Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Parley Partners

My wife and I travelled to a little town near Hampton Court recently to meet up with my Pond Parleys writing partner, Toni Hargis.

Toni and I have been in contact for ages—in Internet terms, that is; in reality, it’s been about two years—but we have never met. On her recent holiday to Britain, however, she told me she could meet us at a pub in Surrey not too far from where we live in Sussex. So, after printing out a Google map and a set of directions, we set off in the car confident in our ability to find this place.

What could possibly go wrong?

I am probably the only person in Britain who does not own a Sat-Nav, even though I am unquestionably the person who most needs one. After seven years, I have yet to drive anywhere without taking at least one wrong turn. And the most frustration thing is I can’t even blame it on British roads; I was like this in America, too.

I can’t tell you how many times I set off, looking for a house or a business in a land where people still stop what they are doing to watch passing cars, on a trip that involved maybe two or three turns at best, only to come face-to-face with a sign reading, “Welcome to Vermont.”

When you realize that the sorts of roads I travelled in the US are to British roads what simple addition is to analytic geometry, and that, when faced with an option, I will always take the wrong one (even if my wife is sitting next to me shouting, “Right! Turn RIGHT!” I will inevitably turn left) you will appreciate why I always add ample “getting lost” time to my journey schedule. The formula is two hours of “Lost Time” for each hour of travel, unless I’m going somewhere near London, then it’s three.

US Roads

UK Roads

So we set off and within minutes were hopelessly lost. We then played the game where I drive around randomly while my wife attempts to pin-point us on the Google map or recognize some road name from the print-out of directions. Occasionally, she would see something familiar, we would get back on track, and then I would get lost again.

Soon after, I stopped at a petrol station and bought a Surrey Street Atlas, which at least gave us more favourable odds in the “driving around randomly” game. The strategy ultimately evolved into a manoeuvre sort of like sailing against the wind, where we would drive in a generally correct direction until we were very wide of the mark and then turn to the other direction, hoping to move marginally closer to our target.

Eventually we arrived, and right about on time (thanks to my formula).

Meeting someone you “know” through the web is always interesting. You wonder if they’re going to be a plonker, or if they are going to think you are a plonker but what generally happens is you greet each other like long-lost friends and then sit down and chat as if you’ve known each other for years.

And this was how our meeting went. There were no awkward moments trying to decide if we really were the people we had come there to meet (you know, that “blind date” sort of unease). Granted, I made it easy for her by wearing my “Postcards From the Pond” tee shirt, but even without that we would have recognized one another right off.

Mike Harling and Toni Hargis – Team Pond Parley; together for the first time.

We chatted for a couple of hours over a pint or two of shandy and then parted—Toni on to her European holiday, and my wife and I back to Sussex. Getting back home, I was assured, would be a doddle; all I had to do was follow the A3 into Guildford and then the A281 home. What could possibly go wrong?

Within minutes, we were hopeless lost.


  1. Back home I could travel 600 miles or more, crossing through 6 States and I never used a map or got lost. Just needed to jot down a few route names, direction and a few left,right turns.

    Here, to go 30 miles away, you need to study the map, write the directions large enough to read while driving, print off large segmented maps so you can actually read the names of the side roads--but most importantly--Teach my 7 year old to read it to me!!! She'll do wonders in road rallys!

    I still don't understand why roads like the A34 don't have junction names or numbers!!

  2. How cool. I know Toni too. Isn't it a small world! Jo

  3. Elizabeth: I mostly take public transportation if I can; I get lost less often.

    Jo: Small Internet, eh?

  4. So glad you got to finally meet, I know from my own experience meeting Toni, that finding something to chat about was not a problem :-)