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

    Wednesday, July 16, 2008
    Through driving it, I'd come to love the road
     
    At TRIP I talked a bit about my M62 walk and quoted a few lines from the book in which the motorway itself is described negatively, as a dead space, a corridor of ghostly non-engagement (taking my prompt from the likes of J.G. Ballard for whom the roads are major contributors to society's 'death of affect'). Afterwards Tim Edensor challenged my assumptions, as he does in his paper M6 Junction 19-16: Defamiliarizing the Mundane Roadscape [Space and Culture, vol.6 no.2, May 2003], which I've been reading today:
    It is a popular and academic notion that routine driving along motorways signifies contemporary alienation through a kind of serial "non-space." The author counters these dystopian assumptions about the character of this everyday pursuit by exploring his own experience of driving along England’s M6 motorway, showing how roads are enmeshed within unpredictable, multiple flows of ideas, sensations, other spaces and times, narratives, and socialities. By critiquing notions that autospace is inherently linear and featureless, that driving is asocial and desensitizing, and that the quotidian is a realm of unthinking and automatic behavior, he shows how it is precisely in the realm of mundane space-time that both homely familiarities and imaginative connections can be fostered.
    Tim's paper is a refreshingly original take on driving and the commute, which he describes as everyday practices which 'possess multiple other potentialities' for observing or creating new possibilities. In other words these are far from 'dead' events but rather social activities full of variety and complexity.

    In the paper Tim describes the flora and fauna of roadside verges and other spectacles which the motorway driver sees, each with particular meanings to each individual seeing them; he writes about the variety of liveried wagons and the array of other signs and signals on the road, of 'Eddie Watchers' who will travel miles to 'spot' an Eddie Stobart truck as it passes; he celebrates the truth that all motorists, driving alone, will sometimes resort to behaviour they'd never do elsewhere like face-pulling, singing and shouting and bum-shuffling to the car radio's music (come on, you know you've done it). Tim explains what 'Gouranga' means, and I'm deeply grateful for that as it has foxed me for years as I've passed it, painted on bridges across the M6 in Cheshire, and he spends some time reminiscing about his hitch-hiking days and lamenting the passing of hitchers as a feature of our major roads.

    All of this caused me to revisit my walk and while I still assert that the overriding impression of the motorway to me, a pedestrian wandering inadvisably close to the carriageways, was of the violence of the speeding vehicles, I remember also that I did have many moments of appreciation of the roadway spectacle.

    What's more I now realise that many of the places I felt I just had to put on my itinerary (J31 Wakefield Europort, Pilkington's Tiles near Clifton Junction, St Mark's Church Worsley, Sutton Manor Colliery site) I visited because my curiosity about them had been awoken during my many prior car journeys past them. I now understand more fully that in a sense I chose to walk the motorway because through driving it I'd come to love the road... that's a great revelation and I'll definitely be working at the meanings in the linkages there, in future.

    If you're keen to champion the potential in the ordinary, to seek out the hidden depths in the everyday routine, then that must apply to the experience of driving. Makes perfect sense, and it is great to add that perspective to the motorway mix along with the dystopias and the ghosts.