Ecstatic Boredom
Will Self and the Great British Motorway (with special reference to the M40)
by Justina Hart

Published: Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

“Once you’ve acquired the habit of motorway driving, it’s damned hard to kick it. You may set out on com-pletely innocuous excursions, fully intending to take the scenic route, but yet again the slip-road will suck you in, a lobster-pot ingress to the virtual reality of motorway driving.”1

Slip road

In 1996, Will Self described his London home as being sited “at the navel of the world, the absolute beginning of the M40”.2 I was born at its absolute end. The M40 is my back-bone. My life’s journey has followed its route down the middle of England from Birmingham to Oxford, back to Birmingham and on to London. Raised in East Finchley, Self’s journey has centred on the London to Oxford stretch. Perhaps it is apt we should meet in the middle. When re-

reading Self’s short story collection, Grey Area, I discovered a connection that starts near Junction 8A (Thame, Aylesbury, Oxford), and encompasses a house, a car crash, a friend and a shoe.

A-road

At a loose end on a summer’s day, with nowhere to live in my final year at Oxford and a desire to avoid the exam fever that would grip keener students, I spotted an ad for a room to rent in the countryside. That day in the champagne heat, the ad had a Bridesheady lure: share a gatehouse on a country estate with two trainee furniture makers and a teacher. Fancying a road trip, I unparked my ageing Toyota Corolla from the Iffley Road and set off down the dual carriageway towards the M40 and Thame.

The Red House, as it was called, lay off a fast, snaking A road. Perfectly symmetrical, it was visible to the right of a flat, grassy track. Made of red brick with a red brick chimney and red tiled roof, it had huge Georgian windows which, on the ground floor, were partly swallowed by uncut grass. Apple trees hung about the building in an attempt at a wild orchard, and beyond spread fields. The roof sat inside the walls, as if planted on a smaller house which had since grown fat. It was love at first sight. I moved in and painted my room with the help of one of my house mates, David.

A month after the start of term (5 November, to be precise), I was indicating to turn right into the Red House driveway while waiting for a break in the traffic. A not unpleasant out-of-body spinning sensation followed. Tapes and burger boxes smashed against the dashboard; my forehead bounced against the steering wheel. When I came to, I was bemused at being parked neatly on a grass verge facing the opposite direction. It turned out that another car had careered into the back of me. A house mate tried to take me to A&E, but on bonfire night the queue went round the block and we gave up. Having been shrunk to half its original size, the car had to be scrapped. It had been a lifeline with Oxford, with tutorials and friends. Stranded miles from town, I wandered round confused, sporting a purple bruise.

In Self’s story, Chest, pollution in the form of a sulphurous fog chokes the characters. The protagonist, Simon-Arthur, drives along the A418 towards the village of Tiddington and “up the track to the Brown House”.3 Of course! I realised. The Brown House is the Red House; I’d been told a couple of years ago by David, that Self too had lived there. Self has taken the house and its environs and poisoned it – turned its red to brown, let its green fecundity rot:

“The house stood about twenty yards back from the track, in an orchard of diseased apple trees; their branches were wreathed in some type of fungus that resembled Spanish moss. The impression the Brown House gave was of being absolutely four-square, like a child’s drawing of a house. It had four twelve-paned windows on each side. As its name suggested, it was built from brown brick; atop the sloping brown-tiled roof was a brown brick chimney.”4

Simon-Arthur later observes a pheasant shoot around the house which, apart from the fog and “sick trees”,5 is exactly as I remember this intrusive winter activity. The shooters would stomp into our garden, point their guns and miss birds stand-ing a couple of feet away. In Chest, they fire so close to the house that the shot hits the windows with a “sharp spatter”.6

Contraflow

The purpose of motorway driving is to cut down the time it takes to get from A to B. Maybe it’s hailing from suburbia, where a car symbolises the possibility of elsewhere, or being born near Spaghetti Junction (and loving those loopy lengths of 1960s fairground architecture), but long before reading Will Self, I used to drive up and down A-roads and motorways for the sheer pleasure of it.

The completion of the Oxford to Birmingham stretch of the M40 coincided with my time at university. When it first opened, I had the road to myself. For a brief moment, British motorway driving took on something of the glamour of the freeway. Flat Warwickshire fields stretched out like prairies. You could weave from lane to lane as though splashing about in an empty swimming pool. I think this was what first sucked me in.

At university I was always the chauffeur. Spurred by reading Kerouac, we did extensive drives without necessarily having a destination in mind. On one occasion, two friends clambered into the back seat at pub closing time and woke up to find themselves on a mountain road in Snowdonia at sunrise. Going north on the M40 then west on the M54, I drove through the night on a couple of Pro-plus. My co-pilot swigged most of a bottle of tequila.

