I spent most of last weekend driving up through Somerset, Gloucestershire, Birmingham and across to Leicester and then out the other side to Rutland, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire before motoring my way back to the South West.
It was a very long journey. I used the motorways. Picking my way through A roads would have been beyond me. I took what I thought would be the quickest, easiest and most efficient route. Before I set out on my epic journey, I topped up my battered old car – part VW Polo part tractor- with oil, water and screen wash. I adjusted the tyre pressure and even gave the mud-splattered headlights a wipe. When I got underway I felt confident I would make my destination in five hours.
Three hours after I thought I’d be enjoying a nice glass of cold cider with my sister, I was still trying to cross Leicester. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a map. I did, but I couldn’t see it in the dark. My sister had given me precise directions – several times – I had visualised her instructions and knew that all I needed to do was to find the big roundabout in the centre of Leicester with the Holiday Inn bang in the middle of it and head out of the city towards Peterborough and then pick up the road to Uppingham and I’d be on my way to Oakham.
Why then did I keep heading towards Hinckley? Why could I not access the part of my brain that knows how to navigate?
I’m good at finding my way around. The way it usually works for me is that I get into the car with no preparation whatsoever – I don’t really believe that my tractor-hybrid needs petrol as it does seem most of the time to run quite happily on mushed-up leaves – and I drive around and then I’ll find it: the place I’m supposed to be heading for.
This point and shoot method of going anywhere has worked for me for years. I’m not saying that it is efficient or quick, it’s not. But it is interesting. I’ve become so blasé about ‘getting lost’ now that I factor it into all my journeys, especially ones in the dark.
But on Saturday night getting lost in Leicester was not fun or interesting. I tried to convince myself that it was, that I was enjoying the cinema show of groups of young people swaying on high heels under glittering lights, but after the third trip around St. Nicholas Circle I was ready to give up.
The trouble is that when you are really lost you can’t give up. You can’t turn around to yourself and say: right let’s get home. You have to keep going.
I kept driving on Saturday night. At one point I was worried about my state of mind because I really did think that I had lost the bit of my brain that understands roundabouts and slip-roads and multiple signs. It reminded me of being eleven and having to do maths homework and not being able to: the terrible stifling feeling of being buried under a carpet of numbers and symbols that might have been Japanese for all the sense they made to me then.
But I have come to understand that it’s not numbers or even brackets (I found these particularly worrisome as a child) that causes some areas of my brain to fold in on itself, it’s having to use this part of my brain when I’m under pressure.
Under pressure I literally cannot think straight. I go round in circles. This is what humans do when they are lost. If I had been in a desert instead of central Leicester I would have been circling the same thorny bush instead of the taxi rank just off the lanes. Going around in circles is an instinct, and if we are not careful it could prove fatal.
What I learned on Saturday night is that there is another part of my brain that works when I need it. I was aimless and unfocused in my drive around the roundabout because I was hypnotised by the whole drama of being lost again.
I broke the spell. I concentrated properly, shifted my focus and on the next roundabout I found the exit. Nothing to be proud of: most people never go through such convoluted journeys, they travel smoothly from A to B.
I came to the conclusion that heading out with no plan is not romantic or interesting but wasteful. My next question is: does this apply to writing?
It does, but rather than plunge in with something fast and ill thought-out – my energy tank is running on empty – I’ll think about this over the week and make it the focus of my next post.
By the way, the cider tasted wonderful.