I can’t remember exactly when it happened, but I was definitely younger than ten years old when I realised that England is not a big country.
At least some of my early childhood misconceptions on the subject can be traced back to the military style planning with which my father would prepare for each family holiday.
Announcing our imminent journey, he would precisely arrange newly acquired folding maps on the dining room table, each road meticulously aligned at the intersection points where one map ended and the next began.
I then watched, enthralled, as his index finger traced a series of coloured lines across the map, occasionally stopping to pick up a pencil and make a coded notation which, to my young mind, was just an indecipherable combination of letters and numbers.
Eventually, after what seemed like hours of intense study and furious note taking, his finger stopped at a point near the tip of a distant, pointy-shaped piece of land.
He had found Cornwall.
“We have to be on the road no later than six”, he would say the night before we were due to leave; underlining the heavy anticipation that had been building inside me since the maps had first been unfolded.
I could barely sleep anyway. We were about to embark on an epic journey of discovery. Of course we needed to be up before dawn. No explorer worthy of the name would think to linger in bed on departure day. (I would later discover the main reason for our early start was that our car only ever had an outside chance of reaching our destination).
If we were fortunate enough to complete the journey without the intervention of a roadside recovery service, we would generally arrive in time for lunch. I remember feeling slightly disappointed; I thought our wondrous adventure would take days to unfold.
During dinner on that first evening away, my father would inevitably strike up a conversation with someone at a nearby table.
Reminiscent of exhausted renaissance travelers, suspiciously circling each other after a chance meeting in Samarkand, they tested the other’s resolve with incredible stories of the hardships of contraflow systems, the monotony of motorway road works, and the dark perils lurking in market town bypasses.
As their initial wariness receded with the camaraderie gained through mutual struggle, they congratulated themselves on the great tenacity, skillful navigation, and good fortune that had conspired to ensure their safe arrival in the fabled locale of St Ives.
They had earned their pint of lager.
They may cause a wry smile now, but the family holiday rituals awoke in me a geographical curiosity that has only intensified with each passing year. I wanted – no, I needed – to know every city, every river. And how to get there.
When my first world atlas confirmed my growing doubts about my home country’s size, I saw a world of infinite possibility. What vast riches could lie beyond this sceptered isle?
As I’ve grown older, the destination has become increasingly incidental; it is the journey and the promise of experiences to be gained along the way that inspires.
I have, however, started to suspect that these may be the workings of an outdated and eccentric mind.
Recently, I was sitting on a beach in the southeastern United States, when I became distracted by a conversation next to us. Two women, probably in their early twenties, were staring out towards the ocean as they exchanged views on various matters of great import, when one turned to the other and said …
“Is this, like, the Pacific or the Atlantic?”
Unable to restrain an involuntary guffaw, I almost spat out my Gatorade.
Relatively quickly, however, my initial amusement turned first to bemusement, then to annoyance and, finally, to despair.
As I wondered how someone could be so uninformed to even need to ask the question, I realised that at least some of the answer is to be found on the interstates, motorways, and highways of the world.
You can see it every day.
On the front dashboard of the minivan, a screen with a blue arrow guides the driver forward to a pre-programmed destination. In the back seats, children are glued to another screen as a quiet-inducing, question-suppressing movie plays.
If it weren’t for the need to keep the car on the road (and often that, too, appears to be more of an afterthought), no one would even think to look out of the window.
The experience of the journey is sacrificed to the urgency of reaching its endpoint. There are no distractions; no alternative destinations; no impulsive decisions. As the arrow points ahead, curiosity in the world beyond the pre-programmed path isn’t merely stifled; it doesn’t even know to exist.
Against this dearth of inquisitiveness, is it really surprising that a twenty-something has trouble identifying an ocean?
But this is not merely a trivial matter of geographical ignorance; it’s fundamental to constructive global discourse. Particularly now.
If we don’t know – or don’t care – where we are or where we’re going, all we are really doing is staying at home somewhere else. If our luggage is so full of our prejudices and our pre-conceived ideas, we leave no space to pack a fresh perspective or a deeper understanding when it comes time to leave.
And so we return home, our personal bubble intact, ever more convinced that our world view is the only possible view, while the people we encounter are ever more convinced that we are wrong. Ill-informed opinions are validated. Inaccurate stereotypes are reinforced. As our global curiosity retreats, suspicion fills the void.
As a young boy, eyes scouring his new atlas for interesting place names, I realised that there is a world of possibility and opportunity between where we are today and where we hope to be tomorrow – and almost all of it lies beyond the most direct path between the two.
So: Explore. Pack lightly. And bring a map – if only to know what ocean you’re looking at.
27th June 2017