Stories from a Life on N the Roads; A New Book Reveals a Fascinating Social History Behind Britain's Highways, William Leece Discovers

Daily Post (Liverpool, England), June 22, 2009 | Go to article overview

Stories from a Life on N the Roads; A New Book Reveals a Fascinating Social History Behind Britain's Highways, William Leece Discovers


Byline: William Leece

IT CAN be a hard life, that of an academic researcher. Not always is it measured out in the calm scholastic atmosphere of senior common rooms, libraries and laboratories.

It can take you to faraway places, probing the ice caps of Antarctica, studying the tribesmen of Amazonia or diving to the depths of the oceanic abyss.

It can also take you for a weekend at Newport Pagnell services, on the M1.

Joe Moran, from Liverpool John Moores University, seems to have survived the experience unscathed, however. Newport Pagnell was the first fully-open service station anywhere on a British motorway, and has been in business since August, 1960.

At one time, it was the brave new world of feeding Britons on the move, but more recently held up as an example of the sheer awfulness of motorway catering.

But, like everywhere else by Britain's roads, it has a story to tell, for better or for worse.

"After midnight, gigging musicians would bump into each other at the M1 service stations and exchange gossip about venues and recording deals," Joe concluded in his researches, now published as On Roads: a Hidden History.

"The Beatles, according to one Newport Pagnell counter assistant, were 'very unruly' and threw bread rolls at Brian Epstein.

"Pink Floyd's drummer, Nick Mason, recalled the Blue Boar at Watford Gap at two o'clock on a Sunday morning looking like a Ford Transit van rally, as bands made their way back from gigs and 'crushed velvet trousers outnumbered truckers' overalls'.

"When Jimi Hendrix arrived in Britain, he heard the name 'Blue Boar' so often he thought it was a new nightclub and asked which band was playing there that night."

Joe Moran's book is full of these insights and vignettes, snapshots of modern life maybe a couple of stages removed from the road theme that links them through over 300 pages.

But which came first for Joe, reader in cultural history at the JMU: the roads themselves or the stories attached to them? "I'm interested generally in the everyday things that people take for granted, or are so familiar that people don''t really notice them," he says.

"Hopefully, I can show that they have these hidden lives to them. A road seemed like quite a good example: it's something everyone uses, but there's not a lot of cultural reflecting about it."

So it becomes possible to ruminate on road rage versus road politeness.

Everyone knows what road rage is when they see it, that moment when the red mist comes down over some infringement of personal space, and a normal person can become a screaming psychopath. Even Lord Byron suffered from it in the days of horses and stagecoaches - although the term did not appear in Britain until the 1990s.

But the politeness and mutual courtesy that, in fact, smoothes our passage on the roads has gone far less remarked upon, perhaps because we take it so much for granted.

The great era of motorway building started in the mid-1950s.

June 12, 1956, to be accurate, when Hugh Molson, a junior minister, pressed the green light for work to start on the new Preston By-pass.

The short by-pass, now incorporated into the M6, was opened in December, 1958, and a year or so later the first extended section of motorway - the M1, near London - was open for traffic.

By the mid-1970s, the basic framework of Britain's motorway system was visible for all to see, but a new phenomenon had manifested itself in British politics - the anti-road protester.

Liverpool had an early taste of it when opposition to the final stretch of the trans-Pennine M62 swept the Liberals into the city council in the 1970s, largely on the back of an anti-motorway ticket.

Junctions one to three are missing from the M62 to this day, while the debate still rages about the best way to bring traffic from the end of the motorway at the Rocket into the centre of Liverpool. …

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