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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Saturday, August 21, 2004
    Listening to belated voices
     
    Finished Edward Platt's Leadville: A Biography of the A40, a book which entertains and educates, offering insight into the lives of a true assortment of characters who in the mid to late 90s were living or working on Western Avenue. It is complex, in a welcome way, taking the reader way beyond horror at the effects the car has had on urban life, the gruesome effect of traffic on those who live only feet away from one of Britain's busiest urban motorways, to describe not only our love-affair with the car but also the reasons why some people enjoyed living on Western Avenue and were reluctant to move when the Highways Agency forced them out.

    I found the book drawing me into a searching investigation of my own understanding of the motor vehicle, and of what makes home 'home', provoking many questions about the suburban dream we embraced in inter-war town planning which has turned into carmageddon. Leadville shows how Western Avenue resident Robin Green's evidence to a public enquiry, dismissed at the time, proved correct. As the government stopped work on the A40's expansion for the environmental reasons he had detailed eight years earlier, he was vindicated. Though by then he had been moved, miles from his boarded-up Western Avenue home.

    On the back cover Clare Colvin of the Sunday Express points up what to me is the greatest strength of this very readable and enlightening book: "[Leadville] moves from the richly comic to the near tragic, lifting the lid on people's lives - and belatedly giving them a voice of their own."

    Pity it is belatedly. Although there is still great value in letting those voices be heard.

    Listening to belated voices seems to be part of the rationale behind Graeme Miller's Linked, a similar project to Leadville using different media. Miller has recorded over 75 interviews with people remembering life in the area of Leytonstone now sliced in two by the M11 link road. He has created a three-mile walk along a byway near the motorway. Along the route he has sited twenty transmitters, through which walkers can hear those voices talking about the places they're passing through, and related sounds, through a receiver headset they can borrow from a local library.

    Linked is "a landmark in sound - an invisible artwork - a walk," Miller says.

    I came across Linked in a Louise Gray review in The Wire this month. The project's underlying theme is "how memory marks a landscape," she writes, and continues,

    "Miller's aim is not just to map the experiences of generations of Leytonstonians, but to trigger the associations and particular stories of all those who walk his route. ... In Linked, what we're hearing is not so much history, but a careful layering of events and emotions to which we're invited to bring our own resonances."

    It's an ongoing project so there's time ahead to walk the route; meanwhile some of the Linked material is available animated online, offering a flavour of what the project is all about.