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Off the map

Warning: this post is not simply lost, it is off the map and it remains so throughout. If you like a nice tight narrative, abandon ship now.

In these days of sat nav and GPS on phones, you’d think it impossible to do… actually with a lack of forward planning and general ignorance – it’s quite easy. I’ve done it twice in the last few years, once in London, a city I know so well that my familiarity bred contempt on that one occasion, and once last week when I ended up off the small tourist map of the area in France. On both occasions, my sense of direction, which is usually quite good, completely deserted me and with it being night in London (no stars) and grey and overcast in France (no sun) there were no natural clues to help me.

It’s an interesting experience to reflect on: not being lost, that’s different and I don’t mind that too much, but being ‘off the map’ is enough to quickly provoke an existential crisis in me. The difference? Well being lost, is merely a matter of locating oneself on the map, and given enough time, that can always be done – I experienced that in the Caribbean as I insisted on driving over a mountain range to the north of the island on unmade roads. My sister as passenger was unhappy, we were LOST. She was right, we were lost, but we were still somewhere on the map. Sure, the map was poor, with little detail, but with the mountains and the sun in the sky to guide us it was only a matter of time before we popped up on the map again. It took a few hours, but we did.

Now, being off the map, the maps you have in your head or hand at any given moment, and being pointed in any direction, you know not where, that’s completely different to being lost on the map. It makes me feel a strange mixture of rising panic, freedom and desperation to get back on the map. It’s a feeling, there’s no word for in English, perhaps there’s one in German. It’s a feeling I despise in myself. Can I only feel free on a map? If everything is already mapped are there no new ideas, ever? But if there are still some uncharted territories somewhere, if I can’t get off the map for a while and explore, how will I ever find them? Help. Now I am lost.

These overwhelming feelings when I am temporarily off the map indicate I am not who I hoped I was: a little intrepid and brave, sometimes fearless. The feelings tell me I always want to know where I am in the world… at all times: where I am in the vicinity, which way I am facing, where I am going. On each of the occasions I was physically off the map, one of the first things I did when I found myself again was consult a map that covered the areas to check where I had been. I had to know what the off the map experience looked like, on the map. Even though I had just been there, as if a map would give me any more detail about the actual experience of driving along French roads or sitting on a wall somewhere in Kensington. Why does the cartographical detail matter after the event? I don’t know. Maybe I am a mad egotist who cannot bear not to know where she is in the world at any given time. The question it begs, not you, but me, is: what an earth would have I been like before the whole of the world was committed to charts and paper. Would I have been a flat earther, still brave enough to hop on a ship and sail off to the edge of the world? Would I have been able to surmise that India was round the globe somewhere and sail off confidently in the wrong direction? Is ignorance truly bliss; is a little information a dangerous thing? What the hell is it with me and maps. I just don’t know.

On both occasions when I was off the map, it turned out I had been heading in the complete opposite direction I had intended to. This is obvious in hindsight. The mix of feelings it creates is not. So what? Just turn round, retrace your steps, you idiot! No-one need ever know your mistake. But I have always had a natural aversion to doing this, preferring to press on, hoping to see something worthwhile, whilst angsting about never getting back on the map. So I panic about my existence no longer being charted, but I refuse to turn round.

Hopeless. Call me the Bellman. I don’t suppose this makes the least bit of sense to anyone else, but in the writing of this post I am starting to realise that the process is another version of being off the mental map; another refusal to retrace my steps to a known point. I’d rather be there in many ways, writing something intelligible, or entertaining, but I can’t – I am compelled to tramp forwards into headspaces I have never been to before, for which I have no sat nav.

Time for some nonsense

The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits by Lewis Carroll

Fit the First: The Landing

“Just the place for a Snark!” the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.

“Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.”

The crew was complete: it included a Boots–
A maker of Bonnets and Hoods–
A Barrister, brought to arrange their disputes–
And a Broker, to value their goods.

A Billiard-maker, whose skill was immense,
Might perhaps have won more than his share–
But a Banker, engaged at enormous expense,
Had the whole of their cash in his care.

There was also a Beaver, that paced on the deck,
Or would sit making lace in the bow:
And had often (the Bellman said) saved them from wreck,
Though none of the sailors knew how.

There was one who was famed for the number of things
He forgot when he entered the ship:
His umbrella, his watch, all his jewels and rings,
And the clothes he had bought for the trip.

He had forty-two boxes, all carefully packed,
With his name painted clearly on each:
But, since he omitted to mention the fact,
They were all left behind on the beach.

The loss of his clothes hardly mattered, because
He had seven coats on when he came,
With three pairs of boots–but the worst of it was,
He had wholly forgotten his name.

He would answer to “Hi!” or to any loud cry,
Such as “Fry me!” or “Fritter my wig!”
To “What-you-may-call-um!” or “What-was-his-name!”
But especially “Thing-um-a-jig!”

While, for those who preferred a more forcible word,
He had different names from these:
His intimate friends called him “Candle-ends,”
And his enemies “Toasted-cheese.”

“His form is ungainly–his intellect small–”
(So the Bellman would often remark)
“But his courage is perfect! And that, after all,
Is the thing that one needs with a Snark.”

He would joke with hyenas, returning their stare
With an impudent wag of the head:
And he once went a walk, paw-in-paw, with a bear,
“Just to keep up its spirits,” he said.

He came as a Baker: but owned, when too late–
And it drove the poor Bellman half-mad–
He could only bake Bridecake–for which, I may state,
No materials were to be had.

The last of the crew needs especial remark,
Though he looked an incredible dunce:
He had just one idea–but, that one being “Snark,”
The good Bellman engaged him at once.

He came as a Butcher: but gravely declared,
When the ship had been sailing a week,
He could only kill Beavers. The Bellman looked scared,
And was almost too frightened to speak:

But at length he explained, in a tremulous tone,
There was only one Beaver on board;
And that was a tame one he had of his own,
Whose death would be deeply deplored.

The Beaver, who happened to hear the remark,
Protested, with tears in its eyes,
That not even the rapture of hunting the Snark
Could atone for that dismal surprise!

It strongly advised that the Butcher should be
Conveyed in a separate ship:
But the Bellman declared that would never agree
With the plans he had made for the trip:

Navigation was always a difficult art,
Though with only one ship and one bell:
And he feared he must really decline, for his part,
Undertaking another as well.

The Beaver’s best course was, no doubt, to procure
A second-hand dagger-proof coat–
So the Baker advised it– and next, to insure
Its life in some Office of note:

This the Banker suggested, and offered for hire
(On moderate terms), or for sale,
Two excellent Policies, one Against Fire,
And one Against Damage From Hail.

Yet still, ever after that sorrowful day,
Whenever the Butcher was by,
The Beaver kept looking the opposite way,
And appeared unaccountably shy.