On Roads, Joe Moran (2009)

An entertaining journey through the recent history of the UK’s major roads

Profile Books, 9781846680526 312pp £14.99

Cyclists spend an awful lot of time looking at roads. They form our field of vision for hours on end; we obsess about how their routes hug or defy contours; and, their surfaces render our rides pleasure or pain. Yet cycling writers obsess about bicycles, and very rarely turn their attention to roads.

This may be about to change. Carlton Reid promises a book on the subject in the near future. In the meantime, Joe Moran’s tome merits a detour.

As he announces just a few pages in, this is not a complete history of the road. It covers the motorway era and its main focus is the mass experience of motoring. Moran has easily enough to say, and his analysis is sufficiently penetrating, however, for there to be plenty here to interest roadmen who are not reliant on internal combustion.

It is a warm-hearted, occaisionally personal, frequently amusing tale whose canvas is the cultural meaning of the highway.

A lot of the interest for pedal pushers comes from side stories to his main narrative – how the routes of country roads were formalised at the time of agricultural enclosures; Alfred Watkins ideas about lay lines and roads from the 1930s; and, land-speed record breaker Malcolm Campbell’s youthful prosecution for cycling too fast. Even without these, though, Moran’s meditation on the curious nature of these anonymous, abstracted places has much to commend it.

As the book progresses, its attention does steadily shift form roads to motoring, but this too is worthwhile. Even for those among us who eschew private cars, few can say that they are not dependent on motorway logistics to feeds us, furnish our homes and fill bike shops with products. Surely we owe such a bedrock of modern life at least a little serious consideration.

The narrative ends with a very poignant allusion. Moran reveals that unsold books are frequently crushed up to create bitumen modifier, which is then used in road building to hold the blacktop together. I’m sorry to say that I picked up my copy of his book from a remainder book shop. Snap up a copy while you can, and chalk it down as a stand against road building, even if its story leaves you on the hardshoulder.

TD Jan 11

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