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Myth of the Open Road Closes Doors

By Karl Whitney.

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Joe Moran, On Roads: A Hidden History, Profile Books, 2009.

Joe Moran’s book covers the cultural and social history of roads, particularly motorways, in Britain in the post-war era. By turns intriguing and entertaining, it ultimately neglects to examine too closely the problematic implications of mass road use in the late twentieth century, preferring instead a non-committal pragmatism that risks being interpreted as a celebration of roads and road-building.

Motorways are a fact of modern life, but are frequently seen as boring, or are completely ignored. This is a state of affairs Moran seeks to redress, positing motorways as an example of the ‘infra-ordinary’, a term used by Georges Perec to refer to that which is often overlooked as insignificant in contemporary existence. Previously, Moran has investigated the British everyday in his book Queueing for Beginners.

Yet Perec was drawing on a critical continuum that viewed everyday life as a site of revolutionary potentiality, a tradition that stretched back to the Surrealists’ interwar activities. This critical tendency has latterly been utilised in academic circles as a productive methodology for examining ordinary cultural and social life.

The everyday, however, is double-edged; while potentially a site of radical change, it is also where one can locate an intense conservatism: the world could collapse around us as long as the bus comes on time, our sandwich is just so, or petrol prices remain affordable, so we can drive wherever we like.

This alleged conservatism of the everyday is a question Moran largely avoids over the course of his book, and thus, the author runs the risk of embodying it. In place of such probing, the reader is treated to a series of deftly written and well-researched chapters which address: the utopian aspects of early motorway planning; road rage; how some people find motorways and their service centres quite hospitable, actually; and the anti-road protest movement.

While all of these topics are interesting, there’s a lack of unifying argument that often leaves you wondering if these issues connect at all: whether there’s a link-road between them, or whether one has to go scrambling across a scrubby roadside verge in order to join the separate routes being laid out by Moran.

Instead, one is left with a series of mild questions: are road protesters simply luddites, or do they have a point? Are roadside service stations as bad as we think, or do they have their good sides? Were motorways always boring, or were people initially excited about them? And, to paraphrase: why did motorways get J.G. Ballard going?

This type of question serves Moran well in the entertaining articles about ordinary and everyday aspects of British history he contributes to newspapers and magazines. Yet, when given a broader canvas, one wishes for a wider perspective. This, in part, is a problem caused by focusing almost exclusively on the infra-ordinary levels of a topic.

Nevertheless, Moran, drawing on his training as a cultural historian, brings in a number of informative and well-chosen accounts from novels of the era, revealing the disquiet provoked by the eruption of the motorways in the English cities and countryside.

While Ballard is an interesting touchstone in establishing the alien-ness of motorways, and of the science-fiction sense of possibility engendered by their presence, I feel such perspectives are underused and ultimately drowned out by the droning tone of common sense that prevails throughout the text.

Fair enough, one might say, as you don’t expect Moran to freely adopt a kinetic futurism when discussing the imagined possibilities of motorway life. Nevertheless, you would at least like some of this excitement to be communicated.

Earlier in the book, we get a quote from Ballard, where he complains about how urban motorways overpower the areas nearby: ‘It may well be that these vast concrete intersections are the most important monuments of our urban civilization, the twentieth century’s equivalent of the Pyramids, but do we want to be remembered in the same way as the slave-armies who constructed what, after all, were monuments to the dead?’

At the end of the book, surprisingly, it is not Moran’s common sense one recalls, but Ballard’s. In contrast to Ballard’s misgivings about motorway construction, Moran writes: ‘roads can be ruinous, but they are not a concrete napalm that renders all human life unbearable.’ To which one would like to respond: ‘try living on a busy one, mate.’

Throughout the book, Moran had remained carefully balanced between a concern for the deleterious implications of road building, and a muted celebration of the power of roads.

The pro-road conclusion, then, doesn’t come as a complete shock, but nonetheless leaves a sour taste: ‘the road does one thing right: it treats us like real, grown-up people.’ Roads, to Moran, are, admittedly, sites of alienation, but are also, rather generically, ‘about the inextinguishable desire for connecting with other human beings and sharing our experiences of the world.’

The idea that the road treats us like grown-ups taps into a strand of libertarian thought closely associated with a hostility to government intervention in private life and to taxation in general (prime example of this road-lovin’, tax-hatin’ tendency, Jeremy Clarkson, maintains a residence on the Isle of Man to avoid tax on his sizeable income – an income in part drawn from public funds in the form of the TV licence).

But the assertion of the road as symbolic of adulthood is slightly undermined by what has gone before: can one say that road rage signifies maturity, or is it a childlike loss of perspective occasioned by the pressures of modern life, embodied by the open road, and the traffic that clogs it on a daily basis? Is motoring inherently more adult than, say, commuting by bike, or using public transport?

The latter choices at least acknowledge that there are deeper problems being played out on our roads than the urge to get ahead of the car in front; that the ways we travel don’t just say something about us as individuals, but also affect a wider collective of people, the vast majority of whom we’ll never meet. To acknowledge this larger responsibility and to then change our travel habits: what could be more adult than that?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karl Whitney is a journalist, researcher and 3:AM editor based in Dublin, Ireland. He has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, February 7th, 2010.