Monday, February 18, 2013

The Living (Brain) Dead

More than twenty years ago, I spent several months working and living in Manchester. On arrival, I was entirely unfamiliar with the layout of England’s third largest city (population half a million). Working smack-bang in the city centre while living several miles to the east meant that I had to find my road bearings pretty quickly.

Navigating congested city roads, wondering constantly what lies round the corner, can be tricky even when nothing exceptional is going on. Unfortunately – just my luck – something was. The government had just sanctioned the construction of a 19-mile urban tram network, stretching from Bury (10 miles north) to Altrincham (9 miles south), and bisecting Manchester city centre by means of an elaborate zigzag. The contract was signed by Minister of State for Transport Michael Portillo in June 1990. I landed in July.

Throughout that unusually hot summer, the city was a vast construction site. The proposed trams were to run alongside buses and cars on existing roads (Figure 55.1); and tram stops, complete with substantial platforms, were required every few hundred yards. It was chaotic. I arrived to discover about a dozen different traffic diversions, all colour-coded on ad hoc signposts, with motorists doing their valiant best to survive both the congestion and each other’s impatience.

Figure 55.1: Tramlines crossing Manchester city centre

Copyright © 1993 Neil Clifton

After a really crazy first week, I began to work out routes from every A to every B, despite straight lines being prohibited, and found a few convenient rat-runs among the murky backstreets. So adept did I become at bypassing temporary traffic lights, had my new job been as a taxi driver, I would have quite fancied my chances.

When the transport infrastructure was complete, all the diversions became redundant. They were, however, all I had ever known. The absurdity that remained was of knowing my way round the city but only by going ‘round the houses’. Shortly thereafter, and before I could refamiliarize myself with the most direct routes, I left Manchester for good. It was healthy brain exercise, if nothing else.

This morning, I read a bizarre account of lousy navigation which made my efforts to conquer the Manchester maze appear commendable. A 67-year old Belgian woman, Sabine Moreau, set off on a 38-mile journey to meet a friend off the train. Unbelievably, she ended up in Zagreb, Croatia – 900 miles away. Some wrong turn. The absent-minded Madame Moreau passed through Germany, Austria and Slovenia, refuelling several times, until realizing somewhat belatedly that she ‘was no longer in Belgium’ (Figure 55.2). Such was her faith in her TomTom satnav device, not to mention her mindblowing lack of common sense. (I wonder what she made of the Alps. Did she think she was crossing the ‘Belgian Mountains’? Ye Gods.)

Figure 55.2: I hope Mme Moreau’s friend is not still waiting at the railway station.

Copyright © 2013 Antonio Santos

Today’s dependence on satnavs has become a lazy substitute for map-reading and spatial awareness in general. It obviates the need to think (Figure 55.3). Even rudimentary knowledge of direction and relative location becomes lost. Seville lies due south of Salamanca. Would a satnav slave from either place know this? Perhaps not. The dangers of delegation to technology are, firstly, that geographical knowledge becomes ever more superficial, and if a prosthetic device malfunctions, Mme Moreau rides again.

Figure 55.3: Use it or lose it.

Copyright © 2012 Tim Brown

Just as well the poor woman never worked in Manchester during the summer of 1990. She might still be going round and round – or, even worse, the wrong way along a tram track.

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery

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