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photographer Sam Mellish has just published a new book, Roadside Britain, for which I wrote the preface. I think the
photographs are wonderful. You can find out more about Sam’s project, including
the galleries where his roadside photographs are being exhibited and links to
his various websites, on his blog:
part of my preface just to give you a taster:
In his recently published memoir, I, Partridge, the North Norfolk digital
radio presenter and former BBC chat show host Alan Partridge writes that one of
the programme ideas he once unsuccessfully pitched to the BBC was ‘Motorway
Rambles’: walking the hard shoulders of British trunk roads with special
permission from the Transport Police.
Everyone immediately understands the joke, because
spending any more time by the British roadside than you have to is supposed to
be an inherently absurd activity. The roadside has long fed into resilient British narratives of
nostalgia, loss and self-depreciation. The roadside verge is a hybrid place,
neither urban nor rural, in which elegists can contemplate the natural world
and lament its encroachment by modern abominations. These anxieties date back to the interwar period, when the rise
of the motor car and the arrival of the National Grid meant that houses and
factories tended to be built along roads rather than near coalfields. Many
observers saw in Britain’s new roadside topography the symptoms of moral
degeneration and social crisis. Throughout J.B. Priestley’s English Journey (1934), the roadside
serves as a metaphor for cultural change, an augury of a future England made up
of Tudor-style chain pubs, lock-up shops and redbrick villas where ‘everything
and everybody is being rushed down and swept into one dusty arterial road of
cheap mass production and standardized living’ …
… But there are some parts of the British
roadside that still resist the relentless pull of sameness and blandness, and
these improvised roadside shacks are the subject of Sam Mellish’s ongoing
photographic project, On the Road. In this he joins an emerging but
increasingly distinguished tradition. It was probably Paul Graham who began it
all with his photographic project on the A1 (the ‘Great North Road’) conducted
during 1981 and 1982, a subject returned to by Jon Nicholson in his 2004 book A1: Portrait of a Road. Until the 1960s,
the A1 was the main road connecting the north and south of Britain, but it has
now been superseded by the M1 and other motorways, so both Graham and Nicholson
seek to represent a partially dying world. It is here that
you see drivers sitting alone: lone bikers resting their helmets on tabletops or men
in hangdog suits with vacant stares – the sort of sad roadside cafe people whom the
philosopher Alain de Botton has compared to the lone figures in Edward Hopper
Others have joined the pilgrimage by the
roadside: the Church of England vicar John Davies in his book Walking the M62; the artist Edward
Chell, who combines oil paintings depicting motorway verges on the M6 with text
pieces in the form of customised road signs; and the poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in
their recent book Edgelands. Like
these artists and writers, Sam Mellish demonstrates that
spending time carefully observing and recording what goes on by the British
roadside is not in fact a remotely Partridgesque activity. It is a worthwhile,
enlightening and often touching one.
quote for the day: ‘No one suspects the days to be gods.’ – Ralph Waldo Emerson
I wrote this about beaches a while ago. Jean Sprackland reminded me about it by kindly citing it in her book.
an account of his wild swimmer’s journey through Britain, the late Roger Deakin
observes the “hairless apes squealing with pleasure in the sea” at Porthcurno
in Cornwall, and wonders why people are so playful and carefree on the beach. He
concludes that our species emerged from the sea and our dry-land existence is a
recent phenomenon, so we simply feel more at home on the shore.
interest in “wildness,” among contemporary nature writers like Deakin, Robert
Macfarlane and Kathleen Jamie, has often gravitated towards the beach. This is
partly because many of our beaches, on the Jurassic Coast of Devon and Dorset or the great shingle peninsulas in the southeast, are
such strange, otherworldly places. But it’s also because the beach is a point
of accommodation between humans and nature. Deakin may have felt the call of
the wild but he was also a dedicated beach anthropologist, wandering Monsieur
Hulot-like among the tame holidaymakers with their windbreakers and Primus
The ideal of the beach in western culture is of a beautiful
tabula rasa, a preferably deserted landscape of virgin sand and translucent sea
where you can escape from the stresses of modern life – which is presumably why
you can now buy a “beach in a box” for your office desktop, with a miniature deckchair, sea
shells and sand. But as the BBC series Coast
showed - once you got beyond its self-consciously stirring music and sweeping
aerial views of our shoreline - the British beach is really a case study in cultural
history. Our beaches have gone through all sorts of uses, including land speed record
attempts at Pendine Sands in Carmarthen
Bay, improvised airstrips at Southport
and D-day landing dummy runs at Slapton Sands in Devon.
