My M4 Disaster


Or: How — not — to get to Nuremburg.

It was last Sunday a.m. and I was just driving home from playing a lovely concert with the English Symphony Orchestra in Worcester Cathedral. Basically, everything was — up to that point — absolutely FINE. I’d been staying at my friend Cecily’s house — thatched roof, shared lake, spreading vistas, gravel drive, and a landscaped garden with real sheep cropping the verdant grass. The picturesque roads of Worcestershire — a very underrated county, imho — were new-washed in the sunshine, following torrential rain.

In fact, everything was cool UNTIL I hit the M4 motorway. There — without a single word of advance warning — hellooooooooo, motorway signage people? — we were blithely informed that we would shortly be chucked off of it.

I was driving our hybrid car which, though not new-new, is still new to us. I’d never even needed its SATNAV before, but I’d tested it en route to Worcester Cathedral — a place where I’ve performed for so many decades that even I could have found my way to during a nationwide blackout — and it had failed to direct me to Margate pier, so I figured it was ok.

Or so I thought UNTIL the M4 disaster, and this was why: my SATNAV REFUSED TO BELIEVE that I couldn’t continue on the M4 and THAT — I happened to know — was impossible. No, I had to take the A329 and go round the houses instead. This is — no question — the turgid route from the M4 to the M25 underbelly, but there was no other choice.

Anyway, I’d been on the A329 for all of two seconds when that SATNAV first voiced its concern. Shortly after that, it started to SQUEAL. It was DESPERATE to stay on the M4. It YEARNED to see, in person, the roadwork marvels being manifested there. It INSISTED. It practically YOWLED, its high-bred British tones sounding not only petulant, but practically panicked.

Had my SATNAV’s fit not been so distracting, I doubt that I’d ever have followed that yellow “diversion” sign in Wokingham — which turned out, when all the dust had cleared away, to have been only a diversion from local roadworks instead. But anyway, I screwed up and there was, as so often happens in life, No Way Back. There followed an entertaining (not!!!) twenty minutes as I splashed round the one-way system desperately seeking even the most self-effacing mention of the M3 — my aim and object — while ignoring the increasingly nutty pleas of my SATNAV to leave the Dark Side and to join it on the M4 Path to Glory instead.

My SATNAV had an idee fixe: it had determined that I — like one of those Worcestershire sheep — had gone astray — (or ay- ay- ay- ay- ay- ay- ay — ay-ay-ay, for those keen on Handel’s Messiah) — and must be rescued from my sins without loss of time… Meanwhile I was getting sadder and sadder and more and more confused. I was afraid to turn the SATNAV off in case it turned out to be the sulky — as well as the evangelical — type; while the manic traffic — did I mention that it was the day before the schools went back? — was making me dizzy.

But I am famously resourceful in a crisis. In proof of which, I pulled over to the side of the road and very resourcefully burst into tears.

And lo, but an angel of the Lord came before me, convincingly disguised as a solid, middle-aged female Wokingham-ite, accompanied by spouse and shopping bag. Once I had assured her that I was not suicidal — only lost — she generously offered to come inside my car — if I “didn’t mind, due to Covid” — and to explain to my errant and sullen SATNAV, in words of one syllable, that it had got its wires crossed.

Believe me, I did not mind.

By that point I’d have welcomed a machete-wielding, amphetamined-up-to-the-eyeballs mass murderer into my car — just as long as said mass-murdering, machete-wielding drug addict had a better sense of direction than me.

Which, since 99.99999% of the world do, is frankly pretty likely.

Well, it’s always good value seeing the Forces of Virtue tussling with the Forces of Darkness. The SATNAV refused to give up easily — my rescuer wound up appealing for help to her husband as well as to her Maker — but she gritted her teeth, persevered, and eventually prevailed. Then I thanked her brokenly and I blessed her and then I set off with singing heart for what I still to this day believe was the path to the A329, itself the link to the Holy Grail (the M3 motorway, if you still remember).