Later, living back home during the early 1990s, the reces-sion contributed to my addiction. Whenever I was frustrated or bored, I’d head for the motorway and drive sometimes for hundreds of miles until I’d got my fix. Driving in a straight line seemed to re-align me internally. I loved the fact that everyone else was in a hurry to get somewhere while I obtained my pleasure by purposefully going nowhere. Since we were locked away from each other in our metal boxes, no one could know my inferior intent.

Self’s own motorway interest was shunted into fifth gear one day when he was pootling along in the middle lane and realised that the other vehicles around him were static in rela-tion to one another. “At that moment,” he says, “you cannot be certain whether you are hurtling forward, or if, on the con-trary, the great grass and concrete trough of the motorway is being reeled back behind you … it was a profound epiphany. I was inside a synecdoche of society itself – a perfect figure of modern alienation”.7

After that, like the protagonist of his short story, Scale, who is writing a motorway saga, From Birmingham to London and Back Again Delivering Office Equipment, with Nary a Service Centre to Break the Monotony?,8 Self was hooked: “I got a job that provided me with an utterly inconspicuous dark blue Ford Sierra and a remit that allowed for plenty of motorway driving”, he says.9 He became a service station connoisseur, a seeker after complex gyratory systems,10 a highbrow motor-way geek.

Tailback

For years Self was ashamed of this obsession “because Britain seemed so notably deficient in motorway culture”.11 Where the US has Route 66, Cadillacs and the road movie, we have short roads to divide a small country, snarl-ups and ugly service stations. It’s not surprising that our drizzly highways have rarely made it into print.

My introduction to Self was a Penguin 60 of his short story, Scale. The cover shows a dragon digging its claws into the roofs of houses that feature in the story as the model village of Beaconsfield. Pink, hallucinatory clouds float in the sky. Scale put motorway driving on the map in a new way. I’d always enjoyed my covert road adventures but had allowed the motorway to flow past, not appreciating its component parts.

Self pays homage by dissecting motorway architecture and furniture (road fixtures and fittings) and using a specialised vocabulary. Features that had been anonymous or shadowy were now described with precision: instead of the triangular box with stripy white lines, a no-go zone which had registered subliminally, Self has “the curved wedge, adumbrated with …

oblique white lines, that forms an interzone, an un-place, between the slip road, as it pares away, and the inside carriage-way of the motorway”.12

In Scale, motorways filter into all aspects of the life and work of the writer-junky who narrates the story. He writes motorway novels, poetry and theses. He heads up the M40 to High Wycombe to buy kaolin and morphine supplies. Knowing the make-up of the motorway as intimately as his own body, he compares the history of his drug abuse to that of the British thoroughfare. Injecting morphine laced with kaolin chalk residue, he turns his veins “the tannish colour of drovers’ paths”.13 Later, his body has become so scored by cal-cified deposits (underpasses and flyovers), that he sees a “route-planning image” when he stands naked in front of the mirror.14 He has to be careful not miss an artery and “cause tailbacks right the way round the M25”.15

Flyover

Self  loves  motorway  driving  not  because  it  is  exciting  but because it is “ecstatically boring”.16 A long drive helps him to think. “It’s very close to philosophising”, he has said, arguing that thinking is taboo in England.17 Driving for its own sake, he is free to enjoy all aspects of the journey, including traffic jams: “I love the frustration on the faces of people”, he says.18 Like Self, I have always found the boredom of motorway driving exhilarating. My own epiphany came when I discov-ered  that  an  extended  drive  led  not  only  to  feelings  of freedom and abandonment, but that the movement allowed day dreams to knit into ideas. To enter this dream or hypna-gogic  state,  you  must  be  alone.  Transcending  tiredness  you keep  going  until,  finally,  it’s  just  you,  the  road  and  the machine travelling at what feels like no speed – 20mph and 80mph at the same time. Your hands feel welded to the wheel. A  car  is  a  moving  think-tank  for  one:  unless  you  get  so carried away that you career into the crash barrier, or have a narcoleptic fit, you’re unlikely to be reprimanded for thinking inside this box. Driving is free time, freewheeling up-down-time  for  the  mind.  It’s  an  amazing  feature  of  motorway driving that you can be absorbed in two distinct tasks at once: driving blind in the fast lane while being splashed with lorry

spray; and fantasising, plotting, jotting poems in the air.

