Sunday, 27 February 2011

The long unwinding road

Reading a book about the relationship between the British people and the roads they drive on sounds like as about as much fun as tucking into a tarmac sandwich. Even knowing that the book in question focuses on the period following the building of the first stretch of motorway in hardly sets your pulse racing; railways might be romantic, but roads are utilitarian and nobody wants to read about them.

As it turns out in relation to ‘On Roads’ by Liverpool based academic Joe Moran the old adage about not judging a book by its cover, or the perceived dullness of its subject matter in this case, is a truth so wise it should be displayed on a gantry over the fast lane. Out of a seemingly turgid subject Moran has fashioned a fascinating narrative packed with a whole atlas full of scenic diversions into the hinterland of British history, society and popular culture.

The narrative is of how Britain stumbled from the A of the brightly utopian vision of an affluent country where every family would have a car of the post war years and the B of the congested country afflicted by ‘road rage’, or as Moran adroitly points out the fear of it manufactured by the tabloid press, we are now. Along the way he says much that is of interest about the high aspirations and low levels of competence displayed by the politicians charged with delivering this vision and the peculiarly British blend of militant eccentricity displayed by the anti-roads movement that began in the seventies and reached its high point with the epic stand off between Swampy and his comrades over the Newbury by-pass.

This in itself would make ‘On Roads’ deserving of praise for examining with scrupulous fairness a neglected corner of recent history, however the book’s real charm lies in Moran’s eye for the odd little details lurking at the edge of the picture. The most quoted of these, usually with a degree of smugness, is that some 2.5 million unsold Mills & Boon novels were used as hardcore during the building of the M6 Toll Road, other facts he draws his readers attention to are equally interesting, whilst providing less of an excuse for literary snobbery.

For example when the first service stations opened in the 1960’s they were rather ostentatious affairs at which patrons were able to enjoy flambĂ© curry served to them by waiters dressed as sailors whilst a pianist played Chopin. All that would have been needed surely was Terence Stamp and Marianne Faithful to be in attendance and the picture of swinging grooviness would have been complete. The whole experience sounds a world away and a whole lot more fun than that of being charged an arm and a leg for a plat of congealed pap in an antiseptic bubble endured by modern travellers.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this book though is that for all his clear sighted understanding of the flaws behind the project Moran retains a noticeable and refreshing affection for the motorways and the strange, sometimes decidedly dystopian, world they have created. He even manages to write with surprising lyricism about the experience of driving on a motorway; the M6 may never be Route 66, but maybe you can get your kicks along it after all.
‘On Roads: A Hidden History’ is published by Profile.

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