Caught by the River

In praise of being lost.

Sue Brooks | 29th November 2015

By Sue Brooks.

There are pleasures in being lost – I know some of them well – but not if time is against you and it’s getting dark. Walking out of a newsagents in a back street in Oxford with a tiny folded street map was a moment of pure joy.

I thought of Will Self. A great champion of the art and skill of being lost. His inaugural lecture at Brunel University (Walking is Political ) shines in my memory. A young woman is walking along a London street, that much is clear, but what is happening in her consciousness seems to take place in another dimension. It is a world totally divorced from her surroundings: she is listening to music through MP3 earphones with eyes glued to the arrow on the GPS screen on her Iphone. At the moment of leaving a Tube Station, stepping into the street and pressing the GPS button, you are lost, says Mr Self. You have your exact location, but without orientation it is meaningless. The skill of being lost is allowing ourselves to be disorientated, rather than handing it over to the SatNav. Internal map-making, which starts by paying acute observation to our surroundings, is basic to human memory. We abdicate it at our peril.

This rang true – perhaps not in Oxford where I needed the paper map to make sense of the maze of streets, but at home in the village where I have lived for 15 years. On a Sunday morning a few weeks ago, a car was parked in the lay-by at the bus stop. A man holding a small piece of paper rolled down the window. He and his friend had bought a day’s fishing licence and were trying to find the spot. They had a postcode and rough description but no mobile phone signal. I knew the exact place and gave the directions, where to park the car and so on. It was all there so clearly on my mental map. I was driving the route as I was talking and also, behind the physical familiarity, was the OS map of the terrain. I seemed to slip in and out of each of them. Interesting, and more grist for the mill for my long love affair with Ordnance Survey and current aversion to GPS.

In its extreme state, this means no Smart Phone and no SatNav, which is a pretty hardline position, and I have to admit to moments of weakness when I have been seriously lost behind the wheel in a strange city. Cue – Guardian Angel in one of her many forms and Serendipity close behind.

All this is a preamble for a Radio 4 programme aired in October – The Loss Of Lostness. Stephen Smith choreographs a delightful 30 minutes of radio theatre in praise of being lost. The pleasures of being in Rare Records in Manchester on a Saturday afternoon in the 1960s or on a road less travelled behind the wheel of a pre- GPS car. Will Self has a small starring role: Do you like to go out with a billycan of warm ants and a kayak? asks Stephen in his just-about-to-laugh but-holding-it-in voice and Mr Self laughs – quite disarmingly ( the first time I’ve heard him do that on radio ) No, you’ll have to ask hairy-chested true men like Robert Macfarlane about that. And there are other truly sublime one-liners – something in the barista responds to the drifter in me – which makes me smile every time I go into Cafe Nero, and the memorable Unless you get lost you don’t discover anything new. Your life is without Serendipity.

It’s great to know I have allies in my mission to keep Serendipity alive and well.

Iain Sinclair is another, as readers of Black Apples of Gower will know. Coincidentally, he was on Radio 4 last week, walking the Gower cliffs on Open Country, talking as he writes about his quest for the Paviland cave – the cave of origin for the imaginative writing he has tried to follow all his life. In the radio broadcast, he does not quite reach the cave. Black Apples tells the story of the High Serendipity which takes him there.

(Editor’s note: also see Iain Sinclair & Will Self: On Walking London)

Sue Brooks on Caught by the River