commuting on the M1

Before I left my full-time job in 2006, I used to drive to work the seventy miles from Leamington Spa to Luton, usually two or three times a week, but sometimes more often.  Over twelve years I gradually developed a kind of love-hate intimacy with the motorway, as this short piece written at the time shows.


I always thought that the motorway was a location where drivers competed – a masculine, gladiatorial space.  Instead, it turns out that the Motorway is organic.  It has a collective being, and moods.  It has frames of mind.  It also has parasites – little darting creatures that bite and snip – that slash at the fabric by which the organism functions, and within which we (occupants? inhabitants? participants? organs?) are sustained.

When I first realised that it was more than a location, I thought it was a community.  We motorists met there and, regardless of our individuality, played out fixed roles, just as any group will.  I expect that other people are like me, and vary their roles depending on which are already occupied.  I can supply ‘censorious law-abider’, but also ‘lairy speed-freak’; I can display ‘courteous patience’; ‘highly skilled accuracy’ and ‘terrified indecision’.  Equally, I can adopt an angry position on the moral high-ground, (subset: vindictive tailgating to give the loony driver a fright).  All this acting-out of course uses the Motorway as a stage set, ignoring the being of the creature we inhabit and constitute.  It takes much more time to discover that. 

I have had a lot of opportunities to observe the M1 – several hours a week for over ten years now – so I suppose I know my particular stretch of it historically (As with any extended family, there are parts of it I have come to know better than others – not always the nicest parts, but that isn’t the point.)  Recently I realised that it is just one creature.  Not exactly a monster but just a being that couldn’t reveal itself to me until I had already come to feel some regard for it.  With most roads, one is there purely in the moment.  But the M1 and I have a past together as well as a present.  And now it has a mythic presence in my mind, because in writing about it, trying to capture the nature of our relationship, and why it has a capacity to help me feel joyful, or calm, or analytic – it has come to have imaginative being as well as the facile immediacy of most roads.  That’s in addition to knowing it seasonally.  I know it at many times of day, and – that English peculiarity – at the same time by the clock, which is itself many different times of day.  I know it from the North and from the South, and around quite a number of its exits.  Slip roads onto and off the motorway are familiar – and all different – even discounting the regular rashes of cones or contra-flow systems that scar and heal, scar and heal.  All gaits can be found in that flow: free-form dance, do-si-do, waltz with an unknown partner.

It contains fine examples of wordless communication – performed by speeds, variations, distance in front or behind.  Courtesies are plentiful; rudenesses are fewer but feel more intense.  Surprisingly few solipsists, though.  One truck driver today – illegitimately in the outside lane – ignored all the frustration building behind him.  Noticeably unusual behaviour.  Pushing the definitions desperately (doggedly) hard he tried to be the fast vehicle that lane required.  A flash of anger – sound the horn at the slug – delicious escape, running down the wind in front of him with all sails set, at ninety miles per hour.

How comfortable and kind, the M1.


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One Response to “commuting on the M1”

  1. valkyrie1 Says:

    This is inspiring. I will have to pay a different kind of attention to Adelaide Avenue in future! 🙂

    >Courtesies are plentiful; rudenesses are fewer but feel more intense.

    Apparently we’re set up to feel (and remember) negative experiences more vividly – a tendency worth fighting, I’ve finally decided, despite the next bit:

    >Surprisingly few solipsists, though.

    Nothing but, here. If I’d ever seen a courtesy on Canberra roads, I’m sure I’d remember it!

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