Long road home

Leadville: a biography of the A40

Edward Platt <em>Picador, 295pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 033039262X

For a long time, I have been - in the argot - a consumer of the A40. In my childhood, it was the road that took me to and from my prep school; for the past 15 years, I have lived just south of it, first in Shepherd's Bush and now in the shadow of the giant concrete flanks of the Westway, the elevated section of the A40 that lifts motorists off the Marylebone Road and deposits them in White City.

Consequently, I've spent a lot of time sitting in traffic jams in Western Avenue - the blood clot in the arterial route - where the road narrows for a few miles before widening again at Hanger Lane and freeing the traffic to race on to Oxford and the West Midlands. Edward Platt, a fellow Shepherd's Bush resident and freelance journalist, did his time in the same bottleneck and looked in wonder at the mock-Tudor villas that lined the road: "Dirty and anonymous, pinched and choked by an endless, ragged chain of cars and lorries, they looked uninhabitable, yet the blackened cars parked on the pavement suggested otherwise. It seemed incredible that there were people living within ten yards of the car in which I was sitting." One afternoon in January 1995, rather than just offering up a prayer of gratitude for not living there as he inched forward, Platt parked his car in a side road, walked out on to the main road and began talking to the people who did. This compassionate and oddly beautiful book is the result of that impulse.

The subtitle is somewhat misleading, given that Platt is concerned almost exclusively with the few miles of the A40 between White City and Hanger Lane. He charts its history and the lives of its inhabitants from the glory and optimism of its construction as the suburbs were created, in the 1920s and 1930s, providing Lloyd George's "homes for heroes", to the present time as houses are destroyed to make way for a road-widening scheme. Platt provides us with a microscopic view of the failures of planning, the rise and demise of the suburban dream, the death of community and the shift in the south-east's economic landscape from industry to retail, of which the Hoover factory - a few miles down the A40 and now Tesco's headquarters - is a potent symbol.

Well researched and carefully paced, Leadville reads like the script for a thoughtful documentary. Platt weaves together the details of the road's construction, statistics about the car, the future visions of Le Corbusier, H G Wells and J B Priestley, snippets about his own life and those of the residents. Given the fearful background of evictions, bailiffs, destruction and compensation claims, it is amazing how readily they speak to him. Only once in three years was he asked for any ID.

What is amazing is how content some of the long-term residents are on Western Avenue, in their stifling lounges sealed against the noise and the dirt. Despite the burglaries and the danger, the squatters and "gypsies", and the rubbish and rats, some still cling to the idea of Western Avenue as a comfortable, tree-lined suburban street where children can play and birds sing.

One interviewee, who grew up in nearby Wormwood Scrubs, recalls how the road was known as "Toffville". And William, an amiable dope-smoker who likes to photograph naked women, happily counts the cars that go by when he is bored; according to his calculations, about 80 million cars pass his flat every year, the equivalent of every car on Britain's roads going past at least three times.

Protests about the road have been going on since the 1930s, but they've never changed anything. The residents of Western Avenue seem to share a good-natured acceptance of their situations and of one another. There is no bitterness, not even towards the government and its agencies.

Nor is Platt bitter. A car-driver himself, he understands that the real blame lies with us and our irrational and reckless love of vehicles. Labour, it seems, is to encourage this love affair by building more roads, but at least the widening scheme of Western Avenue may now go ahead - and all this destruction will not have been in vain.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, We made the people-smugglers rich