Monday, 31 October 2011

M25 at 25

A slightly longer version of an article by me in Saturday's Guardian:

The M25 is 25 today. On 29 October 1986, Margaret Thatcher cut the ribbon across an eight-mile section of the London Orbital near Watford, the final and crucial bit that closed the circle. If there are any official commemorations of this anniversary, I have missed them; a birthday party for the most hated road in the country would perhaps not be well attended. Our antipathy to the M25 reveals much about shifting attitudes to roads over the last half century. In its thrilling early days, the motorway system was known by its epic cross-country routes (the M1 being called, with some fanfare, “the London-Yorkshire motorway”) but it is now the M25, mentioned daily on traffic reports as a vortex from which none can escape, that best sums up the public mood. The motorways that once carried hopes of uniting the nation now evoke images of eternal circularity, encapsulated in those mythical tales of foreign tourists (or, in some versions, confused pensioners or na├»ve northerners) who drive round the M25 for days in the mistaken belief that it is the M1.

But perhaps the anniversary should be celebrated, if only as a reminder of how distant the year 1986 now seems. For one thing, the M25 was opened by a prime minister prepared to attend a road opening and celebrate it as “a showpiece of British engineering skills, planning, design and construction”. In response to those who were arguing that the road was already congested, Thatcher said: “I can’t stand those who carp and criticise when they ought to be congratulating Britain on a magnificent achievement and beating the drum for Britain all over the world.” The M25’s popularity, she argued, was a sign of its success, and criticisms of it put her in mind of an old saying that “nobody shops at Sainsbury’s because of the queues”.

The prime minister was not alone in this attitude: the inauguration of the M25 was the last major road opening to generate real public excitement. The queues at both ends of the final section were much longer than usual because drivers were itching to be the first to complete an orbit. When the Guardian’s Terry Coleman drove along it shortly after the cones had been removed, he saw crowds waving from the bridges just as they had done when the M1 opened in 1959. His main complaint was that, at just three lanes, the M25 was not big or bold enough. It was also “absurdly too far out from the centre, which must be obvious even to those bicycling protectors of disused allotments, and the like who ensured by their protests that it should not be closer in”. The M25, Coleman argued, summed up “the mangy poverty of our present expectations”.

The completion of the M25 now seems to symbolise the high water mark of Thatcherism. It was accompanied by that mid-1980s phenomenon, a huge surge in house prices, all the way round its perimeter. Property prices in west Kent, in towns like Sidcup and Sevenoaks, rose by a quarter in 1986, exceptional even for the south-east equity bonanza of the period. The M25 also opened just two days after Big Bang, which ended restrictive practices in the City and ushered in a frantic era of takeovers and salary hikes. Some of these high-flying City traders quickly realised that the M25’s 117-mile circuit could serve as an illegal racetrack. They would meet up at a service station in the early hours of a weekend morning and race round the Orbital in their Porsches and Ferraris, the Dartford tunnel serving as an impromptu pitstop. The story of these Cannonball runs was uncovered by a young reporter for The Times, called Boris Johnson.

It all seems so eighties, a vanished world of red braces and mobile phones the size of bricks. But the M25 is still here and, even if nobody loves it, it hasn’t taught us much. The coalition government has made the same connection as Thatcher did between roads and entrepreneurialism, and recently declared an end to the “war on the motorist” by raising motorway speed limits. City traders no longer use the M25 as a racetrack, but the mood of braggadocio that inspired those midnight runs survives in certain quarters, undented by recent events. 1986 seems so long ago; and yet so little has changed.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

The art of walking

I’ve just finished reading The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, Literature, Theory and Practice of Pedestrianism by Geoff Nicholson. Along with accounts of many other eccentric pedestrians, Nicholson tells the story of Captain Robert Barclay Allardice (1779-1854), who took part in a number of bizarre pedestrian contests, one of which was set him by ‘an unnamed Duke’ who bet a thousand guineas that he could find a man to walk the ten miles from Piccadilly to Hounslow within 3 hours, taking 3 steps forwards and 1 step back. In 1809, Barclay himself bet someone else a thousand guineas that he could walk a mile in each of a thousand consecutive hours. He began on 1 June on Newmarket Heath, walking a single mile, every hour once an hour, on a set course in Newmarket in Suffolk. It only takes about twenty minutes to walk a mile, so there must have been a lot of hanging around. An enormous crowd gathered to cheer him on as he completed the feat on 12 July.

