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Issue 54 September-October 2000 RSS

Road to Nowhere

City Report

Motorways, service areas and boredom

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In early summer 2000, as you drove off the M60 towards Prestwich, you could just see, on the far side of a colourless embankment, the brand new stretch of motorway which will soon complete the circuit of the Manchester ring-road. On a hot afternoon, with caloric waves shimmering above the pristine road surface, it was hard not to find a resting place for the mind in this vista of virginal motorway; it had the same appeal as a fresh fall of snow, or sand smoothed into crescents by the wind. At the same time, when you stopped to study the standard issue motorway furnishings, fresh from their packaging, so to speak - towering, spindle-thin lights, or the empty concrete trestle of an illuminated sign - they looked a lot like sculpture.

There is something about the minimalism of the motorway which both refines its aesthetic appeal, and - less enjoyably, perhaps - informs the experience of using it. On joining the motorway, we enter a territory which is stripped of everything save function: the whole environment is designed to enable and control safe driving - the human element exists only as a variable in the formula. You are the inhabitant of a non-place, serviced every twelve miles or so by little homeopathic doses of the real world, called service stations. But even they seem to exist outside real time. When you try to pin down the status of the motorway, the service area, and their vague, indeterminate hinterland, you are faced with a version of the problem which the American writer Po Bronson defined when he tried to locate Silicon Valley: ‘there’s no “there” there’. 1

In Britain, the cultural status of the motorway remains ambiguous, to say the least. Whereas America has hymned the romance of its highways and freeways in a national history of generic, iconic art forms - from Kerouac’s On The Road (1958), to Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited (1965) - there is no such tradition in Britain. This country’s experience of the motorway is comparatively young - the first was an eight mile stretch of the Preston bypass, which opened in 1958 - and rooted, unwaveringly, in the very opposite of America’s road-movie romance with the highway.

The fact that the first British motorway was a bypass could be said to sum up our national relationship not only with the motorway, but also the entire world which that word suggests. Eternally modern, yet dreary and functional, a necessary evil perceived to be synonymous with bad weather, tailbacks and stewed tea, the ambience of the British motorway has usually been described through varieties of Social Realism, or sudden flashes of disturbing psychological allegory - most notably in J. G. Ballard’s novel Crash (1973).

If British banality could be said to have a heart - an inner core of pure boredom - then the motorway and its environs might be expected to occupy a cosy place within it; alongside the carpet showrooms in out-of-town retail parks. Now, however, it would seem that this very quality of amplified ‘ordinariness’ is being taken as a catalyst in the depiction of primarily functional territories as potent psychological spaces. Increasingly, as the motorway features in the reclamation of shared and formative memory for successive generations, so its initial cultural status as a non-place is being exchanged for a new measure of significance.

You could say that the phenomenon of the ‘non-place’ is beginning to carry a romance - as a portal to nostalgia, and as a quasi-ironic metaphor of some lost state of innocence - which in Britain has been formerly ascribed to the Victorian suburb and the Edwardian seaside town. The British fetish for identifying the ghosts of its past is in a state of reinvention: it has become a generational identification with a certain kind of blankness, and a search for other-worldliness within the history of the commonplace, the domestic, and the downright dull. Beyond post-Modern contortions of rhetoric, Ballard has deposed Sir John Betjeman in a sudden return of Modernist narrative. The basis for this exchange derives partly from Modern functionalism’s steady accumulation of social history, but also, more importantly, from our changing reaction to that social history.

Over the last twelve months, with the publication in Britain of Pieter Boogaart’s pictorial history of the A272, A272 - An Ode to a Road (2000), Martin Parr’s astonishingly successful book Boring Postcards (1999), which features many images of early British motorway travel, Edward Platt’s Leadville: A Biography of the A40 (2000), and David Lawrence’s Always a Welcome: The Glove Compartment History of the Motorway Service Area (2000), a survey of the cultural status of roads, hinterlands and service areas appears to have begun. Astute and poeticised, this survey is largely founded - despite Martin Parr’s heavy armour of irony - upon a repositioning of the nostalgic impulse.

