Saturday, 4 August 2012


Leaving the railway station one morning via the big main-entrance doors I deftly sidestepped a dithering, disorientated teenaged girl whose head was bobbing and turning as she peered down at her phone, up and around at her surroundings and back again at the phone. At my sudden movement she started, mumbled an apology then took the opportunity to ask if I knew where the entrance to the station was.
“This is it!” I said with a gesture and a hint of sarcastic incredulity. “Oh thanks” she said without irony and, closing her map app, bent her knees, picked up her bag and tottered off on her high-heeled evening shoes.

I confess that my reaction to her enquiry had been less than graceful: in fact it had been uncharitable. I had felt scornful that she should rely on a newfangled device rather than good, old-fashioned observation. I had made the assumption that she habitually used over-kill technology in preference to human skills. I had subsequently managed to work up a mild outrage at the way teenagers in general appear to live in a bubble where only their current obsessions exist, then followed this by reminding myself of the well-known fact that females can’t read maps.

As I walked on, realising that I had just experienced an inner tsunami of ignorant assumption and ill-informed prejudice, I began to feel remorse for my brusque reaction to her and some anger at the extent to which certain stereotypes have become lodged in my consciousness. What if the girl had not been in full control of her faculties? She might have only partial sight, hearing or understanding. What if she had been experimenting with Google Maps for the first time? What if she had been a foreigner unsure of the language and unconfident about asking the way? What if she had never before seen a railway station? This last may be the least likely but it did lead me to a logical conclusion: that nothing can be taken at face value.

A week later, during a hike in a relatively benign mountainous area, my partner and I, despite meticulously following a set of written directions, found ourselves at a point where we were unsure of the route (i.e. lost). My partner pulled out her map (of which she is a skilled interpreter) in order to orientate ourselves, identify landmarks and read the contour lines – all of which is straightforward provided visibility is adequate. In this instance, however, mist obliged us to resort to a GPS device to fix our position and a compass to determine our forward direction - there being nobody we could ask: which goes to demonstrate that a map is only half the story.

We were on a week-long, summer tour of Shropshire and Herefordshire where we were indulging one of my fanciful dreams of rural, 1950’s England. The dream is populated by people born in the nineteenth century who still inhabit the fecund landscape; the pubs and butchers’ shops in quiet market towns and villages; where it is still possible to drive with pleasure along deserted, picturesque roads, sun-dappled by overhanging trees; to come across wonky signs directing you to cider presses, farm shops or perfect country pubs with idyllic beer gardens. I am pleased to report that all these things (except for the people from the nineteenth century) are still to be found - sometimes diluted by the incursion of modernity, occasionally intact.

Our “plan” was to roam wherever the fancy took us: to wake each morning, point a finger at the map and say “Let’s go there”. But the pleasurable appeal of such a trip is partly in the imagining and the allure of a map, its promise of undiscovered treasures, may never be fully realised. Many frustrating hours can be spent simply covering ground in pursuit of the idyll. So, at last, we felt the need to reassess our purpose, take our bearings and re-set the compass – this time for the exit - where all the uncommitted, disillusioned hippies wind up.

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