“What’s wrong with just using a map?” has been my constant retort against sat navs. I have always disputed the premise of the popular book title “Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps” (well, the bit about maps, anyway).
Several unfortunate experiences with the GPS belonging to Gadget Man (aka my husband) has left me disenchanted with this particular new technology. It assumes one is always travelling either by car or on foot. Nearly wedging our camper van in a progressively narrowing Welsh lane was enough to make me want to throw the thing out of the window. (In the end, we reversed out to safety).
But this week I’ve changed my tune. Playing around with my mobile in an idle moment (which I get about once every 20 years), I decide my phone isn’t working hard enough for me. This is ironic, because since Orange and T-Mobile joined forces, I’m now for the first time able to get a signal just about everywhere, even in my thick-walled Cotswold cottage. So I’m using it much more than before. But I decide to push the boundaries of technology and see what else it will do for me.
The answer: sat nav. For just a few quid a month, it will tell me very politely how to get from A to B, with options to go via C, D, E and even X, Y and Z if I want it to. Sure, there are a few technical hitches.
FIrst of all, it doesn’t recognise my house, because I don’t have a door number, just a house name. So I’ve made my adoptive home my neighbour’s house opposite. This confuses me on my first sat-nav’d journey home, as I forget I’ve done this, and it keeps telling me to veer away from my house, as if it suspects some unknown danger lurking there.
Secondly, it panics if I’m not on a registered road. “GET ON THE ROAD!” it shouts in capital letters as I set off home from a National Trust car park. You can almost hear it sigh with relief as we hit the A46.
But apart from this, like a toddler, it appears to have no sense of fear, as I discover when using it on a return journey from my mum’s in Bristol. I must have done this journey literally 1,000 times, both us having lived in our current homes for over 20 years, so I don’t actually need its guidance, I’m just curious to see which of my repertoire of routes it prefers. I have a wide range and vary them according to my mood. To my surprise, it takes me in completely the opposite direction to any of them, heading into the centre of Bristol and through the notoriously dangerous area of St Paul’s.
Years ago, driving to work that way, I pulled over to investigate the steam that was arising from under the bonnet of the car. A policeman quickly pulled up behind me.
“I wouldn’t stop here, love,” he advised. “Far too dangerous.”
And with that he jumped back into his panda car and sped off, leaving me stunned, pointing at the steam. Too bad, I thought to myself, it’s a company car, and quickly followed him.
Instinctively I central-lock my doors and try not to make eye-contact with anyone as I follow the sat nav’s instructions. I try not to think about my former colleague’s policeman ex-husband reporting going to a crime scene in St Paul’s where someone had their arms machete’d off.
But the sun is shining and people here are in holiday mood. The worst that happens is a man at the roadside holds up a placard to me telling me to “Beep if you don’t like Tesco’s“. I don’t like Tesco’s, but I don’t beep either. I don’t want to disturb the peace. I tell myself times have changed and not to be so foolish, though I admit to relief when we hit the motorway. We make it safely home, disobeying the sat nav only to turn into the right house in my lane.
Next day, at my sister’s, we watch the local news. There are scenes of overturned, torched cars and smashed windows (Tesco’s). I recognise the street: I passed through it in St Paul’s on my journey home the day before. They cut to night-time footage of fires and violence. Oh my God. The sat nav is fearful of a National Trust carpark, but thinks nothing of taking me through crime scenes.
Suddenly I feel, Dorothy-like, that there’s no place like home. I think I’ll be spending the rest of the holiday weekend at home now. Even if the sat nav does think I’m in the wrong house.