This was my second book about roads. I read it after Road Numbering Revealed which got me through a horrible norovirus afternoon but has a pretty narrow focus. But in On Roads, Joe Moran tackles a broader topic – the role played by roads in modern British cultural experience.
Think of Britain, cars, and roads together, and the first things that might come to mind are Alan Partridge driving to Scotland in bare feet, or Jeremy Clarkson mixing car chat with casual racism. Maybe you’ll think of the Blair-era fuel protests, or the “road rage” phenomenon that captivated the tabloids in the 1990s, or projects like the Newbury Bypass or Twyford Down and the protest movements they sparked.
The more you explore the subject, the more you realise how big it really is. This is why On Roads, after a few chapters, starts to feel like a social history of 20th century Britain in which the roads as a recurring theme, as opposed to a story about roads with Britain as a backdrop. And this is just as well because Joe Moran, the author, isn’t a road enthusiast, but a cultural historian who specialises in 20th century Britain.
Because of this On Roads stands in stark contrast to Road Numbering Revealed which was written by “roaders” for “roaders”, a no-nonsense collection of facts dumped on the reader with implicit, unshakeable confidence in the reader’s interest. Moran makes no such assumptions about our passion for roads so takes care to develop a series of narratives throughout the book, moving subtly between themes and historical episodes, painting a rich picture of roads and their social context. Ideology – either pro-roads or pastoralist – is deftly avoided, although there’s something quite haunting in the passages about now-dead communities obliterated by the M11 and other big road-building projects.
As I write this review I’m reading another book, The World Without Us, which is about how the planet would adjust to the departure of humankind. One of the images it’s planted in my head is of resurgent primeval forests making short work of our motorways, bursting through the thin sheets of concrete and reasserting themselves over these ultimately fragile pathways that have divided and suppressed them for so long. But On Roads is ultimately about the opposite of this process – about how roads have colonised the land, disrupted nature, and irreversably changed our society.