterflies, and ladybirds amid the scrapes dug by the hundreds of rabbits that emerge at dawn and in the late evening. On the edge of one cliff there was a pathetic pile of pigeon feathers, as though the bird had become depressed and jumped off, leaving its apparel behind.

Several times I went up to the edge in order to look down, and in every instance I was overwhelmed by an unconquerable nausea. Once I took a young German girl named Mona with me. She sat with her legs dangling over the side and chatted merrily about the best way to commit suicide while I lay ten feet away, white-knuckled and ill on her behalf, imploring her to remember that these cliffs were always crumbling into the sea.

"It's all right," said Mona. "It's safe." I considered the case of a young woman who had disappeared down a 100- foot crevasse that opened up before her feet. In 1813 a vicar leapt across such a crevasse in the nick of time, and then watched as a 300- by 80- foot chunk disappeared into the sea. I was vastly relieved when Mona rather charmingly decided to come away from the edge and run about in imitation of a seagull.

So, despite Mona's assurances, it certainly is not safe, especially if you suffer from vertigo or an active imagination. Each time I approached the edge, I felt myself drawn over; the vertical became the horizontal, and a terrifying sickness took me at the stomach and throat. I have never felt this anywhere else, even when mountaineering or when I was a tree surgeon, and I wondered how many people might have been hypnotised into committing suicide unintentionally: this beautiful place openly invites you to die.

I decided that I would have to crawl if I wished to peer over the precipice, and even this set my head spinning. I then realised that there were bare patches in the grass where a multitude of others had stood and contemplated the abyss - surely some of them had survived. If they could manage it, perhaps I could, too, so I stretched out on my stomach and snaked my way to the edge. I took in as much of the view as I could before queasiness won out.

The cliff's wall, craggy with chalk, sparkled amid streaks of rust-coloured ore. In places, patches of ill-advised greenery clung to the face while rock doves and fulmars made nests in crannies that did not seem spacious enough. On an outcrop halfway down the cliff lay the crushed wreckage of a small blue car, and all the way down - 550 feet, to be exact - the sea. A tiny lump of clay fell down the precipice, and my stomach seemed to follow suit.

As I inched my way back to safer ground, I couldn't help wondering what kind of damage a fall from that height might do to bones and flesh. My curiosity drove me to visit Michael Davey, Eastbourne's coroner, who deals with deaths that require explanation. Davey works in the police station out of a small office that is disconcertingly entitled "The Aliens Clerk." Above his desk is a letter from somebody requesting the brains of the psychotic dead, for research purposes. The coroner is a genial and good-humoured man in early middle age who informed me that the Beachy Head corpses come covered with linear gashes filled with chalk.

It seems that long ago Davey gave up any elaborate theories about who jumps off Beachy Head and why. He told me that, in his opinion, people kill themselves because they are very unhappy, that about 12 people per annum do so on the Head, though it has been as many as 28. So far, it had been a good year, with very few deaths. No particular kind of person does it; the age range runs from 16 to 90. Davey used to think that it was mainly men, especially young ones who could not bear the pangs of dispriz'd love, but there are, in fact, very few teenagers. More prevalent are the menopausal women in their forties. The favourite places for self- destruction are by the two lighthouses. Notable suicides include a concert pianist and a peer of the realm.

Davey consulted his blue notebook, and I noticed that one of the entries was labelled "Accident." Apparently some idiot had been flying a kite that became snagged on the cliff face and had tried to climb down and retrieve it. Davey said that, strictly speaking, an accident would be something like being blown off by the wind, whereas fetching a kite qualifies as "misadventure." Some people fall over while drolly pretending that they are about to fall over. There was a woman who walked off unawares because she had the sun in her eyes. Particular danger attends model aeroplane enthusiasts, hang-glider pilots, sheep, and unsuspecting dogs chasing seagulls and rubber balls.

Foolishly, I asked Davey all sorts of questions to which no one could possibly know the answers, such as: How many people arrive and then don't do it? I told him that people up there watch one another suspiciously, all asking themselves the same vital question. I told him that I had observed a young woman park her car, walk to the edge carrying a yellow plastic bag, and then walk straight back to her car. I wanted to ask him whether anyone makes the leap in the belief that he or she can fly.

Davey told me that the dead can't explain themselves - you can't interview them about whether they had thought that they could fly. He believes that the one solid reason for jumping is that it is irrevocable, unlike an overdose. You cannot change your mind, once committed, and therefore it is clear that this method of suicide is for those who genuinely long for the final peace.

The fall takes approximately six seconds. Sometimes people scream all the way down, and once or twice a falling body has nearly struck someone walking below. There was a particularly tragic case of a teenage girl who slipped while picking up a fossil. Her companion tried to save her but also fell. The girl who had slipped was saved because she landed on the body of her would-be rescuer, who was killed.

Yes, some of the victims have a history of mental illness. No, it has not become any worse since the government changed the system of health care for the mentally ill. Davey used to think that spring was the worst time of year, but now it seems to have evened out. Suicides occur in batches, possibly because potential jumpers read reports in the papers about the most recent casualty. A quarter of them visit Beachy Head in advance of their attempt in order to reconnoitre.