Nicholson suggests that the longest ever uninterrupted walk was probably taken by the adventurer Sebastian Snow (1929-2001) who walked 8700 miles from Tierra del Fuego to the Panama canal in 19 months. ‘By some transcendental process,’ Snow wrote in his book The Rucksack Man, ‘I seemed to take on the characteristics of a Shire [horse], my head lowered, resolute, I just plunked one foot in front of t’other, mentally munching nothingness.’ He had intended to walk all the way to Alaska but got bored.

Nicholson does not mention another epic walk, made by the comedian Ronnie Barker, as recounted in his autobiography, Dancing in the Moonlight. As a young man he worked unhappily as a hospital porter until, desperate to get into acting, he joined a touring mime company in 1950. After a few weeks of ‘misery and despair’, the tour collapsed in Cornwall without enough money for train tickets, and Barker had to walk all the way back home to Oxford.

Another great pedestrianist was Phyllis Pearsall (1906–1996), the founder of the London A-Z. (Nicholson once wrote a novel, Bleeding London, in which a character tries to walk every street in London using the A-Z.) Here is the account in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

Back in London in 1935 Phyllis Pearsall made a living painting portraits, but she was disillusioned by the pretentiousness of the art world and ready to take on a new challenge, and when she got lost one evening in the streets of London and subsequently realized that the most recent street map of London dated from 1919 she decided to produce her own. Starting with the Ordnance Survey sheets she walked the streets of London for eighteen hours a day, compiling a 23,000 card alphabetical index of streets, which she kept in shoeboxes under her bed, and produced the first London A–Z Street Atlas in 1936.

What the ODNB doesn’t mention, but which I read somewhere, is that Pearsall then took 250 copies of the A–Z in a wheelbarrow to W.H. Smith’s, and they bought them from her.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Walk some night on a suburban street and pass house after house on both sides of the same street each with the lamplight of the living-room shining golden, and inside the little blue square of the television, each living family riveting its attention on probably one show; nobody talking; silence in the yards; dogs barking at you because you pass on human feet instead of wheels.’ – Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums, cited in Nicholson, The Lost Art of Walking

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Motorway rambles

Classic literature is full of warnings about the the vanity of human wishes and the transience of life and fame. ‘Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives, Live register’d upon our brazen tombs, And then grace us in the disgrace of death,’ as Shakespeare writes in Love’s Labour’s Lost. The paths of glory lead but to the grave, and so on. As Macaulay wrote rather beautifully of the puritans: ‘Their palaces were houses not made with hands; their diadems crowns of glory which should never fade away.’

Mind you, that was before they discovered lamination. I wonder if Shelley would have felt differently about Ozymandias if he’d been immortalised in a non-biodegradable table mat. Which is all a roundabout way of saying that it was very nice of the photographer Edward Chell to send me some of the table mats from his recent photographic exhibition, ‘Gran Turismo’, at the Little Chef, Ings, on the A591 into Windermere, some of which incorporated quotes from On Roads. Chell has another solo exhibition, Viewing Stations, investigating the landscape of the motorway verge, in London in November. You can find out more here: Chell is also co-editing a book, In The Company of Ghosts; the Poetics of the Motorway, to be published by erbacce-press next spring.

I note that, in his new memoir, Alan Partridge writes that one of the programme ideas he unsuccessfully pitched to the BBC, co-devised with Bill Oddie, was Motorway Rambles: walking the hard shoulders of British trunk roads with special permission from the Transport Police. Chell is one of several people – others include the vicar John Davies, who wrote a rather excellent book a few years ago about walking the M62 - demonstrating that this is not in fact a remotely Partridgesque activity but a worthwhile and enlightening one.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The question should be, then, not how we break through the sludge of habit to rediscover the hidden strangeness of things, but how we ever managed to convince ourselves that anything was not a dissemination of intelligence. Boredom is the amazing achievement, not wonder. Our senses can catch only a narrow portion of the spectrum: the cosmic rays, rainbows above or below the range of visible light, or tectonic groans of the earth all elude us. What the moralists have said about the universe, science since Faraday has proved to be empirically true: We are immersed in a sea of intelligence that we cannot fully understand or even sense.’ – John Durham Peters