However, we will never know for sure. Because, since my heart was singing, I wished to sing likewise, except that I’m not really very good at singing, so I decided to shove on the classical radio station instead. This should have been fine EXCEPT that my summoning up the media onscreen — and thus briefly deserting the still darkly brooding SATNAV — CAUSED MY SATNAV TO FORGET THE LESSON THAT THE ANGEL WITH THE SHOPPING BAG HAD JUST TAUGHT IT.

I kid you not. During the couple of seconds during which I was shoving on the car radio — my SATNAV had decided that the angel had been full of bollocks. Unrepentant and unredeemed, it had secretly vowed — yet again — to bully me back onto the M4.

Frankly, were it possible to throttle a SATNAV, ours would now be an ex-SATNAV.

I also felt a pang of sorrow for the angel, at that moment trotting comfortably along with spouse and shopping, thinking that she could cross off her Good Deed for the Day and never guessing that — impossible as it seemed — Alice-the-fathead had screwed-up again. ☹

But you must never forget how resourceful I am. This time I pulled over and whipped out my phone. Mine is not an iphone — only a Samsung — but I happened to know that it still had Google maps on it and — Holy Mary, Mother of God — surely Google maps couldn’t let me down?

Oh yes, it could.

Yes, Google maps really and truly believed that I, actually cluelessly lost in the wilderness of darkest Surrey, was instead on the outskirts of NUREMBERG, Germany. (Been a while since the Hanover Band took me to Nuremberg and I never could read a map, no matter how many times if I turn it round and round, but it LOOKED like some kind of ring road. And it was, for definite, near Nuremberg, Deutschland.) In short, Google maps had pulled off the difficult trick of making my SATNAV look sane. It might have an M4 fixation — the evidence certainly pointed that way — but at least it was capable of recognising which section of the blinking continent I was lost in.

In disbelief, I tried Google maps again, and it appeared to have mended its ways. Nuremberg faded… but… Surrey did not appear. No: this time Google maps believed me to be lost in rural Vermont. (And no, I am not making this up.)

Which was really rather funny, and this is why… If I had to live in the US again — I never lived there for very long, of course — I rather fancy Vermont. Uncrowded, loads of poets, tons of culture, no alligators, crisp, unhumid, those amazing autumn tints — and Bernie Sanders. I was almost tempted to try Google maps again — just to see if, having determined that I was no longer in Europe, they might next propose Zimbabwe, or Perth, or Myanmar — where I lived aged ten to twelve — or even Seoul, where I’d been born.

Instead — because I am famously calm, as well as resourceful — I decided to throw my Samsung out of the car and stomp on it. But just then a headphone-wearing teen just happened to pass, and just happened to pause — probably hoping that (a) mine WAS an iphone and (b) I really was about to toss it instead of murder it — and I just happened to very politely scream, ‘Do you possibly know the way to the M3 from here?” and he very obligingly sketched the route on the back of an envelope and — reader — I got there.

There is a school of thought to which — and here’s a coincidence, every single one of my close relatives and friends just happens to belong — that submits that I ought to be locked in a room, forced to write, and NEVER ALLOWED TO TRAVEL ANYWHERE, EVER AGAIN.

On Sunday, have to admit, I rather strung along with this point of view. But after a couple of days, a bit of tennis, about 95,000 beta-blockers, bucket-loads of Teapigs “calming” valerian tea, roughly thirty of my fav. Bach cantatas, and several hours of breathing exercises, I’m pretty much back to mid-season form. I no longer believe that the SATNAV is actually possessed, though my childlike faith in Google maps remains still a little shaky.

But then, you have to remember, I’m the resilient type.



Alice McVeigh: award-winning novelist

Novels by London-based Alice McVeigh have been published by Orion/Hachette, UK’s Unbound Publishing, and Warleigh Hall Press.