How to block a road

Our friend J. lives on a back road, which since we’re in Britain is called a lane, but what matters isn’t what it’s called but that it’s narrow and has two ninety degree bends where anything bigger than a little red wagon risks getting stuck forever. It also fords a small, unimpressive stream which can rise enough that driving across it would be really, really stupid.

I may have exaggerated those bends by just the smallest amount. If a normal car couldn’t make the turns, the hamlet would have been cut off for centuries and evolved its own language and customs. And probably its own form of government. So yes, an average-size car with a competent driver who’s used to our roads will be fine. If the driver’s an emmit, though—that’s a tourist, to give you the short definition—a normal car won’t get stuck but the emmit may go paralytic with fear and have to be rescued by someone local who has a calm manner and a gentle voice.

Delivery vans can also get through, and residents have been known to order who knows what-all off the internet: groceries, anvils, sex toys—the same odd mix of the necessary and the even more necessary that people throughout Britain rely on the internet to bring into their lives.

A delivery truck blocking the lane. I'd have missed it, but J. pointed out that it says, "Expert Logistics" on the side. Great logistics, there, folks. Photo by Duncan Walker.

A delivery truck blocking the lane. I’d have missed it, but J. points out the lettering on the side: “Expert Logistics.” Great work on the logistics, there, folks. Photo by Duncan Walker.

But even though delivery vans have been known to enter the hamlet and leave unharmed, tales circulate of larger trucks getting stuck on the bends and—well, the longer the story circulates, the longer the truck is caught on the bend and the more complicated the rescue becomes. By the time the story drifts to the far edges of the parish, houses will have to be demolished and put back together again, stone by stone by stone, and half a dozen tow trucks and rescue vehicles will be stuck as well. They’ll be there for months. Possibly years. A campsite has been set up to house them.

When J. talked about what happens on the lane, she mentioned both trucks and lorries. If you don’t know what the difference is, don’t look to me to clarify the situation because I don’t either. I could look it up but something about the murkiness of the British/American miscommunication appeals to me.

On the morning I started writing this, I had to drive down the lane and through both bends because the police had closed off what we call the main road (anyone who doesn’t live here would call it a back road) after an accident. That made the lane the shortest way around the roadblock. No trucks were caught in either bend. No rescue vehicles were stranded. So I can testify that the road’s open after whatever the last rumored incident was–whenever it may or may not have happened.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: We have no secrets in the village, but we do have a lot of inaccurate information. I’ve also written about this particular set of bends and rumors before. The reason I’m coming back to it now is that J. and A., who also lives on the lane, are trying to get it designated a quiet lane so that sat-navs (make the GPSs if you’re in the U.S.) won’t be able to direct drivers down it. Because right now they do, even when a different route would be easier. Even when it would be not only easier but shorter.

Why do they do it? Because, as the kids where I grew up used to say. (The italics are there because they said it in italics. And that was before any of us knew what italics were.) Once because was the answer, the conversation was closed and logic wouldn’t help. No appeal was possible.

More trouble, same lane. Aren't you glad not to be the driver? Photo by Duncan Walker.

More trouble, same lane. You begin to get a sense of the problem here, right? Photo by Duncan Walker.

One grocery delivery outfit tells its drivers to follow their sat-navs no matter what, so even if they know a route’s insane, they follow them. In Cornwall, that can be lethal, and I mean that literally. Sat navs can take you the wrong way down a highway exit ramp. Less lethally but more locally, some of them will take you up a washed-out, unpaved road that will eat your axles for an appetizer and then come back for your springs and your window glass. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that if you gave your sat-nav an address in Ireland it would take you straight into the ocean. Because, hey, it is the most direct route.

Are the grocery delivery drivers supposed to keep their foot on the accelerator as the water rises? I don’t know. All I can tell you is that they follow their sat-navs around those two tight, stone-walled bends, although there’s a much simpler way to get almost anywhere. Because, like anyone else, they want to keep their jobs.

