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On Roads: A Hidden History Hardcover – 11 Jun 2009

4.3 out of 5 stars 35 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books; 1st Edition edition (11 Jun. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1846680522
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846680526
  • Product Dimensions: 14.4 x 3.2 x 22.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 289,854 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


A delightful look at the cultural history of our roads...Moran's reflections on traffic jams are also illuminating: after reading them the prospect of congestion is really quite alluring. (Editor's Pick The Bookseller)

Entertaining stuff, a blend of history, cultural and social observation and travel writing which motors along nicely. Quirky, funny and a great gift buy for Father's Day. (Booksellers Choice The Bookseller)

A warm-hearted, ingenious, endlessly fascinating exploration of our complicated relationship with the road. Joe Moran is single-handedly transforming the history of everyday life in modern Britain. (David Kynaston 2009-03-31)

Wonderful. Joe Moran is the master of turning the mundane realities of everyday life into the stuff of history, and in this book he has surpassed himself. From speed limits to Travelodges, nothing escapes his forensic examination, and almost no page is without some surprising insight. Whoever could have known that roads were so fascinating?' (Dominic Sandbrook)

Joe Moran is one of the most interesting and original observers of the minutiae of British life to emerge in a long while. (Matthew Engel)

Truly wonderful...every minute devoted to this book is richly rewarded. It is hard to say which is the more remarkable here: the astonishing range and variety of what Joe Moran knows, or the easeful, evocative, luxuriously entertaining way he parcels it up and puts it across. (David McKie, author of Great British Bus Journeys)

Joe Moran has a genius for turning the prosaic poetic - this is a tone poem in tarmac. Motorway journeys will never be so dull again. A treat. (Peter Hennessy, author of Having It So Good)

A fascinating, thought-provoking and entertaining exposition of how we all get from A to B. Part history, part anthropology, Joe Moran gives meaning to the everyday in this compelling exploration of how Britain's roads function - and what they have come to mean. Somewhat akin to a modern day JB Priestley, he has gone in search of modern Britain by travelling its motorways, stopping at its service stations - and checking out its road rage. A wonderful book. Moran has fast become Britain's foremost explorer and explainer of the disregarded. (Juliet Gardiner, author of Wartime: Britain 1939-1945)

a really fascinating insight into everything from motorways to byways by one of Britain' s best cultural studies academics. This is a really necessary book - one wonders why it hasn't been done before - that combines travel writing, history and anthropology to delve into roads as a social phenomena. (Giles Foden Condé Nast Traveller 2009-06-01)

Engaging... wide-ranging but succinct...he delves knowledgably into the history of the British road system...very instructive it is too. (Robert Low Standpoint 2009-06-01)

Strangely fascinating...Joe Moran has delved into the brute asphalt of the post-war British highway and found a curious poetry there. Moran's special interest is in the mundane parts of our lives that we often take for granted... On Roads, a beautifully-written, quiet masterpiece, looks at our experience of roads from the motorway age onwards...

The book was inspired by a song by the band Black Box Recorder, declaring that "the English motorway system is beautiful and strange". Moran gives a wonderful sense of both the beautiful and strange...

[H]e has a knack for weaving together fascinating nuggets with a rare lightness of touch...

Moran's genius is to show us what was right in front of us all along.

(Bee Wilson Sunday Times 2009-06-07)

Joe Moran, a young academic with a healthy ego (he writes an interesting blog), an enviable ease with words and a dry sense of humour... The section on road signs is fascinating... (Linda Christmas Daily Telegraph 2009-06-13)

His terrific book is an imaginative history, then: a study of roads "as cultural artefacts as much as concrete ones", which psychoanalyses post-war Britain through its road-network. Along the way he takes numerous turn-offs and diversions into subjects that really shouldn't be interesting, but which he makes fascinating: the development of the road atlas, for instance, or the history of the roadside verge...

He is beautiful on flyovers as concrete sculptures, on ringroads as the condensation of motopian dreams; and his account of asphalt's near-miraculous deflective pliability is - forgive me for this - pitch-perfect.

One of the many pleasures of this book is Moran's tone. Subtle parody and self-parody roll through the pages, preventing his obvious affection for roads from ever congealing into sentimentalism. His prose is tinged with a Morrisseyish melancholy for the glamour of seediness. He writes with knowingly glum bravado of Travelodges, petrol stations and road-kill.

At the other end of his tonal range is a version of JG Ballard's techno-sublime, which sees roads as both inciting and earthing the psychopathologies of a culture. But most often he sounds to me like the Elvis Costello of "London's Brilliant Parade": a singer of lugubrious songlines, geekily affectionate towards his chosen terrain, but suspicious of any easy declarations of love.

Part extended essay, part prose-poem, On Roads is doubly successful. It offers a textualisation of the road-system as a unique archive of cultural history; and it offers a re-enchantment of the road, peddling a neoromanticism of the tarmac, according to which the Red House Interchange, the Redditch Cloverleaf and the Almondsbury Four-Level Stack are as resonant a series of place-names as the Ridgeway, Stonehenge and Silbury Hill.

What Moran manages above all, in this entertainingly contrarian book, is to reclaim the road as a country of its own: a terrain vague, as worthy of exploration and study as a moorland or wood-pasture. "The land surrounding rural motorways is ... vast and unknown", he notes in a typically fine early riff. "If you are ever on the run from the law, I would strongly recommend that you hide in the wooded motorway verges of our oldest motorways, like the M1 or M6. There is just enough room for a tent in the half-century of undergrowth, and you could surely live like Stig of the Dump, undisturbed for months or years, in this uninhabited wilderness just a cone's throw from the road."