Is it ever a performance? Well, there was a young man who drove over on a motorcycle shouting "Geronimo!" as he went. (Here I grieve momentarily for the motorcycle. I like motorcycles. What a waste.) Others dive off with a mighty yell. But then you get the people who ease themselves over in absolute privacy. One man simply handed his driving licence to a passer- by and then ran off. One woman very politely asked a passing coastguard if he would mind giving her a push. I suggested that some people might be stoned, but Davey shrugged noncommittally. He is opposed to generalisations and statistical extrapolations, but he admitted that alcohol is involved in about 10 per cent of cases.

He informed me that the people who retrieve the bodies are all volunteers with the coastguard and was dismissive of the idea that it might be a traumatic experience. You get hardened to it, he said. How else do you think people survived the war? You recover, and all this stuff about post-traumatic stress and needing counselling is just rubbish. He belongs to the "pull yourself together and get on with it" school of psychiatry, as do my mother and myself.

Most interestingly, Davey believes that the Beachy Headers do not commit suicide "while the balance of the mind is disturbed" but that it is a rational decision that is often carefully planned. People sometimes leave a bag containing their name and address, instructions as to whom to contact, how to dispose of their remains, and the whereabouts of their wills. One person asked that his body be recovered before the rats found it. Some leave two, three, even five suicide notes. They buy one-way tickets and arrange no accommodations. I told him that one of my grandfathers blew his own brains out because he could not bear the pain of his war wounds and believed that he had cancer, and that I had always thought this entirely sane and reasonable. Davey nodded in agreement and suddenly remembered a local doctor who is an expert on the Beachy Head deaths. He rifled through his cupboard and presented me with a sheaf of papers, authored by a certain Dr S J Surtees.

Dr Surtees is clearly a connoisseur. He related that in the 7th century, St Wilfrid found that the local savages were jumping off the cliff in despair after a three-year drought and that today some people practise hoaxes by leaving piles of clothing at the edge or driving a car to the brink and then reversing it back along its own tracks.

According to Dr Surtees, jumpers constitute an elite 3 per cent of all British suicides. It is mainly men between 15 and 44 who jump, and women between 35 and 60. There have been two Beachy Head suicides who came all the way from New York. Sometimes a child comes to die in the same place as a parent. More people jump on Friday than on any other day of the week. Once a man looking for his model aeroplane found the skeleton of a woman who had been missing for five months. Another went over in a Volkswagen Beetle, which, incredibly, survived without a scratch. It had its wheels stolen before it could be salvaged, however. One anomalous woman inexplicably identified as her husband the body of a Russian sailor who had clearly been buried at sea, even though the sailor was the wrong age and size.

Not everyone dies outright. There have been deaths from inhalation of vomit, diabetic coma, and exposure. This can happen if people are caught on ledges or by vegetation. A woman of 72 managed to survive on a ledge, and just before I met Dr Surtees a 15-year-old boy quarrelled with the father of his 14-year-old girlfriend and endured three days on the cliff with multiple leg fractures, sucking on pebbles to keep his mouth moist.

When I returned to the cliffs, I found myself drawn not to the view but rather to the various messages scattered about, a kind of semiotic extravaganza.

DANGER CLIFF EROSION, we are repeatedly advised. There are numerous memorial benches carved with the names of the dead. Perhaps some of them died here, while others merely loved it. On a stray slab of concrete left over from the war, I read, "Mark loves Mandy", "Nat loves Dan", "Kate and Sharon", "Nadia Beachy Head", "Matthew from Twickenham woz `ere", and "I love my mum". There is a very poignant war memorial commemorating the ROC, the RAF, the WAAF, and the immortal heroism of the young Canadians who perished in the inept Dieppe raid in 1942. One monument was erected to commemorate the International Year of Peace in 1986. I certainly do not remember much international peace that year. To me the stone was a reminder that the world contains some naive or gormless simpletons with no grasp of reality and with somebody else's money to spend. To be informed that there was once an International Year of Peace that didn't happen is pretty depressing, even if you had no intention of jumping. They should announce an International Year of Barbarism one of these days, and then none of us would be disappointed.

Next to the rescue building is a telephone box provided with the telephone number of the Samaritans who quixotically wish to persuade us to love the world and to live longer, even though one day we will all be dead. A Christian organisation has placed a stone that quotes Psalm 93: "Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the Lord on high is mighty." As though conscious that this is not as effective and complete a message as they had initially hoped, and that it might not even be quite what they really meant, they added a non scriptural postscript: "God is always greater than all of our troubles."

I had to leave Beachy Head. Every human being has known times of the most abject and implacable despair, and it was impossible not to feel profoundly what was in the hearts of those sorrowing souls. Knowing and imagining, I found it hard to keep back the tears even though the place is lovely. Either their infinite pain is imprinted upon the atmosphere or one has the illusion that it is. All about are the wisps and traces of broken hearts, cancelled dreams, abandoned expectations. Here are the ghosts of those who loved others too much or themselves too little, of those who lost battles with insanity, of those driven to heartsickness by an oppressive sense of futility and the apparent absence of God, of those who defiantly and courageously denied a terminal illness its final tortures. Here also are the sad small ghosts of those whose existence nobody noticed until they became a mess to clear away.

If there is any encouragement to be salvaged from all this tragedy, it might be teased from the tale of a woman who went to Beachy Head in order to make her quietus. She had never been a drinker, but she knocked back half a bottle of gin for the sake of Dutch courage. Not long afterward she was arrested and fined for being drunk and disorderly, having decided while under the influence that life was marvellous after all

`Captain Corelli's Mandolin', Louis de Bernieres' most recent novel, is published by Minerva at pounds 6.99

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