Random Play by Graham Reid


Make It Easy On Yourself

Coming back from up north on Sunday afternoon I saw a sign on the side of a building near Albany. It read something like “two islands, one GPS, no worries”.

This interested and amused me: who gets so lost in New Zealand they need a GPS system?

Buenos Aires and LA I could understand, but even within greater Auckland you can probably drive to within five minutes of approximately where you want to be and then just get out a map or ask in a dairy.

And a GPS in the vast emptiness of the South Island where there are so few roads to wrong-turn onto?

Maybe I’m exaggerating (I’m not). But I'd been thinking about the GPS thing over the weekend anyway.

We’d gone to a beautiful lodge near Matakana (mind your own business) and I’d left the specific directions at home: I knew it was a few kilometres past the village and that was about it. So we drove around for a few minutes in what we took to be the general area and then I stopped and asked a very nice lady who got out a regional giveaway guide book, found the address for me, had a chat and pointed us in the right direction.

Cool. We’d met a local, learned a few things to see in the district that we might not have known about otherwise, saw a bit more of the area than if we’d had a door-to-door GPS, and still arrived around the time we said we would.

When we turned up there was an Australian couple who had got there directly by using their GPS.

The difference was, I guess, that we’d had a mini-adventure while they’d been sitting in their room.

I’ve never used a GPS - not even in long drives across the US, France and northleft Canada. But I’ve never been “lost” either. And if I’ve gone in the wrong direction for a bit, well so what?

I think it would true to say about 90 percent of the enjoyable experiences I’ve had when travelling have been by accident: by taking a wrong turn and ending up in an odd but interesting town, having to stop and ask directions of people, and often as a result meeting folks who are happy to share a drink, a laugh, or an anecdote with a stranger.

Okay, that’s just me and I’m sure business people in a hurry need things to be easier.

But I’m also a bit over this idea of things always having to be easy.

That idea seemed to exercise the minds of many letter writers to the Herald this past fortnight: many were banging on about simplifying the English language.

Yes, we know that it is a complex beast and yes, that George Bernard Shaw was an advocate for simplifying, and that maybe we could accept “thru” for “through” because it is easier, and that let’s do away with punctuation because some people cant and wont and do’nt use it properly and so on.

All in the drive to make English, and therefore life, more simple?

I don’t agree.

What’s life without complexity? Why should we not exercise our brains? Might actually help in all kinds of ways.

These days we are used to the decimal currency - but there was one interesting and reasonably compelling argument against its introduction back in the late 60s: that while it would make everything easier because you could just shift the point or whatever, it was also a retrograde step for whatever side of our brains does the maths thing.

A dollar can be divided by 1, 2, 5 and 10 (and multiples thereof). But that old pounds, shillings and pence was a whole other beast.

Sure it was complex: there were 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound (don’t get me started on guineas!) and that meant you could divide a pound by 1,2,3,4, 6, 10, 12 (and multiples thereof). You got to know your times tables, plus division and subtraction.

Sort of hurts your brain to think about it, huh?

But is that a bad thing?

I think thinking is good, for its own sake.

We live in a world where a lot of our thinking is being done for us by machines which will do what we (or others) programme into them. We live in a time when people seemingly can’t tell the difference between a press release and a news story, a reality show and reality, a blundered off-the-cuff remark and some worryingly entrenched racism . . .

So I defend thinking: and the idea of driving to places without a GPS; and the complexities of the English language.

English has a remarkable history and I guess the reason I was so amused by those letter writers was because I have just been re-reading Bill Bryson’s 1990 book Mother Tongue which is now a paltry $12.99 in Penguin reprint.

It is a fascinating account of the rise and diversity of the English language and I commend it to anyone. Especially if English is a language you want to dumb down or simplify to make it easy on yourself.

It is also full of provocative asides that make you think: that in 1900 New York had more speakers of German than anywhere in the world except Vienna and Berlin, more Irish than anywhere but Dublin, more Russians than Kiev, more Italians than Milan or Naples.

That there were at the time of Bryson’s writing about eight million speakers of Esperanto. Impressed? Don’t be. As Bryson notes, with those odds a Norwegian has as much chance of encountering another Norwegian in Mexico as Esperanto speakers have of meeting a fellow speaker.

Bryson’s book accounts for the varieties and vagaries of spoken and written English, and it make fascinating reading.
Makes you think, actually.

Although if you sort of agree with me in this matter then I am also reading a book which might be more to your taste.

Written by Steve Lowe and Alan McArthur - who I take to be grumpy old men or possibly radio breakfast jocks in the UK - it is a series of short pieces in which they sound off about stuff. Just irritating stuff.

Like “misery memoirs” of which we are spoiled for choice these days (The Little Prisoner: How a Childhood was Stolen and a Trust Betrayed); middle-class white boys with dreadlocks and get-rich hedge-fund kids; how whenever anything serious happens (like bombings in London) we always cross to find out “the Markets’ reaction”; the Kaiser Chiefs; of Yoko Ono and the whole “it’s what John would have wanted” thing; of Desperate Housewives’ star Teri Hatcher’s book Burnt Toast and Other Philosophies of Life. . . .

This often very funny collection of short and unconstrained rants (there are two volumes) is called Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit?

Apropos of nothing: masses of music (over 600 albums posted with sample tracks), dozens of interviews (musicians, authors), travel stories (where to go and where you could usefully avoid), recipes, essays and video clips (Jerry Lewis! The Three Stooges!! Sean Connery!!!) are at Elsewhere which is being added to almost daily.

Enjoy. I do.

Under the new system it has actually become very easy for me to add copy, upload music, insert photos and clips, and so on at Elsewhere.

I can do it . . . ahh . . . without thinking. Hmmm.

PS: if you are having trouble accessing www.elsewhere.co.nz could you flick me an e-mail. A couple of people have said it takes yonks on their system. I'm curious as to why that might be. Too much information perhaps?! Ta.

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