More recently, beaches have become highly artificial environments, as tidal
changes and coastal erosion force resorts like Minehead and Lyme Regis to
import sand or dredge it from the sea bed.
is a frontier not only between water and solid ground, but also between the wild
and the domestic. It is where sandyachters and kite buggyers share space with
picnickers and sunbathers, in states of proximity and
undress they would never tolerate in their ordinary lives. As a self-policing
community, the beach also condones a certain amount of low-level lawlessness,
from nicking boulders for garden water features to scavenging for Nike trainers in the cargo ship
containers that occasionally wash
up on the southwest coast. Even Ian McEwan admitted to liberating a few
pebbles from Chesil Beach, although he later returned them at the
invitation of Weymouth
and Portland Borough Council.
admired beaches as places where social hierarchies and arcane rules are temporarily
suspended. So I imagine he would have disliked the current fashion, in
newspaper travel supplements, for listing our “best” beaches. This trend for
grading beaches began with conservation societies worrying about sea pollution.
But it has become a beauty contest, as resorts compete over things like wave
size and sandcastle build-ability. Some of this is less to do with the beaches
themselves than the accident of location. Resorts that are within second-home
distance of London’s
middle classes tend to emphasise the clean minimalism of their beaches, because
that is what appeals to busy professionals and downshifters. A side-effect has
been the decade-long property boom in beach huts, which are disproportionately
on the south and east coasts, and are now undergoing their own version of the house-price
crash. The struggling seaside resorts in my own area of the northwest, like
Blackpool, Morecambe and New Brighton,
rely instead on council-led regeneration plans for casinos, outdoor lidos and
refurbished Art Deco hotels, and don’t go on about their beaches so much.
to some reports, the recent Policy Exchange publication, Cities Unlimited, does
not write off all the regeneration schemes in the north. It is fairly
optimistic about inland cities like Manchester
and Leeds, and gloomiest about coastal towns like Liverpool, Hull
and Blackpool. In a motorway-based economy, it
argues, these places are literally at the end of the road. Cities Unlimited is
an anti-coast manifesto. All the places it commends for being well-connected, like
Corby, Daventry and Oxford,
are miles from a beach.
the beach has no truck with neo-liberal economics, or indeed beauty contests.
Almost everywhere on the coast has a serviceable beach nearby, assuming you can
refrain from giving the sand a star rating. And I will happily trade living in
a motorway hub for living as I do within 10 minutes’ drive of Crosby
beach. On late summer evenings when the day-trippers have gone, there is no one
else about except some naked, cast-iron men staring out across Liverpool Bay. Anthony Gormley’s rusty artwork,
Another Place, is a reminder that, even on a deserted beach, people have left
been wrongly accused last week of never having been to Deptford, I've been
steering clear of urban planning politics this week and heading for the beach.
It is June, after all, even though this month is rapidly disappearing down a
drain. I've been reading Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, a new
book by Jean Sprackland, a poet who lives, or lived, not far from me, near Ainsdale
Sands, between Southport and Formby Point.