So here’s this quiet little settlement plagued by drivers who don’t want to be there and who are sporting that panicked, I-have-a-sat-nav-but -where-the-hell-am-I? look.

A. has committed herself to fixing that. She can be a real terrier, and a terrier’s what’s needed for this. She’s already called a couple of the sat-nav companies and gotten the lane taken off their list of ways to get from point A to point everywhere else. But to back all the companies down, the road has to be designated a quiet lane and the parish council has to impose a twenty-mile-an-hour speed limit.

Last I heard, J. and A. were headed for a parish council meeting and it will be taken care of.

But that won’t entirely solve the problem, because sat-navs don’t update themselves. Their owners have to update them. Which involves paying money—something people may quite reasonably not want to do since they already paid money for the damn things and if they’re not broken, why throw more money at them?

We actually did update a sat-nav once. The update wrecked it. Or maybe the problem was connected to that sledge hammer. Me, though? I blame he update.

So—if I understand the situation—the current generation of sat-navs may have to die before the problem will be solved.

Even so, the hamlet’s closer to a solution than places with equally difficult roads but no resident with the skills, the energy, and the commitment to back down half a dozen sat-nav companies and a grocery delivery service. Trucks will get stuck in those places. Rescue vehicles will pile up behind them. Rumors will grow, but they’ll do that anyway.

All of this leads me to a question: What’s going to happen when driverless cars are turned loose on our roads? My partner, Wild Thing, has macular degeneration and has had to quit driving, so we have a more than intellectual interest in driverless cars. Is she going to end up in a car that decides the best route home is up an unpaved road that will eat one axle and both front doors? Or that takes her down the exit ramp to the A30–Cornwall’s main highway? Or to Ireland by way of the Atlantic Ocean?

She has enough vision left to see where she is, and I’m assuming passengers will be able to stop driverless cars somehow, and maybe even reprogram the route. But what happens to passengers with no vision? Do they have to wait until the feel the water rising? Will the driverless car need a driver? A navigator? An editor? Is all the work focused on how the cars follow the road and avoid accidents instead of on the routes they’ll follow?

Consulting the Internet and the Chicken Entrails about Cornish Roads

I went to a meeting the other day, and I consulted the internet about it the night before. That’s the modern version of killing a chicken and consulting the entrails to find out how your trip’s going to go.

The internet entrails told me I’d need one hour and one minute to get there.

I figured I’d allow myself an extra ten minutes and be heroically early.

In the morning, I forgot about the ten minutes, but how many meetings start on time anyway? I punched the post code into the sat nav I stole from Wild Thing because I don’t believe in them unless I need one, in which case see I steal hers. That gives me access to both a sat nav and the moral high ground.

The sat nav spit the post code back out. I punched it in again. The sat nav offered me a list of alternative post codes, some of which were close but close wasn’t what I needed. I could find the town without the damned thing. What I needed was the final details.

mulfra 098We went through this several times until it accepted the post code. I will, of course, swear that I entered it correctly all sixteen times and that the sat nav was both pigheaded and wrong for the first fifteen, but you probably won’t believe me. I’m not sure I believe me either.

I was now going to be late. I was also now ready to accept that you can’t get from my house to Pool, where the meeting was, in one hour and one minute. And I’d kind of known that the night before, but I wasn’t ready to question the wisdom of the chicken entrails then.

I drove, telling myself I’d make up lost time. This was, of course, a crock. (A crock, my writers group tells me, is an Americanism. It may also be as out of date as I am, so if you need guidance, allow to me ask you, ever so delicately, to imagine what I’m implying is inside the crock.) Unless you’re on one of our few four-lane highways (or the occasional, very short, three-lane stretch), you have to be a whole lot crazier than I am if you’re going to make up time around here.