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

An ecstasy of concrete

A few blogposts ago I quoted from a letter written by Dennis Potter while the Hammersmith flyover was appearing outside his window. I’ve since discovered a contemporaneous piece by him in the Daily Herald, ‘Flyover in my eyes’, from 18 November 1961, in which he is rather more positive about this new piece of architecture. ‘Our second baby was born one warm night in July …’ he writes, ‘while a grotesque new machine was dropping concrete girders into position with all the gentility of a front-row Rugby forward bearing down on a tiny full-back.’ The Potters lived ‘on the top floor of a block of flats on a bloodshot-eye level to the thing.’ The Hammersmith flyover was ‘a beautiful thing, a cross between a Roman aqueduct and a Hollywood epic, soaring over earth-bound streets in an ecstasy of concrete, cable and sheer bravado.’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Science owes more to the steam engine than the steam engine owes to science; without the dyer’s art there would be no chemistry; metallurgy is mining theorized.’ – Clifford Geertz

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Seen from the window

In his autobiographical essay, ‘Seen from the window,’ Henri Lefebvre describes looking from the balcony of his apartment in central Paris on to a busy intersection over a period of several hours. After a while he starts to notice patterns in the apparently chaotic street scene: the rhythm of the changing traffic lights, the synchronised movements of vehicles and pedestrians, the contrast between feverish activity and moments of relative calm. In order to notice such patterns, Lefebvre suggests, you need the patience to watch mundane events unfolding in time:

The characteristic features are really temporal and rhythmical, not visual. To extricate the rhythms requires attentiveness and a certain amount of time. Otherwise it only serves as a glance to enter into the murmurs, noises and cries … Over there, the one walking in the street is immersed into the multiplicity of noises, rumours, rhythms … But from the window noises are distinguishable, fluxes separate themselves, rhythms answer each other.

I’ve been looking out of the window more often than usual lately. I am on a research fellowship this year so am not teaching, and my office at work is directly above a terrace where students and members of staff walk and sometimes chat between classes. I used to see people gossiping, laughing, exchanging cigarettes and lighters, and blowing their smoke into the air: that international, wordless language that breaks down the inevitable awkwardness between people who are not quite strangers and not quite friends. Now, because the terrace constitutes part of the building and is covered by the smoking ban, the smokers have been banished to the steps below the Anglican cathedral, where they sit on their own looking, at least from a distance, pensive and disconsolate. Now, instead of cigarettes, a hundred mobile phones flip open as soon as the students come out of lectures. You could write an MA thesis about the anthropological significance of the facial and hand gestures that people adopt when they are talking on their phones. The person on the other end of the line can’t see you, you know! And of all the windows in all the world, these little gestures, tics, glances and snatched conversations came to be seen by me out of mine.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees.’ - Bruce Robinson, Withnail and I

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Crisis? What crisis?

I’ve always been interested in the resilience of ordinary life, the way our basic routines survive even in the midst of a crisis, or regroup after a catastrophe. The governor of the Bank of England announced this week that we are living through the worst economic crisis in living memory. Everyone tutted and turned over to the Great British Bake Off. At the fringe meetings of the Conservative Party Conference, the hot issue was the smoking ban in public places. I cannot decide if this evasive attitude is healthy or not. It reminds me of the IMF crisis at the end of 1976, when ordinary life in Britain carried on against a background of talk of imminent chaos. There was a great deal of excitement, for example, about an ostrich glove puppet called Emu, worked by the entertainer Rod Hull, who had just achieved national fame by attacking Michael Parkinson on his chat show. Emu’s children’s television programme was attracting eleven million viewers and the Observer suggested that ‘the whole nation … has gone Emu crazy’. There was even greater interest in the appearance of the newsreader Angela Rippon’s bare legs on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas show, the details of which were leaked to the press in the days before broadcast. ‘The excitement surrounding Ms Rippon’s perfectly agreeable legs convinced me that everybody had gone mad,’ wrote the jazz musician and critic George Melly. ‘Angela Rippon had – wait for it – legs! Did people really imagine she hadn’t? … She reads the news very well, clearly and crisply, but the secret is out. Under that tidy desk is a pair of legs!’

It is now normal to read these popular entertainments as a kind of wilful distraction from political events. But perhaps these trivial preoccupations point to a more complex account of late 1976 than the media rhetoric of crisis suggested. The mid-1970s ‘crisis’ was experienced most keenly by opinion-forming elites. The early and influential converts to monetarism – mostly in The Times and the Financial Times - tended to talk up the possibility of impending national disaster, and to remind readers of the dire predictions about Britain’s future in American right-wing media like the Wall Street Journal and CBS News, which had more than one eye on US domestic politics in seeking to present the UK as a cautionary tale. These moments of banality in daily life in the run-up to Christmas 1976 suggest that not all Britons were convinced by these apocalyptic narratives.

