Many Britons spend a twelfth of their lives driving, yet we barely examine the roads beneath our wheels. Now Joe Moran has told the story of a vast, unseen worldby Ian Irvine / June 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
On Roads: A Hidden History By Joe Moran (Profile Books, £14.99)
Joe Moran is our leading expert on the infra-ordinary, or (as he wryly admits it is often known) “the bleeding obvious.” His first and wildly successful book, Queuing For Beginners: The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime, appeared in 2007 and dealt with many of the unremarkable and unremarked upon aspects of our lives, from the rise of the pop-up toaster to the politics of the sofa and the decline of the three-piece suite. Taking his cue from the Mass Observation project in the 1930s, Moran wants to create an anthropology of the everyday—to reveal the often complex significance of our habits and routines.
His new book deals with one of the most intriguing underexamined areas of modern living, at least in Britain: our relationship with our network of roads and motorways. Britain may lack America’s vast highways and its history of romance with the automobile, yet in some ways we are a nation even more in thrall to tarmac. As Robert Macfarlane noted in 2007 in The Wild Places, only a small and diminishing proportion of the country is now more than five miles from a motorable surface: “Our roads have become new mobile civilisations in themselves: during rush hours the car-borne population across Britain and Ireland is estimated to exceed the resident population of central London.” If you drive an average 10,000 miles a year, you will spend more than a month on the road system. And this transformation has come about mostly in the last half century: car ownership now stands at over 31m and is still rising. The first section of motorway was opened in 1958, the Preston bypass; 41 years later, there are more than 2,000 miles of motorway out of our 245,366 (and a half) miles of motorable road.
Moran examines many varied aspects of this remarkable physical and social creation, mixing cultural history with acute anthropological investigation. The result is very readable, often witty and turns up fascinating facts and ideas on every page: the MOT test was introduced in 1960 because so many of our cars could not cope with the new fast roads; as with the railways in the 19th century, much of the motorways until the 1970s were built by Irish itinerant workers, including a young Bob Geldof who drove a muck-shifter during the construction of the first section of the M25; the controversial (at the time) lower-case sans serif font created by Jock Kinnear for all motorway signs spearheaded sans serif’s ascendancy in British public signage in the 1960s; remaindered books are shredded into tiny pellets called bitumen modifier which can be added to asphalt to hold the blacktop in place and act as a sound absorber—the M6 toll road is partly composed of 2.5m old Mills and Boon novels.
There are also exemplary accounts of the building of Spaghetti Junction, the rise of the service station, Travelodges and Little Chefs, the cult of Eddie Stobart haulage lorries and the “big shed” revolution. Europe’s largest distribution park, Magna Park, in the Midlands sits in the golden triangle formed by the M69 link with the M1 and M6. From here lorries can reach 92 per cent of the British population and return on the same day. As Patrick Keillor showed in his 1997 film, Robinson in Space, these megasheds are the most characteristic architecture of contemporary Britain: the nodes of a great unseen network of trading routes, called into being by motorways and computerised stock control.
The arrival of the motorways once seemed to promise an uncomplicated modernity—both Labour and Conservative governments enthusiastically embraced their construction—and, though there had always been road protests, it was only after the oil shock in the 1970s that a widespread public disillusion emerged. The incursion of motorways into central London, particularly the Western Avenue extension, now known as the Westway, galvanised the middle-class radicals in Notting Hill. Later the battle over the extension of the M3 at Twyford Down in 1992 launched a war between eco-warriors, conscious of their millenarian predecessors in the English Civil War, and road-builders that lasted for the next five years.
Moran ends with an uncharacteristic note of nostalgia: a tinge of regret that the utopian promises of the motorways have long since vanished into bitterness and boredom. He admits to being able to find beauty and strangeness in these unloved freeways, once the narcotic of habit has been overcome. Just as the coming of the steam railway in the 19th century was condemned as the destruction of rural England but has since been co-opted as an example of soft-focused industrial heritage, Moran implies, the M1 and its successors may yet regain in the public mind the careless rapture of speed and freedom they first offered.