Saturday, 30 June 2012

Roadside Britain

The 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:

Here is 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 Until the 1960s, the A1 was the main road connecting the north and south of Britain, but it has now been superseded by the M1 and other motorways, so both Graham and Nicholson seek to represent a partially dying world.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 paintings.

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.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘No one suspects the days to be gods.’ – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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