Over the course of a year, Sprackland simply walks on the beach near her home
and tells us what she finds and sees.
some lovely stuff in it, with a particularly brilliant section about messages
in bottles, sent to no one in particular across 'the mother of all dead letter boxes: the sea'. It
is also salutary to learn that 'caffeine levels are so high in some coastal
areas that it's used as a marker to determine general water quality'. And I
learnt a lot about a science I had never even heard of: Flotsametrics. In his
book Flotsametrics and the Floating world (2009), Curtis Ebbesmeyer explores
the science behind the complex and unlikely journeys taken by ocean debris like
driftwood, messages in bottles, corpses and derelict ships, as well as 'the
Great Sneaker spill' - when thousands of lost-overboard Nike training shoes
ended up on distant shores. Apparently, 'murderers often underestimate the
strength and complexity of currents and tidal systems, a failure which has
sabotaged many an otherwise "perfect" crime.'
Searching for some of Sprackland's poems, I found this suitably lyrical
reworking of the everyday on her website:
Tipped down the embankment, they
buckled and split, slashed by rain,
sprawl like sloshed suburban wives,
moulded by bodies dead or disappeared
and reeking with secrets.
A lineside museum of sleep and sex,
an archive of thrills and emissions,
the histories of half-lives
spent hiding in the dark.
Arthritic iron frames might still be worth a bit,
but never that pink quilted headboard,
naked among thistles, relic
of some reckless beginning, testament
to the usual miracle: the need to be close,
however it stains and bruises.
I wrote this back in 2007. It seems appropriate, in the circumstances.
I hope it’s not raining on you as you read this, but the odds aren’t good. The
nicest thing to say about the summer so far is that it is not as bad as last
summer, which was the wettest since records began. In his 2002 book, Rain, Brian
Cathcart reflected ruefully on the sanguine view we used to have of global
warming. “We were told to expect vineyards spreading north through England and
restaurants spilling out on to every pavement,” he noted. “But now the forecast
for the twenty-first century is rainy.” And that was before the horrors of Glastonbury 2005, when
stewards paddled out in dinghies to rescue the tent people stranded in rivers
of mud. Or last summer’s biblical floods in Yorkshire and the Severn Valley.
The recent Pitt review on these floods warned us to expect more “extreme
Rain is part of the British cultural imagination. Last
Saturday afternoon I watched the Cliff Richard film, Summer Holiday, on ITV. (It was raining.) The film’s opening
credits run over monochrome shots of a deserted seaside promenade in the rain,
before Cliff arrives in a London bus and sunny Technicolor
to drive his friends to Athens.
Made in 1962, the film reflected anxieties about the rise of cheap air travel and
the lure of the warm south. But there was something phlegmatic about this
association of rain and the British summer: it was the small price we paid for
our temperate climate, which could be used to explain everything from our
placid national character to our moderate political system.
But this is not gentle,
bathetic drizzle we are experiencing. This is lashing, stair-rod rain, and it’s
hard to imagine it as part of the timeless rhythms of daily life. The new
business of weather risk management, pioneered by the disgraced energy trader
Enron, is ready to exploit the British
climate as it becomes more chaotic. Hedge funds trade in weather derivatives, allowing
firms to protect themselves against the financial losses incurred by bad weather. Met Office consultants provide data which tells retailers whether to
stock up on suncream or umbrellas.
The weather futures market is part of a long
history of trying to disenchant the natural world, to bring the rain to book. Francis
Bacon, the father of the modern scientific method, argued that science would
allow people eventually to control the weather, alter the pattern of the
seasons and increase crop productivity. The German critic Walter Benjamin wrote
that a characteristic of modernity was the “diminishing magical power of the
rain”. His great project was a study of the arcades, the beautiful iron-and-glass
constructions that allowed nineteenth-century Parisians to see and be seen in
all weathers. He imagined a Paris
of the future entirely enclosed within a “crystal canopy” to protect it from
It hasn’t quite worked out like that. True, the response
of traditional British seaside resorts to the popularity of continental
holidays was to create weatherproof experiences like amusement arcades and
sealife centres – with mixed results. But meanwhile, the middle classes have
been contrarily fashioning an alternative social season where the rain god is
capricious and cruel. The rise of the summer festival, and the rediscovery of
camping, are a weekend version of the back to the land movement that emerged in
the late 1960s, a nomadic
lifestyle drawing on pagan rituals. But we seem to be embracing the outdoors life at the moment
when our climate is most ill-equipped for it. The things I
remember most from my only experience of camping at a music festival are the
people dressed in bin-liners and the deafening sound of rain on canvas. It
seemed to me like nature’s way of telling us that we now have things called
Rain doesn’t just make these
events miserable; it makes them impossible. This year’s Sunrise
festival in Somerset
was cancelled at the last minute after flash floods, and local tractor-owners
had to tow festival-goers out of the mud. As last week’s BBC Money Programme
showed, the billion-pound economy of festivals is organised around offsetting the
catastrophe of a downpour, by raising money through very advanced ticket sales
and corporate sponsorship. Even flower-child festival promoters have to write
the rain into their business plans.
