On Roads: a Hidden History

“The English motorway system is beautiful and strange,” sang Black Box Recorder. This is a controversial proposition. Many would question it on aesthetic or environmental grounds. And motorways are more often thought of as tedious, rather than strange. However, like most other things in Britain that we would rather not think about, motorways turn out to be rich and wonderful things when investigated in more than cursory detail – which is exactly what Joe Moran has done here. On Roads is an extended expo­sition on the glories of the English motorway, a deliberate making strange of something dulled by overfamiliarity.

On Roads is a book that makes motorways safe for people who don’t drive, explaining them in terms – historical, aesthetic, anthropological, political – not usually considered on Top Gear. Despite being happily reliant on public transport, and baffled and fascinated in equal measure by the apparently encrypted announcements on drive-time radio shows, I enjoyed On Roads immensely. There is no obvious axe for the road lobby being ground, nor any Thatcherite denigration of the bus user; the shadow of Jeremy Clarkson is mercifully absent. On Roads is something more insidious: pro-road propaganda so balanced and erudite that it might tempt some of us into getting off the bus and on to the M25, or at least on to some of the lesser-known roads Moran writes about so elegantly, such as that 1950s time capsule the M45.

The book starts with a journey upwards, as the arterial roads of the interwar period, lined by semis and art deco factories, are replaced with the total driving experience of the motorway, lined merely by countryside and service stations. The era peaks with the grandiose follies of the 1960s – the Mancunian Way, with its poignant leftover junction jutting into empty space; the ringways that were intended to encircle inner London (and that were finished off by gentrification); and Spaghetti Junction.

Fans of the late J G Ballard (who is a frequent presence in the book) will be delighted to find that a spokesman for the West Midlands Tourist Board compared this last, an extraordinary lattice of elevated concrete bridges, to the Egyptian pyramids. Yet postwar bureaucrats were never sufficiently brutal or pharaonic, and soon the junction picked up its derisive nickname (other early suggestions included “the Bowels of Satan”). The ringways were left unfinished, along with other schemes killed off by the oil crisis of the 1970s. The last major project was the M25, that noose around London. Moran’s description of a typically obnoxious Margaret Thatcher taunting journalists at its opening is both priceless and terrifying.

Moran rightly gives much attention to Jock Kinneir, unsung designer of the road signs of the 1960s which, with their cutely futuristic sans serif and Isotype figures, are perhaps the most accepted legacy of modernism in British everyday life. The story of rise and fall is interrupted by sharp, thematic chapters on speed and road manners. Here Moran debunks the myth of some prelapsarian epoch before the speed limit, and makes adroit points about the dreamy, hermetically sealed, individualistic nature of road travel – the sleepiness of the endless road is one of the main causes of crashes.

An uncharacteristic omission is Moran’s failure to mention one of the more creative uses of the motorway network – the Orbital raves of the early 1990s, where music descended from Kraftwerk’s Autobahn would be danced to on the edges of the M25 by, one suspects, some of the same people who would later be living
in trees in their efforts to sabotage the Twyford Down motorway and the Newbury Bypass. The anti-road protests of the John Major years mark one of the terminal points of decline in the public perception of new motorways. Moran argues that building new roads is always an inadequate means of solving the problem of circulation. More roads always lead to more traffic, not less. So, given Moran’s evident love for his subject, this is an unexpectedly critical book.

No adequate replacement has been provided for this markedly un-“sustainable” network. New Labour made early promises to favour public transport and then quietly reneged on these: Moran notes that it actually built more roads than the Major government, though the “salami tactics” of the Private Finance Initiative masked this – and road protesters moved on to trying to block runways. Finally, Moran discusses Will Alsop’s SuperCity plan, in which bullet trains would service a megalopolis in the north of England. While this is now slumbering in the graveyard of good ideas, it suggests that the motorway has become beautifully dated. Strange monuments such as Forton Services on the M6 or Sam Scorer’s Little Chef on the A1 might be worth a preservation order, but it is the network destroyed by Dr Beeching in favour of an abortive asphalt autopia that seems to have the viable future.

Owen Hatherley is the author of “Militant Modernism” (Zero Books)

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!