Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Ghost Road

Stung by my suggestion in the The Sunday Times in July that there was no British highway mythology to compare with the great, evocative yarn of The American Road, one of our motorways has risen to the challenge. The M6 is our longest motorway and also, it seems, our most haunted. Roman soldiers, distraught hitchhikers and phantom trucks have been marching, stumbling and roaring all over the place. The new toll section around Birmingham has even acquired its own Roman cohort - 'men walking through the tarmac as you would through water.' In my original article I tentatively made the point that American roads, being newer, had clung on to their ghostly associations. This seems to be the case here. The ghosts rise up because they feel uncomfortable with these big new highways that, physically and mentally, bury the land. I am now hoping to meet John Clare on the M11. And the world never quite makes sense. Pick the bones out of that, Richard Dawkins.


  1. ...The ghosts rise up because they feel uncomfortable with these big new highways that, physically and mentally, bury the land...

    You might have written this tongue in cheek but I've seen things. Not on the M6 but on Blackheath, especially on Lamas Night.

  2. I'd like to see this excuse going through parliament to explain our gridlocked roads.

  3. There's loads of great British roads Bryan! Snake Pass, from Glossop to the Ladybower reservoir, or the Buttertubs Pass in the Yorkshire Dales, both spring to mind.

    A great road is a road with elevation change, beautiful scenery, plenty of contour, plenty of gradient, and a variety of corners: corners which tighten and corners which open out; small radius corners and large radius corners; corners with positive camber and corners with negative camber; corners with a restricted line of sight on entry, or a ribbon of successive corners which unfurl in the field of view.

    America has lots of straight, flat roads across open, monotonous expanses, and this is one reason why American cars are rubbish, and one reason why America rarely produces world-class racing drivers, Mario Andretti excepted.

  4. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if you ran into the spirit of John Clare. Jonathan Bate's biography of him describes how Clare enjoyed hanging out at Lolham Bridges, whose ancient arches held up a section of the Roman road prone to flooding. Clare wrote in his journal, "And I watched with delight on haymaking evenings the setting sun drop behind the brigs and peep again through the half circle of the arches as if he longs to stay." According to Bate, there's another arch nearby L.B. and among the names carved there is "J Clare Helpstone 1811."

    The place is between Peterborough & Stamford, in the Midlands. Any big highway running through there?

    By the way, Bryan, I see we both like Professor Bate: I just noted a blurb by you on my copy of the fat Clare bio. -- from a review of _The Song of the Earth_ -- and I reviewed the bio./new edition of Clare poems for "The Weekly Standard." More power to Bate for bring Clare back to life for contemporary readers.....

  5. The land in North America is far less blood-soaked than that of Merrie Olde, with a few major exceptions. It gets worse around Samhain, too.

    And some of us like our long straight roads. As someone who's driven many of the loneliest of them (you know, the sign by the exit of the last little town in Utah or Nevada that says, "Next services / 144 miles"). There's a poetry to the Big Empty. Out there you can hear yourself think, for one thing. And fewer ghosties to distract one whilst driving.

    Of course, YMMV.

  6. Ihave been driving a truck up and down the m6 for a year now from glasgow to manchester, then back up 3 weeks ago i saw an old man wearing a cap leaning on a wall ,i turned to look again and he was gone , this at 04.30 last week i saw him again at about 04.45.strange or what