It goes something like this.
You’re driving. It’s night – let’s say late October. A country road, moon bleached behind threadbare clouds.
You pass the crossroads and see a figure in the rear-view mirror. Strange. You could swear it wasn’t there before.
And then you see the outstretched hand; the extended thumb. You take pity for tonight, of all nights, is not a time to be hitch-hiking alone. You come to a halt and open the passenger door. But the figure – a girl, slight, her face shadowed by the hood of her coat – slips into the back of the car. She whispers the name of the next village along the road before shrinking into silence. You drive on.
* * * * * * * * * *
For Marc Augé, the autoroute is a non-place. It ‘avoids, for functional reasons, all the principal places to which it takes us’ (Auge, p.79). The only connectors are the road-signs alerting the driver to nearby sites of interest. The symbols and ideograms signify vineyards, hill-top villages, lakes and canyons – yet our only pleasure is the mere knowledge of their proximity rather than the experience itself. As Malcolm Andrews observes, they are a ‘constant reminder of what we might be missing by choosing to travel in this way’ (Andrews, p.63). On the motorway, we are there but never there. The road is always skirting, avoiding, bypassing. A liminal track forever on the margins.
And there are margins to the margins. The hard-shoulder, the lay-by, the aire. Yet are these liminal spaces entirely what they seem? In a quest to recreate both Robinson Crusoe and JG Ballard’s Concrete Island, Les Roberts marooned himself on a motorway traffic island on the M53 – a ‘liminal space of oblivion par excellence’ in which ‘memory afforded ‘little in the way of traction’ (Roberts, p.572). By exploring the ‘rhythms and cadences’ of this shielded patch of scrub and woodland, he sought the ‘negation of the negation of place’ (p.570) and to reinvent the liminal as ‘a launch pad of the imagination’ (Roberts, p.596).
This revelatory reading of the motorway is echoed by Tim Edensor who, countering Augé’s ‘dystopian assumptions’, finds it ‘rich in mundane comfort and sensation, replete with small pleasures and diverting incidents and thoughts’ (Edensor, p.151). This is an enchanted place of myth and sly magic where the tarmac peels to release ‘memories of other journeys, those of the past and those still to be completed’ (Edensor, p.164). For the landmarks we pass are invested with our own symbolic resonances that shimmer with memory and association. I recall the excitement when, as a child from the East Anglian flatlands, we passed the first cooling towers on the long journey north to Scotland – for this was a sign of difference, an index of alterity. Transport café, Little Chef (where the pancake, vanilla ice cream and maple syrup were richer in association than any Proustian madeleine) and the roadside gibbet at Caxton. These were sanctuaries of the imagination imbuing the unknown with familiarity. And with each journey, the memories accrete as the ‘elsewheres, pasts and futures’ enfold and elide (Edensor, p.153).
The negation of the negation even embraces the service areas. Simon Armitage’s poem Gymnasium concludes a list of the emblems of loneliness – the life guard ‘two years without a shout’, ‘Christmas for one’, ‘shower blocks and spent soap’ – with ‘The drive. The motorway service station/as a destination in its own right’.
But even this bland sign of sterile mundanity reveals a past of nuance and faded enchantment. When first built, they were ‘glamorous, semi-touristic’ places’ (Moran, p.108) with bridge restaurants where diners, treated to silver service, liveried waiters and seven course meals, could watch the passing traffic. Such was their exotic allure, eager visitors could buy postcards to enthral envious friends. These, and similar postcards from the 1960s and 1970s depicting shopping precincts, caravan parks and holiday camps, are collected in Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards. With their ‘overprocessed colour, clumsy tinting and cheap lithography’ (Moran, p.124), they appear eerie, unnatural. Our disorientation is enhanced by a tendency to picture these spaces without cars or people ‘so that they seem almost like ancient ruins, opened up to questions of memory and history’ (Moran, p.125). This cadence of dissolution is echoed by Martin Chell who senses the ‘bittersweet nostalgia of a future ruin’ in the now abandoned Forton Tower. As it presides ‘like a doomed sentinel over a sclerotic M6’ (Chell, p.13), we hauntologically glimpse a future that never was.
