‘Forget apps: I prefer to get around the old-fashioned way’

Sep 21, 2020
Rod isn't planning on giving up on his maps anytime soon. Source: Getty

My wife, being both a qualified librarian and archivist, is engaged as a consultant to a second-hand bookseller in our town. This is no ordinary bookshop with its shelves packed to the gills with pulp fiction from Janet Evanovich and Jodi Picoult – although they are both well represented here – because its stock is being replenished continually from the collections of retiring or deceased academics from the neighbouring university.

The result is a torrent of really important and arcane works, many out of print, which require her constant attention regarding cataloguing and classification into readily accessible sections. And it also means that the occasional gem passes through her hands. And, so, she is on notice from her bibliophile husband – c’est moi, as the French would say – that should she spot any likely to catch my eye, she must make the proprietors an offer they can’t refuse.

Just the other day she came home with a most unusual book. It was not the sort of volume likely to grace the shelves of a philosopher or a mathematician but she knew it would register immediately with me. The book in question was an old Gregory’s 100 Miles Around Sydney and, while there was no publication date listed, there were enough clues embedded in the text to identify the year as between 1947 and 1951. Our family might even have owned that particular edition because I remember copies always being in the house throughout my childhood. So I knew its value, as did my wife, because both our families had cars in their blood right from the early days of private motoring in the 1920s.

My father grew to maturity behind the wheel of an American Stutz convertible, gunning around western Victoria like it was a Daimler-Benz G4 (minus the black-leather-coated, monocled SS staff officers, of course) on a German autobahn. My father-in-law was equally fortunate in having parents who could foresee the future and had him placed as an apprentice auto mechanic in the New South Wales Hunter Valley, rather than as a plumber. Indeed, in the years 1947 to 1951, and for a few years thereafter, private car ownership was still sufficiently privileged that an afternoon drive was a rather special treat.

She reminded me of the line-drawing display ads in our daily papers: There was pipe-puffing Dad, looking like the Pelacco man (but without the eye patch), sporting neat, well-groomed hair and modest pencil-thin moustache, showing the kids the route to be followed from the road map spread out on the bonnet, while an ever-smiling Mum boiled the billy for an afternoon cuppa to break the journey. (I wonder what she was really thinking, relegated to the wings, while also knowing how onerous it is to get any fire going.)

When I first acquired my driver’s licence, one of the earliest things I did was to visit the nearest servo and pick up a complete set of road maps, one for each state and one for each 100 miles around its capital city. It seemed then that no-one could be a complete driver without them. Whether it was that acquisition or not, I cannot tell, but there is little doubt that over the ensuing years I have become obsessed with maps. It happens that the three most well-thumbed items in our private library (of about 5,000 items) are recent copies of the Rand McNally United States, Canada and Mexico Road Atlas, the Collins Big Road Atlas of Britain and the Penguin Touring Atlas of Australia.

Not a television program, of any genre, can pass me by before I am into one of them to pinpoint exactly where the action is taking place. For instance, Number Two Son and I revisited the Matt Damon-Christian Bale petrolhead movie Ford vs Ferrari about British racing driver Ken Miles. Miles, I quickly learned from Wikipedia, came from the town of Sutton Coldfield, north-east of Birmingham. Yet in the movie his young son was wearing an Aston Villa football strip, and Aston Villa, I thought I knew, played at Edgbaston, south of Birmingham.

So I rushed to my Collins atlas and learned the truth: Aston Villa did not play at Edgbaston but there was, instead, a little blue football icon on the map at Aston (believe it or not) on the northern outskirts of Birmingham, a mere saunter down the A5127 from Sutton Coldfield.

Let’s hear it for maps, then! Especially for maps of France when I zealously follow every twist and turn of the Tour de France. Despite my wife groaning, “Not again!”. Unfortunately, that feel for cars which both my wife and I inherited from our fathers, does not extend to maps. While the orderliness of maps and their precise definition of lives has become second nature to me, my wife prefers to retain the wilfulness of her adolescence – by resolutely refusing to orient a map, let alone map out a planned progress by which our car might leave Point A in good order and reach Point B in plenty of time.

This, well, difference of opinion between us reached its climax when we were in England. We had gone out of our way to visit the Embsay Steam Rail Museum in Yorkshire so that Number One Son (then considerably shorter than his present 2.0 metres) could make his oblations to Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends.

However, by cutting it so fine, we then had to reach Manchester post-haste in order to catch an Aer Lingus flight to Dublin so that my wife could eventually reach her family home turf in Cork. During a pit stop at Keighley I noted that the M62, which we were shortly to join, met the M60 (the Manchester Ring Road) at Whitefield. Therefore, we should enter the M60, I decided, and proceed clockwise until we reached the M56 exit, south of the city. I explained this to my wife, who seemed to nod co-operatively, and all appeared to be going smoothly. Keighley, Halifax, M62, Whitefield, M60. But when I asked, “about how far to the M56 exit”, she replied (rather blithely, I thought), “Oh, we just passed it.”

With another 58.1 klicks to drive before we again reached the accursed exit, I could only say nothing. Because to protest would certainly risk the stinging riposte, “Oh, go cork it.” Many years later, my wife has confessed neither to grievous error on that day, nor to visceral hatred of maps, nor even to contempt for my fastidious worship of them. For 25 years she has stuck religiously to the line: “But I always wanted to see Manchester. All of it!” Therefore, forget Gregory’s; I think I might write a rueful guidebook of my own instead: 58.1 Kilometres Around Manchester.

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