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.”


  1. Wonderful. Great review, John. I am excited about a book about roads, which is an excellent thing. Someone has recommended this at some point, but this is a timely reminder. I daresay you’ve had a look at Roger Deakin’s stuff? A bit of a tenuous link, really, but still.

  2. Indeed, Wildwood and Walnut Tree Farm are woodcentric (which those titles might lead you to expect) but Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain is something I think you might like.

  3. Perhaps the inclusion of this title in the 3-for-2 is evidence of a sea-change in Waterstone’s. Their new MD has disowned his predecessor’s futile attempts to woo the mass market and appears to be encouraging a wider and more imaginative range.

    Of course the proof of the pudding will be with the number of Coetzees (or Cartwrights) in stock. I won’t hold my breath.

  4. I haven’t, kimbofo, though I have looked at it more than once. By Edward someone (Platt?), if I recall correctly.

    Steerforth: I do hope you’re right. All my local store seems to be showing a greater range of is board games and DVDs.

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  6. I had a former bookseller’s moment of glee when the title of ‘Leadville’ rose, unbidden and from god-knows-where, while reading yr post; last spotted in 2001 but still in print. Glad to see that someone else remembers and recommends it.

    I’m assuming Moran name-checks this at the least, but if you haven’t read it already, I can also recommend ‘Concrete Island’ by Ballard, in which a man is stranded in the dead space of a motorway intersection and finds a tiny sub-community living there. It’s a short, potent novel, the truth of which I only discovered when trying to carry 25kg of Ikea bookcase with a pregnant wife across the entire width of a retail park whose designers had made no concessions to the pedestrian.

    The mention of Haussmann is interesting as there seems to be some similarity between the Hanger Lane Gyratory, reputedly the most intimidating intersection in Britain, and the Place de l’Etoile in Paris, which Haussmann designed and is reputedly the motoring equivalent of Rollerball. There’s also a wonderful urban myth that insurance companies won’t cover accidents which take place there.

    Steerforth, experience suggests that individual people do not change Waterstone’s – the influence works in the other direction, no matter how worthy those individuals’ intentions may be.

  7. This sounds a great book to add to the British `psycho geography ‘ canon alongside writers such as Iain Sinclair, Will Self and Jonathan Raban – though I’m not sure if the latter would include himself as he lives in Seattle. I concur with Lee about Roger Deakin – and if you’re a mad swimmer try the wonderful Haunts of the Black Masseur by Charles Sprawson where he swims around Europe including crossing the Hellespont whilst dodging oil tankers.

  8. Well, that’s rather different for you. It looks like a nice book to own and I was interested to read about the transport font.

    There is near me an ancient track which somehow escaped being turned into a road. Its nice to walk on it and think of those who used it centuries ago.

    Perhaps you should read London Orbital by Iain Sinclair next.

  9. Ah… Tom’s beaten me to it, I was going to recommend London Orbital — it’s in my TBR, but not yet read it.

    Thinking of books about roads, I remember a brilliant essay in Granta 65 (the issue about London) which is about traffic, and how deathly quiet the roads were on the day of Diana’s funeral. There was something about that essay that really stuck with me, perhaps because at the time I was a ‘transport correspondent’ for a B2B magazine and I ate up anything to do with roads / traffic etc. (Hence my reading of ‘Leadville’ which I mentioned earlier.) It’s worthy tracking down if you get the chance, assuming it’s still available to purchase.

  10. Thanks for the comments everyone (and welcome, thesilvereel; nice blog). Yes, I know I need to read Iain Sinclair, though I have tried and failed to in the past. The whole ‘psychogeography’ area is one that seems like a perfect subject for me, and I suppose one that Gordon Burn touched on in his books (for example, the last scene in Alma Cogan, where she buries a children’s bedroom door plaque on Saddleworth Moor).

    Thesilvereel, yes Moran does go into Concrete Island, which remains one of the few Ballards I’ve read that isn’t his usual “enclosed community of upper middle class people turns apeshit” shtick.

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