The picnic on Hampstead Heath went beautifully. Thanks for asking. Weather perfect, company agreeable, flocks of ring-necked parakeets unexpected but welcome. Those latter guests are helping to build the flock of 100,000 that ornithologists reckon will adorn London by the end of the decade. Things are getting wilder in the City.
These picnics have been going on for 10 years now, off and on, and I've always tried to use the latest technology to solve the major problem. How do you guide city people to a small spot in a big, bumpy, tree-strewn wild space?
At first, I would email out a gif file with a hand-drawn map and complicated instructions, including a phone number for an analogue mobile that had barely enough battery life to see out the afternoon. This didn't help at all, as none of my pals had mobile phones — I'd only managed to blag one by a very creative use of my job title. Then I progressed to a Web site with the same map and a GSM phone, but this didn't help much: "Hey, Rupert, where are you?" "At the picnic site. Where are you?" "I don't know. I can see a tree...".
Then GPS came along, and I was able to define the precise location of the picnic site to within around 30 metres. This also didn't help much as only one of my friends also had a GPS — and he was a Hampstead native who knows the place like the back of a bottle of Claret. At the same time, online services such as Streetmap let me add top-notch graphics with big red arrows to the Web site. There was no excuse. But people got lost anyway.
And this year? Google Maps. I merely had to distribute a link to a satellite photo zoomed into a tree with the intelligence: "Meet here at 3pm, Saturday". All anyone had to do was zoom out, turn on the map, print out the area of the Heath that covered the path from whatever public transport they were using to Ground Zero, and they had every form of visual and spatial cue they could desire short of a VR flythrough (coming soon, no doubt).
What could go wrong?
Ring ring. ""Hey, Rupert, where are you?" "At the picnic site. Where are you?" "I don't know. I can see a tree..." "So, what does the map say?" "I didn't print it out..."
She never did make it — but she spent so long trying that she was too late to get back to the music festival she was supposed to be seeing later that evening.
There are some things technology cannot help...