Thursday, 24 May 2012

Happy birthday Spaghetti Junction

I wrote this for the Guardian's Comment is Free site today:

Happy Birthday Spaghetti Junction, 40 today. As it enters middle age, it is worth reflecting on what the Gravelly Hill Interchange near Birmingham says about our changing cultural attitudes to roads. For when it was completed, it generated a certain amount of giddy excitement. A Burton-on-Trent coach firm ran guided tours to see it, and it featured as a scenic backdrop in the 1973 film musical Take Me High, in which Cliff Richard plays a merchant banker who lives on a canal barge in Birmingham. In one scene, with a moody instrumental of Moog synthesisers playing in the background, Cliff whooshes along the canals in a mini-hovercraft, admiring the new junction.

The big excitement 40 years ago was that Spaghetti Junction completed the missing “Midlands link” of the M6. In 1962 the minister for transport, Ernest Marples, had announced plans to complete a thousand miles of motorway in the next ten years. The target was met and Spaghetti Junction meant that motorists could get the full benefit of this thousand miles. Motoring journalists drove the 300 miles from London to the Scottish borders and reported back excitedly on this epic journey, made without meeting a traffic light or roundabout. One newspaper headline read, “I’ll take the Spaghetti road and I’ll be in Scotland afore ye”. Another, just in time for the late May bank holiday, read, “Spaghetting away from it all”.

But Spaghetti Junction was also finished just as the early excitement about motorways was curdling into disillusionment and anxiety about their effects on congestion and the environment. That is why, for such a complex junction, it is quite frugal with land, using just 30 acres. And of course the nickname it was immediately given is not especially flattering. The main thrust of the metaphor was that spaghetti just arranges itself as a series of random loops on a plate – which is how messy and unplanned the new junction seemed to the British sensibility. Motorists worried that they would drive round it in perpetuity, unable to find their way out. In fact, it is quite easy to navigate, and if you are driving through it on the M6, all you have to do is keep straight ahead.

The main problem with Spaghetti Junction’s image today is that its stanchions are made of that unloved material, concrete. As the signature material of the 1960s, concrete has become the scapegoat for more complex and intractable social failures. Concrete is now an all-purpose metaphor for the supposed planning disasters of that era - not just the flyovers but the related inner-city landscape of pedestrian subways and tower blocks. Many subways have since been replaced by footbridges, and the ceremonious dynamiting of high rises has been a common sight since the Thatcher era. But the flyovers cannot be demolished without creating traffic mayhem and were anyway, at least technically, a success, being durable, safe and easy to use. And so they have remained, as a stigmatic image embodying the false hopes of that era.

But there is no accounting for taste. “Seen from the air, the ribbons of curving carriageway seem to interlace with the pleasing intricacy of an Elizabethan knot garden,” enthused Clive Aslet, the conservationist and Country Life editor, about Spaghetti Junction in 2005. For a while today Spaghetti Junction was trending on Twitter, and the muddled affection apparent in some of the tweets was not always ironic. Perhaps, now the excitement of the motorway age is a distant memory, there is space for some double-edged nostalgia about its naive embrace of the future. Spaghetti Junction reminds us how long ago the third quarter of the twentieth century now seems - an era that Jonathan Meades calls “that brief and far off parenthesis when Britain was modern”.


  1. Thanks for this. I've always had a soft spot for this junction, but more than that it made me look for the Cliff film and, of course, on youtube there's this rather great video.

    ...featuring the Central Library in all it's (relatively new and shiny) glory.

    Also, someone's done an update and re-visited the scenes...

  2. There were an awful lot of concrete lovers in the Guardian blog to the above: who'd have thought it?