Miles Kington: To get from A to Z, it's better not to follow the herd

He showed me the SatNav. It was a lunatic itinerary, going down tiny country lanes and though at least one farm before reaching the motorway
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The Independent Online

I was once considered important enough for a car to be sent to get me from my home and drive me the hundred miles to London. It was a posh car, with a driver and a navigation system which told him how to get everywhere in the world. I asked him out of curiosity what the system recommended as the best way to get back to London. Obligingly, he showed me. I couldn't believe my eyes. It was an absolutely lunatic itinerary, going down tiny country lanes and apparently through at least one farm before getting to a motorway. It might have been the most direct route, but also the worst.

"There are several quite good ways of getting to London from here," I said, "but that is not one of them. That is not a way which anyone who lived here would choose, unless he was very fond of mud, cow manure and stones."

"Blimey, if you know the way," said the driver, "fair enough. Just tell me where to go, and I'll switch this thing off."

It takes a bit of free thinking to do or say something like that these days. We have been so programmed to believe that SatNav is the way to do things that we forget that there is a better way. Well, two better ways. One is knowing the road. The other is called map-reading.

Even when it comes to maps, we get brainwashed into thinking certain maps are better than others. When I lived in London and cycled everywhere, I naturally bought a copy of the London A to Z, because that was the map that everyone told me about. I did not like the London A to Z. It was messily laid out, and had far too many black lines, the street names were often illegible, and it drove me mad. If only there were a good map of London, I promised myself, I would throw the bloody A to Z on the fire.

Then I discovered the Nicholson Street Finder and threw my London A to Z on the fire. There was only one thing wrong with the Street Finder. The name was boring. A to Z was a great name on an unsatisfactory book. Nicholson's Street Finder was an unglamorous name on a wonderful book, in which the typefaces were all clear, the information was instant, and the streets did not melt into each other or get jammed in clotted ink blobs. Using Nicholson's after the A to Z was like getting into a feather bed after sleeping on bare boards, and over the years I must have bought more than a dozen copies, as the old ones got used out or lost.

What amazes me is that people still seem to think that the A to Z is the best pocket-book map of London. Occasionally I meet a fellow devotee of Nicholson's and we congratulate each other smugly on being so discerning, but I cannot begin to understand why the rest of humanity sticks to the Old Testament.

The revolutionary principle that received wisdom can be wrong doesn't just apply to maps. It applies to things as simple as water. People have started to tumble to the fact that tap water is always as good as and generally better than bottled water, and to get jugs of it in restaurants. And to drink it at home. If you like the idea of bottled water, all you have to do is keep a couple of plastic water bottles, such as Volvic, or Vittel, or Evian (funny how the letter V does something for water), and keep filling them up from the tap and putting them in the fridge.

It just needs the courage to think the unthinkable.

As with supermarket prices. We have been brainwashed into thinking that because supermarkets have big lorries and buy stuff in bulk, they offer it to us cheaper. This may be true of dog biscuits and washing powder, but it is not true of fresh food. I once went round the farmers' market in Bath, making a note of the prices of vegetables and meat and butter and eggs, and then toured the local Sainsbury's the same day and there was nothing in Sainsbury's which was as cheap as it was from the farmer. The farmers all sold it cheaper, and fresher, and better. Anyone who buys meat from a supermarket rather than a butcher or farm needs his head examining, or, of course, his postcode changing...

Gosh. I wonder what brought on that rant. Back to normal tomorrow, I hope.

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