Gary Day

September 16, 2005

Even those who heed the motto 'be prepared' can wind up relieving themselves in a lay-by watched by a dead fish...

Academic conferences are serious business, unlike party political ones. Yet it is politicians who get interviewed on Newsnight. And they get to stay in posh hotels too. Almost makes me want to change career.

I've got all the qualifications. I'm white, middle aged and frequently make the wrong decision. Trouble is, I've got a lingering regard for truth, which can be a liability in my subject as well. But this is getting heavy.

What we need is some "sweetness and light". The phrase is Matthew Arnold's and I was speaking about him in Leeds.

Now I'm a man who likes to plan things well in advance. Yes, I know I only finished the paper the night before but that was because I wanted to give my talk the appearance of spontaneity. If you can sound lively, that's half the battle. I didn't want the audience to go through the five stages. In the first, they listen carefully to every word. In the second, they lose interest. In the third, they start to speculate about the speaker's sex life. In the fourth, they wish the speaker were dead. In the fifth, they wish they were dead. Sad really. But what can you expect? We're so used to hearing people talk nonsense in the asylum - all right, university - that we don't know how to respond to reasoned argument.

Anyway, I set off nice and early. I had printed off directions from the RAC Route Planner , the only one that seemed to acknowledge the existence of Bedford. Even then it couldn't do it without filling my screen with a map of the Baltic. But I am a man inured to life's little delays and frequent disappointments. At first everything went well but then, in the middle of my journey, I found myself, like Dante, not quite in a dark wood, but in a concrete wasteland being stared at by a man in a string vest. I checked the directions. Yes, I'd taken a wrong turning. Not surprising really. It is hard enough trying to read when you're driving, but when you're not wearing the right specs it's impossible. I really must get some varifocals.

Otherwise driving is going to be a choice between crashing or getting lost.

So back to the motorway. Nothing to worry about. Plenty of time before the conference starts. But be careful. One wrong turn and I'd be in Manchester. Ah. Signs to the airport. I was on the right road. Now I could relax. Except I needed the loo. But then at my age when don't I? A recent news item about the disappearance of public conveniences came unhelpfully to mind. It made this suspiciously long road seem even longer.

At the junction I was surprised to find Kirkstall Abbey on my right. The map said it should be on my left. But then left and right have got so mixed up in other areas of life, politics for instance, that I didn't take too much notice. All the same, better check with one of the locals. The man in the string vest gargled something about "as the pigeon flies". I drove on.

The countryside was pleasant but I couldn't help feeling I'd missed the ringroad. And time was up to its usual trick of disappearing just when you need it most. A little worry was now in order. That changed to panic and then to despair as stonewalls, hills and clouds stretched away to infinity.

Three miles from Skipton I decided to kill myself. But first I needed a pee. I pulled into a lay-by and hosed down a tree watched by an enormous fish. It was dead. As well it might be. There was no water for miles. Who knows how it got there. Despite my motto of "be prepared", I had failed to pack for suicide. Nothing for it but to turn round and try again.

Yorkshire was a green blur until the outskirts of the city and then it was one red light after another. Five minutes to go. And then, at last, I saw a sign. Horsforth. I had come into Leeds the wrong way. Well, that explained why I'd ended up in the dales but it didn't explain the fish. I had wandered off the right path and now here it was on the left. I parked and burst into the hall. I had wanted spontaneity. I got it. There'd been no time to change. And so I had to talk about Arnold in shorts. Even if I had appeared in more respectable attire, what was my reading of this great man worth when I couldn't even follow directions? I would be glad to get back to the asylum. All those students with their various ailments in need of the healing power of literature.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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