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
Published in June 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.