And, like all liminal spaces, this is a place of ludic transgression. The early service stations suffered from theft and vandalism with motorists stealing cutlery, lavatory seats, toilet-roll holders, mirrors and coat-hooks (Moran, p.109). Meanwhile night at the service station exposes ‘another world…beneath the sheen’ (Lawrence, p.85). And this world is one where ‘disorder beckons’: a site of crime, sex and violence.
Our expectations are subverted in other ways too. For Augé, it is ‘anthropological space’ – the antithesis to the non-place – where ‘a story can be made out’ (Merriman, p.148). But the liminal has other ideas. When commemorating the 600th anniversary of the death of Geoffrey Chaucer, BBC Radio decided that an M1 service area would serve as the ideal meeting place for the travellers to recite their tales. These are ‘in between places, unconnected in many ways to their surroundings’ (Quoted in Merriman, p.160) and the in-between is always a storied space. It was in service stations that motor-cycle groups congregated to ‘share stories’ and bands, criss-crossing the country in battered Transits met to ‘exchange news and knowledge’ (Lawrence, p.86). Intriguingly, Liminal Residency – ‘an alternative writers’ retreat which takes place in a range of neglected and unusual spaces’ – held its first event at Peterborough Services Area. For ‘there is every chance that you have been here without ever even knowing it’.
But roads, motorways and service stations are not just sites for storytelling but the very subject itself. Listen carefully and you will hear these stories told by ‘commercial travellers and sales personnel, lorry drivers, maintenance staff, traffic police, motorway service workers, and coach drivers’: motoring experiences exchanged as ‘gossip and tale-telling’ (Edensor, p.164). And one mythic thread that runs through this folklore of the road is that of the hitch-hiker. The ‘unpredictable…potentially dangerous…often uncanny other…who haunts the verges and slip roads’ (Edensor, p.164).
So let us end at the beginning.
* * * * * * * * * * *
You drive for several miles, glancing at your silent companion huddled in the back. The car is cold and you turn up the heating but it seems to have little effect.
As you drive into the village, you ask whether the destination is nearby. There is no response, so you repeat the question. Again, there is silence so you glance in the mirror and see…nothing.
Of course, the narrative – familiar yet ever mutable in its telling – demands you stop the car and search with desperation, puzzlement, disbelief. The story ends, as it always has, with you alone on star-starved lane, as the wind scatters the leaves in the nearby churchyard.
And the diamonds on my windshield
And these tears from heaven
Well I’m pulling into town on the interstate
I got me a steel train in the rain
And the wind bites my cheek through the wing
Late nights and freeway flying
Always makes me sing
It always makes me sing.
Tom Waits, ‘Diamonds on My Windshield’
Andrews, M. (2012) ‘The autoroute and the picturesque’, Corkish, A. (ed.) In the company of ghosts: the poetics of the motorway. erbacce-press.
Armitage, S. (2010) ‘Gymnasium’, in The motorway service station as a destination in its own right. Smith/Doorstep Books.
Augé, M. (2008), Non-places: an introduction to supermodernity. Verso
Chell, E. (2012) ‘Foreward’, in Corkish, A. (ed.) In the company of ghosts: the poetics of the motorway. erbacce-press.
Edensor, T. (2003) ‘Defamiliarizing the mundane roadscape’, Space and Culture, 6(2), pp.
Lawrence, D. (2012) ‘When A to B is not the point…’, in Corkish, A. (ed.) In the company of ghosts: the poetics of the motorway. erbacce-press.
Moran, J. (2005), Reading the everyday. Routledge
Merriman, P. (2004) ‘Driving places’, Theory, Culture & Society, 21(4–5), pp. 145–167.
Parr, M. (1999), Boring postcards. Phaidon.
Roberts, L. (2015) ‘The rhythm of non-places: marooning the embodied self in depthless space’, Humanities, 4(4), pp.569-599.
The Liminal Residency. (2018) ‘Peterborough Services Area’, 23 February 2018. Available at: https://www.liminalresidency.co.uk/portfolio/peterborough-service-area/.