In the summer of 1956, a junior transport minister activated a green traffic light in the middle of a field in Lancashire.  That was the signal for a bulldozer to flatten a hedge and start shifting soil.  In a suitably Monty Pythonesque twist, the bulldozer ran out of petrol a few seconds later.

Such were the first inauspicious moments of the Preston Bypass, now part of the M6 motorway—the first 8.25 miles of a 1,440-mile network that has radically changed the personality of Britain and is simultaneously patronized and reviled by millions every day.

The motorway concept was welcomed by many Britons—one newspaper going so far as to say that the bypass’s opening by Harold Macmillan in December 1958 was “a day of national rejoicing.”  The opening of the M1 50 years ago this year was greeted even more hyperbolically, according to one newspaper, with “sentiments too deep for words.”  In 1966, Labour transport minister Barbara Castle orated revealingly that motorway interchanges were “the cathedrals of the modern world.”

As Joe Moran of Liverpool’s John Moores University says in this subtle and penetrating book, the Preston Bypass “carried the nervous hopes of a nation”—symbolizing not only an end to war-era austerity but admittance to modernity.  The exotic new roadways, with their unprecedented speeds and beautifully engineered surfaces, junctions, flyovers, service stations, diners, warehouses, industrial estates, lay-bys, and sans-serif signage, briefly became destinations in themselves.  Occasionally, one still comes across Technicolor postcards showing “South Mimms Services” or “Traffic on the Westway.”  Such naiveté seems now anachronistic, even charming, but the motorway was an essential ingredient in (as well as the perfect metaphor of) a wider movement embracing change and movement for their own sakes.

Roads are “the most commonly viewed and least contemplated landscape in Britain,” and the author encourages us to look at them as being, if not quite cathedrals, impressive in their own right.  He recognizes (unlike the car-besotted Margaret Thatcher) that road-building carries a high environmental and human price tag, but nonetheless regrets that we now live in a “road-sceptical age.”  Moran seeks to restart our stalled love of roads, particularly motorways, by alerting us to the unsuspected history and unconventional beauty in every stretch of apparently anodyne asphalt.

The English idea of the road is a universe away from Moran’s favored M-monuments to the Machine.  (The title really should have been On Motorways.)  The King’s Highway from Central Casting is a tree-embowered lane threading through gentle countryside studded with thatched cottages and suffused by woodsmoke.  This is the “rolling English road” as conjured up by G.K. Chesterton (which “went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head”), Chaucer, Blake, Cobbett, George Borrow, Robert Louis Stevenson, Kenneth Gra­hame, and innumerable others.

This patriotic route is always conceived as ancient, respectful of character and contours, cognizant of tradition and property rights, and populated by the thronging phantoms of past sojourners.  It is a slow-moving, weather-punished highway linking cathedral towns, holy wells, sacred groves, deserted villages, battlefields, castles, manors, assizes, inns, farms, fairs, and markets; it exists for the convenience of yeomen, but is also an avenue of adventure, leading from the depths of the countryside to the sea and infinite possibility.  It had “gentlemen of the road,” streetwalkers, vagrants, gypsies, bedbugs, watered-down beer, and atrocious food.  (“A trauellere must have the mouth of a hogge to eate what is set before him,” recorded Thomas Nashe bitterly in 1589.)  But these comprehensible problems were counterbalanced by the perceived organic domesticity of the road.  Even if the road swept you off your feet and away, it could as easily one day roll you back home again.  The motorway sliced surgically through these pleasant notions, and is now arguably giving rise to a new type of driver, a tense whirligig who calls roads by numbers instead of names and passes heedlessly through vast blank spaces relying on sat navs.

A small-c conservative minority always perceived motorways as vaguely foreign impositions (the Greek asphalton means “of alien origin”) whose relatively straight, inhuman lines and associated new architecture seemed ugly and unsettling.  The disconcerting new landscape features elicited snobbish superiority about American culture or visceral fear of continental Europeans.  Europe’s first motorways were, after all, built by Mussolini and Hitler—unsurprisingly, given the close links between fascism and futurism.  (Road and raid, interestingly, share the same root word.)

By their very existence, it was dimly felt, motorways encouraged the formerly settled to become socially as well as physically mobile—to forsake their homes and families, to question traditions and assumptions, to be sensate, discontented, and restive.  Tory transport minister Ernest Marples is supposed to have said, “My God, what have I started?” as he watched the first cars charging onto the M1, although the story is surely too good to be true.  It is unsurprising that they were viewed in this way.  Motorways materialized in the same frenetic period as consumerism, counterculture, pop music, sexual liberation, family breakdown, imperial meltdown, mass immigration, the EEC, and space travel.  Moran is alive to this inchoate critique and presents it fairly, despite his pro-road and mildly social-democratic sentiments.

The Epimethean minority has gradually become part of a majority, as their misgivings have become allied to spending cuts, disenchantment about traffic problems (to many, perhaps a synecdoche of national and cultural sclerosis), and deep ecology to constitute a powerful coalition against all new road schemes.

Motorways are for Moran psychogeo­graphy, mac­adam delineations of modern preoccupations.  But as well as being of anthropological significance, they are, he thinks, glamorous in their functionality, materials, and design, ironic crosscurrents of taste and fashion; fascinating for their politico-cultural sur- and subtexts, the extraordinary ordinariness of those who made the roads and those who use them.  He cruises easily and amusingly through all these subjects, strewing behind him nerdish trivia, astute linkages (junctions), and ponderable quotes from academics, politicians, TV shows, and rock bands.

Brian Eno (a “polymath,” according to the star-struck Moran) has surmised that perhaps sometime “stained concrete and dirty steel will look rather quaint and friendly and welcoming, like exposed brick does now”—yet, as Moran replies, “underneath Spaghetti Junction, that future seems some way off.”  For the author, however, there is beauty to be found now in this nonplace that is nonetheless a place.

Seen from above, whether speaking sociologically or from a police helicopter, the constantly changing patterns of traffic are to Moran as mesmerizing as the seemingly simultaneous movements of birds—millions of individual decisions amounting to a shared purpose and identity, the metallic glinting of the vehicles a little like the iridescent feathers of starlings.  He reminds us that although motorways prove disastrous to millions of wild animals every year (such as the poor swans that mistake tarmac for water), their verges are also valuable refuges for many rare species of plant and animal—unsprayed if noisy Edens in a crowded country of industrial farming, executive houses, and over-tidy gardens.  He asks us to admire the engineering expertise evinced in every bend and remember the contextures, contradictory impulses, and reassuringly human muddles behind the ruthlessly rational miles.

On Roads will not necessarily persuade, but whatever one’s views of motorways (or modern Britain), Moran’s carefully engineered construction will lend understanding to every journey.


[On Roads: A Hidden History, by Joe Moran (London: Profile) 288 pp., £14.99]