Rain makes us wet, but it is also saturated with
meaning. Rain invites inactivity and gives us time to reflect on its
significance. British rain used to be about the eccentric stoicism of couples
sat in their cars staring at the sea through their windscreen wipers. Today’s
torrents provoke more troubling thoughts. The Pitt Review advises us all to have a “flood kit,”
including a wind-up radio and wetwipes, and tells us to stop concreting over
our front gardens, which makes the land less permeable. Worrying about the rain
has become a moral imperative. Perhaps we have always obsessed about rain because we imagine, in some neurotic
version of the pathetic fallacy, that it is passing comment on our national
character and behaviour. This time, if rough weather turns out to be the price we
pay for climate change, we may be right.
could be wrong, but I seem to remember that the original germ of an idea for
Monty Python's Life of Brian was someone who kept missing the great moments in
the Bible - who turned up at the Sermon on the Mount or the Marriage Feast at
Canaan, say, just as everyone was packing up to go home. I thought of this on
Friday when I somehow contrived to miss seeing the Olympic torch, despite it
coming right past the building where I work.
was following the progress of the torch on the 'live' webcam in my office - a hypnotic
watch, a sort of national Mexican wave as the camera pans past cheering crowds that
seem to emerge out of nowhere - to see when the torch was at the top of our
road. I then went to the other side of the building to get a prime view, only
to see the crowd dispersing.
took me a few seconds to realise what had happened, so used are we to
authenticating our experiences by looking at a screen. There was a delay on the
webcam and the torch had gone.
had missed my once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a flame lit by the sun on Mount Olympus.
I went back to my office and checked my emails.
quote for the day: ‘How many people turn on the radio and leave the
room, satisfied with the distant and sufficient noise? Is this absurd? Not in
the least. What is essential is not that one particular person speak and
another hear, but that, with no one in particular speaking and no one in
particular listening, there should nonetheless be speech, and a kind of
undefined promise to communicate, guaranteed by the incessant coming and going
of solitary words.’ - Maurice Blanchot
1972, 20 years after the Queen's accession to the throne, Brian Masters wrote a
book called Dreams about H.M. the Queen. Masters wrote to everyone he knew and
put adverts in newspapers, asking Her Majesty's subjects to send him summaries
of the dreams about her that interrupted their sleep. As he describes it in his
memoir, Getting Personal, 'the Queen was depicted driving a lorry up the M1,
running a post-office, travelling with her family to the State Opening of
Parliament on the Piccadilly Line, in full regalia and crown, because it was
quicker than fighting one's way through traffic. Nearly all of them involved a
cup of tea. I especially liked the one sent in by a housewife from Leeds who
had met the Queen on a bus and invited her to tea ("I expect you don't get
much chance of an ordinary good cuppa, do you, love?") and, when the Queen
arrived and knocked on the door of her terraced cottage, she sheepishly
confessed, "I hope you don't mind, I've brought my mother along too".
The Queen Mother was hiding round the corner in gunboots, awaiting permission
to be included.'
own dream 'concerned my turning up for dinner at Buckingham Palace
and noticing, as I sat down, that I had forgotten to put on any clothes at all.
As I fumbled to protect myself with a horribly small napkin, the Queen and her
exceedingly well-bred family made no allusion whatever to my nakedness, but
chatted on as if nothing were amiss.'