Saturday, 4 April 2009

M62: the biography

This week we took our students to see the RSC’s production of The Tempest in Leeds. We arrived at the Grand Theatre to find the whole of the stalls populated by screaming 14-year-olds. We were in the middle of row L, surrounded, circling the wagons. (To be fair, once the play started they were very well-behaved.)

Anyway, I’m not here to review Anthony Sher’s performance as Prospero – I’ll leave that to Michael Billington. I’m here to tell you about the opportunity it gave me to be chauffeur-driven along my favourite motorway, the M62. I was sat right at the front of the coach and had a cockpit view of the road that Bill Drummond (an alumnus of the university I work at, though I don’t know if he graduated) has called ‘the most alluring, powerful, even magical motorway on our lump of an island’. Oh yes, I lead a full life.

I spent the whole of the journey to Leeds and back regaling my friends and colleagues, Kate and Bob, with arcane information about the M62. For example: for a couple of miles over an enormous peat bog called Chat Moss, you drive over a really bumpy bit of motorway and, if you are not expecting it, you think you have a slow puncture. The problem is mining subsidence. Somewhere underneath here, the male members of my mum’s family, including my granddad, hacked away at the south Lancashire coal seam.

I also pointed out the ruler-straight bit of motorway near Burtonwood services that used to be one of the longest runways in Europe, at the Burtonwood American air base, which is where my granddad met my grandma during the war. When I’m driving on it at dusk, I have a vision of the B17 Flying Fortresses taking off in procession in front of me, just clearing my bonnet, lit up by bomber’s moons.

Another thing I like about the M62 driving east is the way you feel that you’re leaving the world behind. As you go past the massive Croft interchange with the M6, much of the traffic siphons off and the road is suddenly nearly empty, before the signs begin to count you down to the end of the motorway at Knotty Ash. Many non-Liverpudlians think this is a mythical land of jam-butty mines and Diddymen, invented by Ken Dodd, but it is a real place with a motorway and ring road running through it.

All this information inexplicably failed to find its way into my forthcoming book on roads. My travelling companions gave every impression of being absolutely rapt by this effortless dispensing of motorway knowledge. Mind you, they were strapped in.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The ages of chivalry and romanticism must be imagined from the floating, rocking height of a horse; our age was instead one of crouching behind a wheel, merging in a blur of mirrored others as the gaseous miles melted beneath the pressed accelerator.’ – John Updike


  1. Hellow,
    Sorry my english is too bad to understand your littératue but i appreciate the picture with the cars. As a painter. One off my favorite subject that you can see on my website is "le Périphérique de Paris". (chapter Traffic) I drive or ride on a bridge to paint. Could you tell me if such paintings gives you inspiration? because your picture gives to me energie tookeep on with such subjects.
    Have a good day

  2. Hi Guillaume

    Thanks very much for sending the link to your traffic paintings, which I really like. I like road photographs, especially ones taken at night with a slow shutter speed so the car lights stream, like the one that heads this blog. The only painter of British roads that I know is Oliver Bevan, who has done a series of paintings about the Westway. Magnifique!

  3. Joe,do you live in a parallel back to front universe than the one in which I exist?If I drive east along the M62 I do not end up at Knotty Ash.

  4. Oops. Never eat shredded wheat ... WEST I meant. Directions were never my strong point.