June 21, 2010
Joe Moran: On Roads
Book chains like Waterstone’s (I say ‘like’, but Waterstone’s is the only one we have left in the UK) often come in for criticism, and it’s true that my local branch currently stocks just one copy of one novel by J.M. Coetzee but, in the next bay, two and a half shelves of Clive Cussler. Nonetheless, delight is still possible, as proved by this book, which I picked up from the 3-for-2 tables.
On Roads: A Hidden History is catnip for anyone, like me, who regrets that the Black Box Recorder song ‘The English Motorway System’ was actually a metaphor for a stagnant relationship and not just about the roads. The geek in me is never far from the surface, and anything which celebrates the overlooked, and investigates “the compulsive habits and accidental poetry of the commonplace” is to be celebrated.
The dual status of roads is a key issue in the book: they are massive feats of engineering, difficult to plan and expensive to build, and once completed, they are unregarded unless hated. The Mancunian Way, one of the first motorway-like roads built in Britain, was planned after the war to form part of a new road system “as grandly elegant as one of Baron Haussman’s Parisian boulevards.” When finally built, in 1967, its only official recognition was an industry award for “outstanding merit in the use of concrete.”
On Roads deals mainly with the motorway era, beginning with the first stretch of the M1, completed in 1959 and the subject of such excitement that it had four press openings. (Later the same year, Jayne Mansfield would officially cut the ribbon on the Chiswick Flyover.) On the M1’s first weekend, “nearly all its overbridges were crowded with sightseers”, and the transport minister, Ernest Marples, sounded a note of Mr Cholmondeley-Warner when he advised that “on this magnificent road the speed which can easily be reached is so great that the senses may be numbed and judgement warped.” Yet once again, as subsidence bumps and cracks appeared on the asphalt within a month of the motorway’s launch, it “was soon forming part of a more resilient national narrative: the ham-fisted, cheese-paring British bodge.”
This is a story of governments desperate to be ‘modern’. Moran cites Christopher Booker, who argued that “in the late 1950s, Britain had suffered a kind of collective psychosis in which it became fanatically obsessed with newness” (and this was before governments prefixed their party names as such). This all-change regime was brought about with the assistance of gifted engineers and designers, the real heroes of the book. There was Henry Criswell, a surveyor who devised a system to create roads with the perfect “clothoid curve, a graceful arc with slowly increasing curvature that kept motorists permanently on their toes,” to avoid the risk of drivers nodding off on long straight miles of tarmac, and “create flowing alignments that stitched themselves smoothly into the topography.” There was Richard ‘Jock’ Kinneir, who designed the Transport typeface which is still used today on British road signs, and was initially controversial for its lower case and sans-serif style.
On Roads is not just a catalogue of fascinating minutiae by a man who can write, straight-faced, of a “gripping history of font design“. There are shades of Geoff Dyer or Gordon Burn as Moran extends the particular into the general, and textualises the fabric with other voices. So Kinneir’s motorway signage play “a small but significant part” in the creation of our national “imagined communities – countries of the mind, gossamer confections of flags, anthems and invented traditions which persuade us that people whom we will never meet are like us.” And no cultural investigation of the road would be complete without reference to J.G. Ballard, to whom “the motorway flyover was a modern manifestation of the sublime: something that combined aesthetic awe with existential dread.” Satnav earns comparisons with both mediaeval rites (“where to be ‘lost’ was an existential as well as geographical condition – it meant to be destroyed, spiritually damned, overcome with a sense of futility”) and classical mythology:
Like Ariadne’s thread, [satnav] will guide you through the labyrinth, but you will forget everything it tells you so you will need to rely on it indefinitely.
Moran is equally appealing on the psychology of driving, the “terra nulla of the roadside verge”, and motorway service stations with their “rich seam of English ordinariness and gone-to-seed glamour”. These interests are well served by his cultural references, many of which (Patrick Hamilton, Morrissey, and he even quotes that Black Box Recorder song on the last page) reinforced just how closely attuned the book was to my own tastes.
On Roads is not perfect (though it is a white-line’s breadth away). The sections on signage and motorway design would have benefitted from a few illustrations, to avoid my having to keep putting the book down to google for Gravelly Hill Interchange and the like. The penultimate chapter, about road protests, seems largely to abandon the more reflective elements of earlier chapters and stick to a more linear (albeit engaging) narrative. Most curiously, Moran builds a framework for the book around ambivalence: the notion that we feel “self-disgust” at our “addiction” to roads, that they are a “guilty pleasure.” Yet I suspect that, while I may share his view – a liberal orthodoxy – that driving is a necessary evil, I suspect it is a minority position. If most people hate roads, it’s not because they represent an assault on the environment, but because they’re too often busy.
Above all, On Roads is a witty, digressive charm, where the back cover review (“Every page contains something enthralling or bizarre or funny or perceptive”) is, for once, literally accurate. One of my greatest reading pleasures of the year so far, it’s the best guide one could wish for to the clogged arteries of our city lives. A better guide, anyway, than that offered on a tour bus to the Staffordshire section of the M6 when it was opened in 1962. “And on our right, we have Trentham gravel pit.”