Gadgets that answer our questions instantly remove categories of expertise, and the small talk they engender.
It’s just after eight o’clock on a cold Monday morning and I’m sitting at a table in one of the physiotherapy wards at the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham. A middle aged man with a serious expression is manipulating the index finger of my right hand in various painful ways in an attempt to restore some normal amount of movement to it.
This is my second session with him. During the first our talk had consisted only of functional exchanges of information, about physiotherapy, how the injury had occurred (a moment of clumsiness with a pocket knife) and arrangements for future appointments. I think this suited us both fine.
However today we are making a tentative foray into proper conversation. The radio is on in the background and the youthful presenter has mentioned that he only had four hours sleep the previous night. My physiotherapist says that he needs at least eight himself, and I then feel obliged to end the subsequent silence by supplying my own figure of about six. We then move on to the times that our respective alarms go off in the morning, and to the fact that he commutes in to Birmingham each day from a town near Derby.
At this point I perk up. It may not get me invited to many parties, but there is no subject under the sun which I feel more at ease talking about than the geography of the UK—places and locations, roads and routes. I love both acquiring and dispensing this kind of information, and I happen to possess a considerable quantity.
I deliver vehicles for a living, and have done for over fifteen years. This has left me with a particularly thorough knowledge of the country. I can find my way unaided to any city, and to most towns as well.
I sometimes worry that this hard-earned body of knowledge is being rapidly rendered obsolete by the advent of sat nav systems. Younger drivers at my firm cannot comprehend how I get by without one of these gadgets suckered to the windscreen. Perhaps future generations will not really know, or care, where they are in the same sense that we do today, and the capacity to navigate using only a mental map will seem as anachronistic as navigating by the stars. But for now at least, this peculiarly male obsession still has some validity, and I feel I have a chance to show off.
I decide that I’ll ask my physiotherapist the name of the town he commutes from and then surprise him with my knowledge of its location, and perhaps also suggest some alternative routes he could use to travel into the city.
“Where do you drive in from then?”
I search through my memory banks and then realise, with more than a pang of disappointment, that I’ve no idea where the place is.
After a pause he tells me—
“It’s on the A52, on the way to Ashbourne.”
“Yeah?” I reply, with hopefully enough feigned indifference to conceal the fact that the hunter-gatherer who still lurks within my twenty-first century brain has just died a little bit inside.
Maybe I ought to stop caring about stuff like this and finally get myself a sat nav, but I’m just a bit too fond of my mental map to risk having it begin to atrophy and fade away.
On those rare nights when long working hours and the exhausting joys of parenthood are not enough to cause me to instantly fall asleep, there is no more relaxing way for me to drift off than to pick some faraway corner of the country and set off on an imaginary drive there. I’m always overtaken by the Sandman long before I reach my destination.
Perhaps I’ll leave the sat nav for now and instead look up exactly where Brailsford is. I may never need to genuinely go to the place, but one dark night I might just hurtle through there in a Porsche Panamera on a soporific drive to the coast. Even outdated obsessions can be useful sometimes.
Image credit: digitpedia/Flickr