Christopher Hawtree, reviewing Leadville for The Independent, began with an amusing prediction of a forthcoming literary trend, in which publishers would be battling with one another for increasingly lucrative biographies of boring roads: ‘No sooner has a book on the A272 appeared, than one about the A40 arrives; another, on the A1, is imminent. Where will it all stop? “Jeez, I know it’s Martin [Amis], but half a million for the B4009? Come on…” “But look at his riff on the traffic-light phasing in Watlington…”’ 2

Even in this favourable and supportive review of Platt’s book, one can see the curious territory which the current reassessment of British ‘arterial culture’ is beginning to occupy. The reflex for nostalgia is being refracted through a matching interest in what might be termed ‘the anthropology of boredom’. For every seemingly banal archive photograph or postcard of Britain’s motorways and ring-roads - the Washington-Birtley footbridge in 1970 is one example from the treasure trove of pictures in Lawrence’s book - there is now an accompanying frisson of significance, derived from a fresh reading of those images. In their latest anthropological context, these images articulate both social or architectural history, and, it would seem, the poetics of a state of mind.

These poetics might be taken as a generational recollection of childhood and adolescence: the time-travel triggered for Proust by the sight of rose bushes or hawthorn blossom in his ‘deep moments’, can perhaps be recreated for the children of the 1960s and 1970s by Parr or Lawrence’s meticulously positioned images of the Fortes restaurant in the bridge across the M6 at the Charnock Richard service station, or a Motorchef sugar sachet.

For Edward Platt, the residue of childhood experience was at the forefront of his decision to revisit the territory of the A40, and to speak to the people who live along its polluted edge: ‘In my mind, London is mapped through the roads that connect it to the parts of England where I have lived: the A11 to Essex, where I was born; the A1 to the north, where I grew up; the A3 to Hampshire, where I finished school; the A4 to Bristol, where I went to university. The fact that I now live in west London, close to Western Avenue - the A40 - completes my map of the city’s roads.’ 3

Importantly, Platt concludes his following paragraph with a description of the houses which he saw on his childhood trips into London: ‘It seemed incredible that there were people living within ten yards of the car in which I was sitting.’ 4 It is this sense of childhood incredulity - in Platt’s case towards the ‘dirty and anonymous’ houses he could see from the car - which has lingered like a residue in his mind, prompting his ambitious and challenging plan to revive George Orwell’s search for ‘the future England’ along ‘the arterial roads’. The present generation are studying the imagery of Britain’s motorways for an equally liberating vision of the past. As Platt interviews residents of the houses along the A40, he discovers an oral history which could be read in much the same way that we might study one of Martin Parr’s boring postcards. Within the apparently ordinary exists a compelling narrative of daily life, the sheer oddness of which is eloquent of our social and human condition: ‘One morning,’ writes Platt, ‘the Shaws woke up to find that the low brick wall at the front of their garden had collapsed - as had the wall in front of the next-door house, and the next, and the next. They soon discovered that every other wall along the road had collapsed overnight, though they still do not know why.’ 5

The cover of Leadville depicts a computer-manipulated photograph of a boarded up block of white-gabled ‘Tudorbethan’ houses. Created by Gigi Sudbury and Catherine Platt, the saturated colours of this image - vivid reds and oranges offsetting the stark silhouette of the rooftop and the delicate pale blue of the sky - appear to echo the saturation that one also finds in many of David Lawrence’s archive images from motorways: a terrifying double-page spread of a sweet counter, for instance, or the Corley Grill Room in 1976. It is as though an entirely unofficial colour register has been established for elegiac images of British banality: while sepia was the clichéd signifier of faux-Edwardiana, and pastels the signage of 1950s Americana, so saturated orange appears to articulate the memory of a buried Britain - the civic or service aspects of British social history from the late 1960s to the end of the 1970s, just before the major regeneration projects of the 1980s.

