‘It’s a weird world out there on the flats,’ Patrick said. ‘Nothing looks the same as normal. Gulls can seem as big as eagles. Scale and distance change. It’s very easy to lose your bearings, especially at dusk or dark. Then it’s the lights on the Kent shore that often do it. People think they’re walking back to the Essex coast, when in fact they’re walking across towards Kent and so out into the tide. The mud’s the thing to watch, too; step in the wrong places, and it’ll bog you down and suck you in, ready for the tide to get you.’
Robert MacFarlane, ‘Silt’
I’ve been riding around getting lost a lot lately. My geographical awareness is flimsy, but ambitious – the equivalent of a balsawood model plane being remote-controlled by a four-year-old. Even the most seemingly straightforward trips send me in outlandish directions. The other day I got lost trying to bike from the Duke of Edinburgh pub to the Trinity Arms in Brixton. They are roughly two minutes apart. I ended up in Clapham.
When you are lost, people can smell it. The faces of passersby seal over, their expressions coagulate into blankness. They fear you, because you might ask them for directions, and Londoners hate being asked for directions. I’ve been here long enough for this fear and loathing to now run deep in my own veins. I understand that lost people are a blight on this city. They slow the stream, block the rush of progress; they are drain hair.
I still remember a customer I served, when I worked in a bookshop years ago, who – in a hulking hi-vis jacket, wielding a couple of travel guides – wanted to know how long it would take him to drive from Opunake to Stratford (you often got questions like these in the bookshop for some reason). I confessed that I didn’t know – that not only did I not drive, but I also probably couldn’t pinpoint either of those towns on a map. I’m not sure why I volunteered this shameful secret – maybe I was trying to build good customer relations via the old road of self-deprecation. But he looked at me flatly for a couple of seconds and then said, ‘You are a symptom of everything that is wrong with New Zealand’s education system.’ I think at that point my spine left my body and flew off, so I was unable to punch him in the face. I just gave him a rubbery smile and closed the transaction.
The thing is, although he may have been a moron, he’d touched on my long-held suspicion: that my lack of geographical knowledge and instinct pointed to a deeper failure. To not even know where you were in the world meant that you were inept, as a human. That you were self-absorbed, selfish of spirit. And as a New Zealander, geographical knowledge was (is) especially, gravely important: you had to know that you were all the way down here, and you had to know that the rest of the world was all the way over there. If you didn’t have a solid grasp on your own home territory, that was so small as to be wiped clean off many of the world maps you see in the news, then you were fucked.
Today I read ‘Silt’ by Robert MacFarlane – an account of walking the Broomway, an ancient, unearthly path that begins at Great Wakering on the coast of Essex and ends at the island of Foulness. You can only walk the path when the tide is out. Over the centuries, many walkers have disappeared – been sucked into the gouting sand or drowned by a sudden incoming tide. Still, knowing the risks, the author can’t resist walking it himself. A well-meaning Alaskan friend suggests he should take a small hatchet with him: ‘That way, if you get stuck in the mud with the tide coming in, you can cut your legs off at the ankles and escape.’
(Macfarlane’s description of the silvery, mirroring world of the Broomway reminds me of this illustration of London fog, a dishwater cloud-fog, in a picture book by Miroslav Sasek, This Is London. The book was published in 1959 and the city has changed, of course, but the cloud-fog remains the same.)
Illustration in Miroslav Sasek’s This Is London (1959)
MacFarlane describes ‘the mind-altering surfaces of the offshore world’ – walking, accompanied by your giant reflection like a ghost self, in a world that doesn’t fit any known geographical category: it’s neither sea nor land, and even the air is uncertain, all grainy and flickering, duplicating the textures of both water and sand. ‘Out there, nothing could be only itself.’
When I was little I got lost on a beach once – my friend Sarah ran away and left me on Mokau Beach by the river mouth. I didn’t know how to get back to the camping ground – the entrance we usually used was a scrappy path at the top of a bank, where you had to push through trees. The black sand was scorching hell out of my feet. I remember crawling around on some strange rubbery plants, trying to get away from the hot sand, totally disoriented. In my memory the beach was scarily deserted, and I was alone and would probably die (a bit like the disorder of perception that MacFarlane describes, ‘that caused illusions of the spirit as well as of the eye’). But I’m sure that in truth there would have been dog-walkers, kite-fliers, motorbikers zig-zagging up and down. Eventually Sarah’s mum came out and rescued me. I had been only a little way away from the camping ground.
Robert MacFarlane on The Broomway (Photo: David Quentin), via PRI’s The World
Yes, I have a phone with maps on it. But my fantasy is to have a biological compass, so that knowing where to go is instinct, it’s ancient knowledge. My brain would be tuned to detect variations in the earth’s magnetic field. Like a pigeon. Or like an old London taxi driver, his hippocampus engorged with side-streets.
Postscript on lostness: These are drawings from Elliot Elam’s blog (sorry for mainlining your blog all the time, Elliot) that remind me of the abandoned cars that used to be at my Nana and Granddad’s house in Oamaru. They had a whole dusty shed full of them – trucks, minis, army-truck type vehicles – and more cars parked out in the paddocks with nettles and thistles growing up through the seats and bonnets and holes in the floor. (These were prime locations for playing Ninjas, in which the thistles were the enemies and the cars could be revved off to safety.) I have no idea where all of the vehicles came from and never thought to ask. They were just furniture.