On Roads, By Joe Moran

Everyone can get their kicks on the A36

Reviewed,Martin Fletcher
Friday 26 June 2009 00:00 BST

Jack Kerouac's On The Road describes a boundless psychic space, its free-form narrative an attempt to capture America's vast drive-by wildernesses. It's hard to imagine Dean Moriarty getting his kicks on the A36, or motoring west on the M4. The missing definite article in the title of Joe Moran's superb cultural history of British roads indicates lower horizons, the road trip as retread, as humdrum as John Shuttleworth's Austin Ambassador Y Reg.

Britain's motorways were a national symbol of virility after the austerity of the war. Roads represented a sweeping away of Victorian infrastructure to herald a nobler, braver age in which the human race would be master of its fate. The first motorway, the Preston Bypass, was completed on 5 December 1958, a day of national rejoicing; 47 days later it was closed due to "frost heave". The ministry had skimped on the drainage system to save money.

Encouraged by André Michelin, founder of the tyre company, the Ministry of Transport attempted a systematic numbering of our roads in the 1920s. The British adopted the French-style radial system with London at its hub. But very soon the scheme descended into chaos as the roads failed to conform to numeric logic. They didn't realise that the road system is an evolving entity, and that the messiness of the real world would intrude. In Northern Ireland road numbers are assigned randomly and motorists are no more (nor less) confused.

Nowadays the public image of our roads is depressing. We see a moonscape of potholes, stultifying traffic jams, pile-ups, lane-hoggers, road rage and contraflows. Yet utopian schemes of traffic movement abound, if never quite realised. The notion of relying on motorist's common sense is a thread running through the history of the British road. When the television producer Martin Cassini, an advocate of shared-space design, declared on Newsnight that all traffic lights should be dismantled, Jeremy Paxman pulled a face and said "Crikey!"

In 1966, Barbara Castle called our stacked motorway interchanges "the cathedrals of the modern world" while Ken Dodd declared Spaghetti Junction the eighth wonder of the world because "you get on and wonder how to get off".

But the true champion of the motorway was John Major who, in 1992, famously introduced a Cones Hotline which allowed angry motorists to demand the removal of annoying plastic bollards. Of the 17,700 calls it received, only five led to the removal of cones as most callers were practical jokers ordering Cornettos.

Just before he was arrested, General Pinochet said that England was "the ideal place to live because of the natural civility of its people". All these death-race cars on our roads manage to co-exist through a weird mix of altruism and self-preservation. Even our road protesters are fluffy. Swampy, the mucky hero of the Newbury Bypass protest, ended up as "alternative totty" in Just Seventeen magazine and appearing on Have I Got News For You.

Despite our Little Britain attitudes, Moran sees the ordinary road as "part of the invisible landscape of the everyday, the accidental poetry of the commonplace". JG Ballard thought motorways were "concrete motion sculptures of considerable grace and beauty". There's considerable beauty in this book. Moran has a poet's eye for detail and expression and an astonishing range of cultural reference.

It is rich with anecdote: a pre-Boomtown Bob Geldof helping to build the first section of the M25, commanding a colossal T23 muck-shifter before he had even learnt to drive; Jools Holland popularising the cult of Eddie Stobart lorries.

The M6 Toll Road used up two-and-a-half-million pulped Mills and Boon novels in its construction. Beneath their unreadable surfaces, roads hide complex histories. In this lucid, entertaining book, Moran illuminates dark corners of experience, opens our eyes to fresh narratives and, yes, even brings the romance of the road to life.

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