I became particularly hooked on night driving. It’s more dangerous and intoxicatingly beautiful in a lonely, drifting way. You enter an insomnious state, cutting through the night and road, charged with power while others sleep. It’s poetry in motion, a journey to the end of the night. The intensity is magnified because there are so few drivers around. You alone have a romance with the road.

I once drove from Oxford to Birmingham at 4am, having not slept for two nights. The rhythm of the road conjured up a symphony which I could hear distinctly. Self poeticises this driving dream state in Scale. The protagonist writes “motor-way verse” which arises from the way in which drivers subconsciously apprehend motorway furniture – signs, mark-ings – and the physical sensations of travelling along different road surfaces:

“F’tum. F’tum. F’tum.

Kerchunk, kerchunk (Wat-ling-ton) …”19

It’s a brilliant conceit. The modernist American poet, Hart Crane, set out to create poetry which – by incorporating tech-nological advances – would be a synthesis of modern America. This resulted in his epic poem in praise of Brooklyn Bridge, The Bridge (1930). Motorways, “these great works of twenti-eth-century monumentalism”,20 are Self’s equivalent of the nineteenth-century suspension bridge, and as such, should be celebrated artistically. His jokey, clunky motorway verse satirises our cultural refusal to take the motorway seriously.

Embankment

Self believes that motorways, not buildings, will be the grand testament to our age. They are “our pyramids … our great col-lective earthworks”.21 In both Scale and Chest, characters have mystical visions of motorways as future archaeological sites. In Chest, Simon-Arthur, whose health is failing, gets out in a lay-by feeling “lost in time, ahistoric”.22 Turning away from the road, he feels “enclosed in his lay-by burial ship. A Sutton Hoo of the psyche”.23

Scale pushes this idea further. The protagonist plans to be buried in “something in the manner of an ancient chamber tomb”24 by Junction 5 of the M40 (Stokenchurch) where it bisects the ridgeway, described as “that neolithic drovers’ path which was the motorway of Stone Age Britain”.25 When the M40 has become “a monument to a dead culture”,26 he hopes that by linking his tomb with Avebury and Silbury Hill, future societies may posit the idea of “a continuous motorway culture, lasting some 7,000 years”.27 According to Self, motor-ways do not cut an ugly swathe through our green and pleasant land; they connect us down the centuries to our pre-historic past.

Loop

Mixing safety and danger, proximity and distance, anonymity and identity, motorways appear to separate us from one another but in fact connect us up. When the traffic stalls, we ram up against people but remain thankful for a tin veneer of separation. Feeling immune from normal rules, we don’t expect to see these people again. We can be voyeuristic, extrapolating others’ lives from a “support British farming” sticker on the back window, a plastic skeleton dangling from the rear view mirror.

As drivers, many of us go round angry with purpose, snob-bishly hating everyone else, yet the odds are that we pass each other every few years. North and south, east and west, we go round the roundabout of a small island – and are all going to the same place in the end. The motorway is like the setting for a latter-day Odyssey in which we’re all mundane mini-heroes travelling from obstacle to obstacle in the same democratic mode of transport, going everywhere and nowhere, bored out of our route-mapped minds. The least we can do is enjoy the journey.

Exit

I wasn’t aware that Self had also lived in the Red/Brown House until shortly before David died in 2004. After our year there, David moved into one of the nearby cottages. He recalled that during some sort of party at the Red House, one of Will Self’s shoes shot through David’s kitchen window. I think he said it was an outsized brown brogue. Sadly, David took the shoe and the story to his grave.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to revisit the Red House to indulge my own lay-by (grass verge) nostalgia since, during the writing of this piece, someone drove into the back of my car and wrote it off.

Notes:

  1. “Mad About Motorways”, in Junk Mail (Bloomsbury, 1995), p 129.
  2. http://www.bostonphoenix.com/alt1/archive/books/reviews/03-96/WILL_SELF.html
  3. Grey Area (Penguin Books, 1996), p 134.
  4. Ibid
  5. Grey Area, op. cit., p 154.
  6. Grey Area, op. cit., p 153.
  7. Junk Mail, op. cit., pp 130-31.
  8. Scale, Penguin Books, 1995, p 26.
  9. Junk Mail, op. cit., p 131.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid p 132.
  12. Scale, op. cit., p 3.
  13. Ibid p 6.
  14. Ibid p 7.
  15. Ibid.
  16. The Idler, issue 2, November 1993. http://www.idler.co.uk/archives/?page_id=2
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Scale, op. cit., p 25.
  20. Junk Mail, op. cit., p 130.
  21. Ibid p 133.
  22. Grey Area, op. cit., p 134.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Scale, op. cit., p 50.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid p 51.

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