In early 1977 a Gallup international survey revealed that Britons believed themselves to be among the happiest people in the world. In 1978 the Washington Post’s London correspondent, Bernard Nossiter, argued in Britain: A Future That Works that the ‘voices of doom … the scribes and prophets of disaster’ had been wrong about the UK, that its levels of state spending and taxation were normal by European standards and the overall postwar trend of rising affluence, which had doubled living standards since the war, would survive the world recession. ‘Is it possible,’ he asked, ‘that the whole episode is a case of hypochondria?’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘”I see the news is bad again.” The banal phrase punctuates my memories of the late 1930s. I remember an adolescent anger that people would not name the things that were happening: the invasion of Austria; the cession of the Sudetenland; the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Albania – all packaged as “the news”.’ - Raymond Williams

Saturday, 1 October 2011

The modern English style

Some cobbled together words occasioned by the return of Strictly Come Dancing to our screens.

As the historian Ross McKibbin reveals in his book Classes and Cultures, ballroom dancing has long been a political minefield. The Official Board of Ballroom Dancing, established in 1929, was specifically formed to stamp out the ‘freakish’ steps of jazz-inspired crazes like the Charleston and the Varsity Drag, which threatened to ‘turn the ballroom into a bear garden’. The OBBC sanctioned only four official dances – waltz, foxtrot, quickstep and tango – and rigorously policed any illegal steps, lifts and sidekicks. Victor Silvester’s seminal textbook, Modern Ballroom Dancing (1927), claims that the basic principles of ballroom are ‘as permanent as the law of gravity’.

This ‘modern English style’ was an attempt to stem the inexorable invasion of imported American music and dance. One dance teacher lamented ‘the admission of jazz music and dubious steps into decent places’, insisting that they originated ‘in low negro haunts and had au fond a prurient significance’. The ruling bodies were terrified that dancing might be seen as sublimated sex, and indeed the churches often condemned the dance halls for their vulgarity and immorality. So the dancers’ feet had to be parallel, their hips straight and their knees kept together.

The social research organisation, Mass Observation, thought these rigid rules threatened the whole future of social democracy. The ballroom was creating supine, apathetic citizens by pointing them ‘away from social feeling and activity and towards a world of personal superstition and magic’. Mass Observation even calculated that people who went to dancehalls were 12% less likely to vote than average (an uninformative statistic, since under-25s were the most likely to go dancing and, then as now, the least likely to vote). The regimented ranks of ballroom dancers were sleepwalking to ‘the paradise-drug of the American dance-tune’ with ‘the same surrender of personal decision as that of uniformed Nazis’. Mass-Observation claimed in 1939 that anti-fascists broke up a demonstration by Walter Mosley’s black shirts by ‘doing the Lambeth Walk’, and they suggested that the communal, improvised nature of this dance could teach us ‘something about the future of democracy’. The Lambeth Walk was frowned on by the dancing professionals, along with other communal dances like the Conga and the Hokey-Cokey.

But even Mass Observation conceded the startling contrast between the ‘mechanized barbarity’ of dancehall music and the wordless decorousness of the dancers’ movements. In order to request a dance, a young man would simply touch a potential partner lightly on her elbow, and they would move silently on to the floor. It was quite normal for partners to dance for hours without speaking to each other, before going their separate ways. The ballroom was a world of conscious artifice and unspoken courtesies, as pointlessly beautiful as the laws of cricket. Its rules were simultaneously hierarchical and egalitarian. Dance steps were rigorously policed, but every local palais had learner nights where the most physically inept could be taught the same basic moves.

The modern English style was one of Britain’s last imperialist successes, spreading unopposed throughout Europe, America and the Empire. In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela writes about spending endless hours of his student days in the early 1940s practising foxtrots and waltzes to a crackly phonograph record, encouraged by his idol, Victor Silvester.

Mundane quote for the day: 'You are always alone with the oddness of modern consumption. Walking under the white lights of Sainsbury’s you find out just who you are. The reams of cartons, the pyramids of tins: there they stand on the miles of shelves, the story of how we live now. Cereal boxes look out at you with their breakfast-ready smiles, containing flakes of bran, handfuls of oats, which come from fields mentioned in the Domesday Book.' – Andrew O’Hagan