In the Company of Ghosts: The Poetics of the Motorway
Edited by Edward Chell and Andrew Taylor

Foreword by Edward Chell

Motorways are not the future they are the here and the now

Motorways have been part of the British landscape for over half a century, since the opening of the Preston Bypass (now part of the M6) in 1958 and the M1 the following year. Since then 2,000 miles of motorway have rolled out over the UK – a blue veined arterial system. Their ubiquitous presence informs our social and mental landscape, provides a backdrop to popular culture, and supports incrementally increasing traffic flows between our crowded conurbations. Huge distribution centres have clustered around this network shoring up and feeding our dependency on a carbon economy that will become obsolete.

The cover image of Forton Tower takes us back to the beginning, the days when “Britain had never had it so good”. Motorways heralded an optimistic vision of progress, of transport for all. Towers, bridges and service stations, two of which have just been listed by English Heritage, define the moment when road travel captured the public imagination and motorways were full of futuristic glamour.

Forton Tower is now closed (due to asbestos), and presides like a doomed sentinel over a sclerotic M6. It resonates with the bittersweet nostalgia of a future ruin. How long before it becomes a monument to the past? The poetics of the motorway are bound up with our sense of the decline of the ‘modern’ as it reflects back the fallibility of our plans and dreams. Motorways are also a touchstone of the existential fragmentation that road travel engenders – a junction of many flows so self evident, functional and banal we rarely consider it. This network presents us with an unintended self-portrait, an experiential matrix; physical, cultural, political, economic, metaphoric and personal.

This book, conceived by Andrew Taylor and myself, aims to take a headlight view of these often ignored but richly modulated environments and the responses they engender. Our book intersperses work by writers, poets and artists to reveal hidden precincts of the motorway rooted in our everyday experience of the car and the motorscapes we inhabit. By giving contrasting views from the stationary, the moving, the insular and the crowd, we aim to peep inside the concrete carapace to the softer spaces within.

The book title is taken from John Davies’ contribution, ‘M62: in the company of ghosts’. During his motorway perambulation, Davies sensed ‘a deep disconnection between drivers and their environment, themselves and those around them, themselves and their context, themselves and their own bodies’. In the kind of distorted echo this book voices, a comment posted on YouTube about the iconic 1970’s Yorkie ad romanticising life on the road, wryly observed ‘real truckers piss in plastic bottles, shit in tesco bags and have body odour’.

Ghosts are surprising bedfellows of the service roads and hard shoulders of our six-lane network. These arterial routes leave clues to villages buried, desire lines severed and wild places defiled. They echo to the chants and broken glasses of football coaches, road racers and un-belted joy riders or the sighs of furtive love making in cramped Ford Escorts parked on ‘dead roads’. Echoes, after-images or ‘ghosts’ resonate: the soft underbelly of a world so close. The contributors identify and celebrate these differing ghosts.

In the early 1990s large-scale anti-road protests led to a turning point in public attitudes towards motorways. Road protesters taking direct action against the M3 extension at Twyford Down brought environmental concerns firmly into the public arena. While the protest failed to stop the road, the Conservative Government’s ‘Roads for Prosperity’ program, adopted by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980’s in what she described as ’this great car economy’, was finally dropped by the incoming Labour Government in 1997.

While the freeway is a trope at the heart of American culture, the British motorway is a more subdued sibling; less epic, more dowdy, with its own peculiarly subversive enchantments. J.G. Ballard explored this hinterland in books such as Crash and The Concrete Island, as have more recently Iain Sinclair with London Orbital and Joe Moran with On Roads. A growing interest in these peripheral and threshold worlds is further illustrated by the recent non-fiction Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness by poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts. Writers such as Marc Augé or Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop have described the ‘non-places’ around the motorways of Europe. Our book seeks to complement texts like these. We have taken an interdisciplinary approach, however this book is not a survey but a starting point: an attempt to focus our readers’ attention on the rich and surprising diversity of our encounters on and with the motorway.

We would point readers towards new responses that we do not have space to include. Graphic designer Mike Webb has created a minimal publication revealing a bird’s eye view of the motorway junctions of the M6 (one of which we reproduce here). Celebrating the fortieth Anniversary of the Gravely Interchange, also known as Spaghetti Junction, artist Graeme Miller made his piece ‘Track’. Participants would glide along rails running under the interchange while lying on their back, undergoing “a solitary, immersive experience as the landscape is transformed around them”. Other more secretive urban explorers investigate the grander architecture of motorway infrastructure such as the Thelwall Viaduct which takes the M6 over the Manchester Ship Canal presenting enigmatic on-line photographic postings of the interior.

Fifty years ago, motorways were strangely denuded places with verges like snooker table baize. It is only more recently that vegetation has sprung up and then been managed, landscaped and designed to keep cars in and sound out. Already this landscaping of larger roads has within it the seeds of possible future ‘greenways’ where the asphalt soft-top might be penetrated by the rock drill of Japanese knotweed and colonized by other more native species. Our road system could in the future be like the Nazca lines of Peru. Some already argue that the future of mass transport lies in rail. The old British Rail slogan ‘We’re getting there’ now sounds more like a forewarning.

Motorways have ploughed through the landscape, changed the way it looks and changed the way we look out and experience our surroundings – through the car windscreen at speed. This book encourages us to Stop, Look and Listen to the un-noticed worlds in this territory.

© Edward Chell. 2012