Go straight, then turn left – and you're probably lost

When there are multiple routes to a destination, giving directions gets complicated.

Late at night sometimes, when the dogs and I are having our final walk, a car will suddenly roll up on these otherwise almost traffic-free streets, and having rolled up, will roll down its window. I dread this. It is not that abduction is on my mind. I would hope the dogs would protest anyway – though it is likely that Bugsy, everyone's friend, would jump happily into the car, ready for the ride.

No, what concerns me is a lot less sinister.

I worry that the driver will lean out the window and ask me the way. "How do I get to the Sherbrooke Castle Hotel?" Or, "Can you tell me the way to Springkeld Gardens?"

It is not so much that geography isn't one of my strong points (it isn't); it is more a question of my mind becoming "a sea of confusion." If I lived in the country, as I once did, helping a lost traveler to arrive at his destination would be (was) much simpler. "Turn round and drive about five miles without going right or left. Eventually you will arrive at a T-junction. Turn right and follow the road signs."

But where we live in the Scottish city of Glasgow, there is not just one road with occasional side roads. There is no single route to anywhere. I mean, suppose one is driving out of one's driveway and wants to head for the school where one's wife teaches. One turns left on Hamilton Avenue and in 20 yards one can either go straight (continuing down Hamilton) or right (onto and up Sherbrooke Avenue).

My preference is to go straight. But my wife's preference is to turn right. Just a day or two ago, with her at the wheel, we took this journey, and she turned right. Theoretically, we live in a grid system. When I go straight on, I am heading directly for St. Andrew's Drive, crossing at right angles down at the foot of Hamilton.

When she goes right on Sherbrooke, she reckons she is aiming even more directly at St. Andrew's Drive, though a little further along it. This is because our little local "grid" is not, like Manhattan's, reliably rectilinear. Hamilton is straight. But Sherbrooke takes a bend. When we leave home, Sherbrooke crosses Hamilton at right angles. After its bend, however, it becomes parallel with Hamilton. In Manhattan terms, it changes from being an avenue into a street. Most irregular.

To explain her preference, my wife puts it this way. "You go doop doop," she says. "But I go schroooom." While I am not sure I completely grasp the difference, it is quite clear to her, so that's fine. She is convinced that schroooom is far better than doop doop, and I have no adequate vocabulary to argue.

I have gone into such detail in order to show how difficult it is to tell anyone in our neck of the woods how to get anywhere ... in our neck of the woods. When that car pulls up and asks the way, I rather wish I had the gall to pretend I only speak Serbo-Croat, but there is always the possibility that this may be the native tongue of those in the car and that would place me in a very tricky spot, not knowing a word of either Serbo or Croat. These days it would be particularly risky claiming Polish nationality; Scotland greatly appeals to Poles looking for a better living, and thousands have settled here in the past few years, and very welcome they are.

I think I might be open to equal suspicion if I said, "Sorry, I'm just visiting friends. I don't know Scotland very well at all really," since taking two dogs for a walk late at night might suggest I live permanently nearby.

But wouldn't such well-meant subterfuges be preferable and kinder than sending them off to navigate a route that takes half the night and may well end them up in the River Clyde?

I try to make light of my directional inadequacies by asking if they would like the long or the short way, but they don't always find this endearing.

"Let me think for a moment," I say, playing for time. "I've lived here 25 years, and I still can't tell one avenue from another." Hamilton looks very like Sutherland, Sutherland very like Sherbrooke, and they all look like Springkeld. It is surprising that I ever find my way home again.

So I do my best to explain the simplest itinerary – "Up the top, second right, the hotel is down at the bottom, up on the right. If you arrive at Nithsdale Road, you've missed it." That sort of thing. Road names are not infallibly helpful, in fact, since half of the road signs have long been missing, and the Roads Department apparently feels that everyone knows the names anyway. Either that, or the attitude of that august body is that drivers are likely to feel a more satisfying sense of achievement when they do at last arrive, without clues, at their destination – and in spite of that chap with his dogs sending them on a roundabout route a mile and a half longer than necessary.

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