This conflation of testimonies, drawn from memory, reportage and archive, comprises a new perspective on our perception of the ‘commonplace’ in recent British history. Confounding academic methodology, it is a perception based largely on the expression of a particular sensibility. Linking, on the one hand, a form of pop-cultural nostalgia (as in Morrissey’s early laments for a ‘changed’ Britain - ‘I lost my bag in Newport Pagnell…’) and on the other a sense of the post-industrial wilderness. This new concentration on the history of ‘boring’ places is linked to the emotional requirements of a generation out of patience with post-Modernism.

Twenty five years ago this summer, the German synthesiser group, Kraftwerk, released their recording Autobahn (what could you call it - a soundtrack? a song?) as a seven inch single in the UK, on the old Vertigo label. It was this release which defined the Kraftwerk sound, where robotic harmonies were synchronised to minimalist beats - the doo-wop of the German Economic Miracle.

In Pascal Bussy’s biography of the band, Kraftwerk: Man, Machine and Music (1993), he uses the term ‘industrial folk music’ to describe the group’s mission to express the industrial and technological world solely through industrially and technologically generated music. 6 At the heart of this mission is an engagement with the ambiguities of nostalgia which we also find in Boring Postcards. Indeed, one of Parr’s forthcoming projects is a collection of boring German postcards - thus completing a cultural circuit.

For Kraftwerk, most of their music - not least their hymn to the motorway (which exists as an epic, 20 minute track in the album version) - is inspired by archaic visions of the future: their robots, railways and radioactivity are always depicted with an eye to the past, as well as a sleek, dehumanised future. The irresistible precision of their electronic percussive effects (now themselves an anachronism in an age of digital sampling, yet never bettered in terms of their purity) is matched by what the novelist Jeff Noon has described as ‘the melancholy of dance music’. In Kraftwerk’s case, to judge from their choice of back-projected images during their live shows, this melancholy seems to stem from nostalgic recollection of an earlier idea of Modern Europe, defined by a romance within the ordinariness of motorways, showroom dummies, power stations or early computers.

An errant factor in all this is the relationship with kitsch. Recent reports that Carlton TV are considering reviving the Crossroads soap opera from the early 1970s, throw this relationship into a clearer light. Crossroads, the saga of daily life in a motorway motel in the Midlands, is ripe for rehabilitation as a cult series. (Indeed, some of the original cast found occasional employment in the 1980s taking cameo roles in such ‘alternative’ comedies as Five Go Mad In Dorset.) But at the time of its original popularity, the motel world of Crossroads was accepted as totally modern - glamorous, even. Now, such a location for a soap opera would seem peculiarly dated, in rather the same way that those episodes of Brookside, set in the post-Modern small business redevelopments around Liverpool’s Albert Dock, appear hopelessly linked to the fashions of the 1980s.

As demonstrated by the enduring importance of Ballard’s fiction, or by the themes explored in Julian Opie’s ‘Imagine You Are Driving…’ paintings, the supposedly dull ‘non-places’ of Britain exist in a complex position between psychology and sociology. To return to Orwell, these places seem to offer, in their very emptiness, an idea of the future that constantly reinvents itself - even as they speak to us from the past, in saturated colours or monochrome. Ballard, writing in the catalogue for The Photographers’ Gallery’s exhibition ‘Airport’ in 1997, repeated his claim for the ideal of the non-place: ‘For the past 25 years I have lived in the Thames Valley town of Shepperton, a suburb not of London but of London Airport. The catchment area of Heathrow extends for at least ten miles to its south and west, a zone of motorway intersections, dual carriageways, science parks, marinas and industrial estates, watched by police CCTV speed check cameras, a landscape which most people would affect to loathe but which I regard as the most advanced and admirable in the British Isles, and a paradigm for the best the future offers us.’ Not many people, perhaps, would agree with Ballard’s vision of a service area Utopia - as most of the interviewees in Platt’s Leadville testify - but the eloquence of its ‘not-thereness’ epitomises the strange poetry of boredom.

Michael Bracewell


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Issue 54, September-October 2000

by Michael Bracewell

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