At the Pool turnoff, I realized that the sat nav hadn’t been speaking to me since I left the house. Why hadn’t I noticed? Because I don’t enjoy her conversation, so I hadn’t missed it. Our sat nav, by the way, is a her, and her name’s Dorothy, and she’s been losing her voice a lot lately. The last time it happened, Wild Thing fought with her until she started speaking again but she—Wild Thing, that is—wasn’t sure what she’d done, so I stood no chance of reproducing it. It involved a lot of swearing, which I can reproduce effortlessly, but I’m guessing that wasn’t the effective part. And I didn’t have time to wrestle with the sat nav anyway—I was already heroically late—so I drove into Pool trying to keep one eye on the little brown arrow.

Tell me, I begged the universe, that this isn’t a part of the county where sat navs don’t work.

I didn’t expect the universe to answer and it didn’t. Begging the universe is just one of those things I do to pass the time when I’m coming unglued. I fully expected the little brown arrow to direct me into an abandoned mine shaft or the frozen food aisle of the nearest supermarket. That optimism meant I was ready for it when the little brown arrow told me to turn where there wasn’t a street.

You can’t fool me, I told Dorothy, and I drove on.

The hell she couldn’t. The little brown arrow disappeared.

I turned around and tried again, somehow expecting to get different information this time. The little brown arrow still wanted me to turn onto a non-street, but it was at least paved, so I tried it and ended up in a supermarket parking lot.

I turned around before we got to the frozen food aisle and I drove back to where the arrow had disappeared, pulling into the parking lot of a small business. I walked inside and threw myself on their mercy.

They must’ve been used to this. Not only were they kind, they’d heard of the complex I was looking for and gave me usable directions.

“Sat navs,” I said, trying to look as befuddled as, in fact, I was. I felt—I have no idea why—that I owed them that.

“Sat navs,” they said, nodding and looking wise.

I got to the address, which turned out to be a Free Public Attraction (please note the capital letters, because they’re not mine; I’ve borrowed them from a sign I passed) about Cornish mining. With a not-at-all-free parking lot. I hadn’t counted on that and hadn’t brought much change, but I plugged in what I had, which was enough to carry me to the 11 a.m. break, when I might be able wangle change out of someone somewhere.

Or leave if the meeting turned out to be as pointless as I sort of suspected it would be.

I could probably have used my phone and credit card to pay, but (remember the internet and the chicken entrails?) I was late.

So in a gentle Cornish mizzle, I walked in through what must once have been a working mine complex and now that the mining’s gone is a tourist attraction. I thought melancholy and ironic thoughts about hard, dangerous work and low pay and tourist attractions but didn’t have a lot of time for them because I found the right building and went into a tasteful and (I assumed) expensive modern lobby where there was no sign pointing me to my meeting, only one saying Memory Café.

You know about memory cafes? They’re for people with some degree of dementia, to orient them to I have no idea what. Reality, I suppose, which at the moment didn’t strike me as a particularly wondrous gift.

I found an office and asked a woman about my meeting. She gave me a blank look. I produced my agenda.

“That’s tomorrow,” she said.

I could have gone to the memory café but reality wasn’t looking particularly good so I drove home.

Driving in Cornwall: When Good Technology Turns Bad

My spies tell me that sat navs are called GPSes in the States, but in spite of my last post about keeping my American vocabulary pure I’m going to write about them as sat navs, because I’m writing about the way they work here. And also because the idea of purity in language is complete and total bullshit and I don’t want to take myself too seriously on this subject.

I needed a spy network to pin down the word GPS because I never needed one when I lived in the U.S. Or, well, yes, I could have used one during the five years that I drove cab, but they didn’t exist yet, so the thought I need that couldn’t exist either.

Not that I’d have spent the money on one.

I’m a technophobe. I’m a techno-I-don’t-need-it, but even I have conceded that in Cornwall I need a sat nav. Or, to be entirely accurate, I don’t need one myself but will steal Wild Thing’s now and then. She’s a major prophet of the Church of We Need All the Techno We Can Get, so this seems (to me) like a reasonable arrangement.

Irrelevant Photo: Boscastle, Evening.

Irrelevant Photo: Boscastle, Evening.

Now in Cornwall, and probably in the rest of Britain, before the invention of sat navs, people would leave home with a set of directions to a place they’d never been before and 70% of them were never seen again. On a dark night, you can see the faint gleam of their headlights passing like ghosts, still looking for a house called Craggy Bottom, which was supposed to be on an unmarked road somewhere off the A39.

The incident that made me a sat nav user was looking up directions to a meeting on MapQuest or Google Maps or something like that and reading, “Turn right on unmarked road.” Which unmarked road? They couldn’t tell me. Because that’s the thing about unmarked roads: They’re unmarked. It’s one thing if a friend says, “Turn after you pass the bungalow with the brown egg box out front,” but internet directions won’t give you that level of detail.

But sat navs have their own problems. First, you become dependent on them. They tell you to cross the roundabout, third exit, and you cross the roundabout, third exit. The next time you come the same way, do you remember that? Hell no. You need the sat nav again.

But the second problem’s more serious. In parts of Cornwall, they don’t work. Some years ago, Wild Thing and I were walking the dog past a ford and waved down a guy in a delivery van as he was about to leave a paved (and unmarked) road and go up an unpaved, washed out axle-breaker of a vague memory of a former road.

“You can’t get up that,” we told him.

“The sat nav says.”

I don’t think he quite finished the sentence. He had that blank, terrified look of someone who wasn’t taking in anything we said. Part of it would have been our accents—we couldn’t seem any less local if we carried signs saying “We’re not from around here”—and part of it would have been sat nav dependence. The rest, though? When a man doesn’t take in what a woman’s saying, it’s hard not to go back to the words man and woman and think, hmmm.

But never mind. We told him only a four-by-four could handle the hill he was about to go up. We told him he’d wreck the van. He told us the sat nav said.

We shrugged and watched him cross the ford and start up the hill. If a van can look fatalistic, I tell you, his did.

He was lucky. It was a rainy year and the mud was slick, so he didn’t get far enough up the hill to wreck an axle. He slid back, still looking blank and terrified, and he drove back the way he’d come. On foggy nights, I’ve seen his headlights pass me like ghosts, still following directions from his sat nav.

This kind of thing happens all over the country. Sat navs send massive damn trucks down streets that are so narrow they get stuck.  Really they do. They send cars down stairs. Some of the problems you couldn’t predict, but some of them—well, the truly crazy thing is that people do what they’re told. And yeah, I know I shouldn’t laugh but when I see some of the pictures I laugh anyway. It’s the oldest joke humanity knows: Somebody falls down. Follow the link and see if you don’t do the same.

We’re not, all told, a very nice species.

And maybe our sat navs know that, because with the detached serenity of gurus, they’ll spend hours talking us through the mazes we’ve laid down on the surface of the earth and call roads, and then, with no warning, they turn on us. Wild Thing’s first one did it in the middle of the Tamar Bridge—a long, high bridge connecting Devon and Cornwall.

“Turn left,” it commanded.

We came out of our sat nav trance and decided maybe that wouldn’t be a good idea, so she escalated.

“Turn left immediately.”

There really is a lot of water under the Tamar Bridge. And I’m not much good with either heights or water. We turned the sat nav off. It already had a history of going wild when we crossed the moors. If you’ve read the Brontes, you probably know about the moors as a metaphor for something wild and free and frightening, and our sat nav was in tune with all that. It would tell us, “In 18 yards [and it was always 18 yards], turn right.” Or left. In 18 yards, though, there was no road, only hedge. It had an image of us, I guess, breaking loose and driving wild and free across the fields.

Wild Thing retired it and bought a new one whose quirks are more predictable. But even so, near Scorrier both our new sat nav and everybody else’s try to kill people so consistently that the county’s put up a sign, in a panicky set of colors that they use for nothing else, saying, “Turn off sat nav.” The highway entrances were rerouted at some point and sat navs seize the opportunity to send cars the wrong way down exit ramps onto the wrong side of the highway.

So yeah, you need one around here. And you never turn your back on it.