(Robert Macfarlane The Guardian 2009-06-13)

[E]ngaging... His book is more a road rhapsody than a road requiem... On Roads, a richly enjoyable read, offers the sort of accessible cultural history once championed by New Society magazine. It has an eye for the everyday, the easily overlooked and the downright unlikely - service stations, road humps, speed limits, hitch-hiking, dawdling caravans, lorries...impeccably researched. (Stephen McClarence The Times 2009-06-13)

Sparkling ... Moran steers effortlessly away from jargon, and his tone maintains a delicious balance between sardonic amazement at the strange people we are and joy in the surprises and absurdities he bumps into along his way...The theme is a love affair and its end, a tale sad and uplifting. (Tom Fort Sunday Telegraph 2009-06-21)

There's considerable beauty in this book. Moran has a poet's eye for detail and expression and an astonishing range of cultural reference... It is rich with anecdote...In this lucid, entertaining book, Moran illuminates dark corners of experience, opens our eyes to fresh narratives and, yes, even brings the romance of the road to life. (Martin Fletcher The Independent 2009-06-26)

[A] pleasant book... Read it before a long journey, and you may regard the boring old motorway with a new appreciation. (Not attributed The Economist 2009-06-20)

[P]acked with fascinating detail. One reads on in the way one pushes on just one more service station or one more Travelodge on a long journey, partly because the journey is too hypnotic to interrupt... On Roads restores some of the modernist excitement off fast travel and the existential dread of gridlock. (Brian Morton The Glasgow Herald 2009-06-13)

I enjoyed On Roads immensely... pro-road propaganda so balanced and erudite that it might tempt some of us into getting off the bus and on to the M25, or at least on to some of the lesser-known roads Moran writes about so elegantly... (Owen Hattersley New Statesman 2009-06-15)

[A] book that is fresh and original... Moran is terrific on all the quirky nonsense...

He accurately chronicles the way attitudes flipped quickly from the 1960s, when new motorways were seen as cool and modern - and, indeed, beguilingly American - to the environmentally-minded 1970s.

(Matthew Engel Financial Times 2009-06-27)

I've been reading, with equal parts pleasure and profit, Joe Moran's On Roads. It's expansive, unexpected cultural history and in some ways an ideal companion volume to Traffic ... it's loaded with strange and delightful details ... I've got many pages folded over... (Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic)

[A] clever and engaging history... fascinating...takes a slippery subject...and succeeds brilliantly in making it meaningful. (Nick Rennison Waterstone's Books Quarterly 2009-06-01)

[A]n imaginative and original attempt to make roads interesting. (Laurie Taylor BBC Radio 4 Thinking Allowed 2009-07-22)

Every page contains something enthralling or bizarre or funny or perceptive ... Moran has the poet's ability to finds the remarkable in the commonplace ... This is a beautiful little book: an argument, if ever there was one, for staying home this summer, finding the nearest traffic jam and enjoying it. (Craig Brown Mail on Sunday, Book of the Week)

Blending history, anthropology and social observation with understated wit, this is a surprisingly compelling portrait of things most of us ignore... Moran changes the way you'll look at lay-bys, flyovers, road signs - even concrete - forever. (Clover Stroud Sunday Telegraph 2009-07-26)

It isn't easy to write a love poem to highways, and Moran deserves our thanks for making such a valiant effort. This is a part-bonkers, part-brilliant book, as many of the best books are. (Jonathan Wright The Tablet 2009-09-19)

A very perceptive look at our relationship with motorways (Sir Christopher Frayling Daily Telegraph 2009-10-19)

The optimism and sense of wonder of the era is evoked brilliantly by the academic and cultural historian Joe Moran... Moran's account is an elegant piece of scholarship, lightened by some engrossing facts... (Alasdair Reid Sunday Herald 2009-10-04)

Books of the Year 2009: Delightful...A beautifully written, funny and original book to place alongside the psychogeographies of Iain Sinclair. (Harry Eyres FT 2009-11-28)

Books of the Year 2009: One of the most surprisingly enjoyable and informative books of the year, a highly original work that playfully alights, in its efforts to reinvest the motorway with meaning, on all sorts of unheralded phenomena, from road kill to the growth of the service station (Andrew Holgate The Sunday Times)

Books of the Year: [A] fascinating read... full of memorable passages (Roddy Woomble [singer from Idlewild] Sunday Herald 2009-11-29)


`Wonderful. Whoever could have known that roads were so fascinating?'

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a wonderful, engrossing book which needed to be written and deserves to be read. Funny, engaging, incredibly well-researched and impressively broad in its scope, On Roads tells the fascinating - and it is, truly - postwar history of British roads and the British motorist and is peppered with the sort of extraordinary facts and trivia I can't resist. Bob Geldof working on a roadgang on the M25, a quarter of a million fish being rescued before they started building Spaghetti Junction, and why migrating birds love the A34. Fantastic.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a great read, an almost obsessional homage to Britain's road network. However, I did finish it with a small sense of disappointment. Despite his authoratative writings on roads, Moran seems to have got sucked into "bigger is better". As the book goes on, it becomes more about motorways and motorists. I was disappointed that he missed out entirely on the back roads and byways of the country, despite what the front cover design would have you believe. There's lots of historical routes out there that he only tangentially refers to, the kind of routes better known to cyclists and walkers that are still part of the modern social fabric of the country. Perhaps this is an opportunity for a second volume?
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As someone living on Teesside a big irony is that the one single thing that put us well and truly on the world map - the opening of the world's first proper passenger railway from Darlington to Stockton - has been honored by Stockton Council in such a positively perverse fashion. Where others would have built a replica station or set up a new railway museum, the civic elders of Stockton decided to name a new piece of very boring urban dual tarmac running along the alignment of that old railway `1825 Way'.

This sums up the contradiction in British culture when it comes to transport. We all love our railways, but not to the extent of using them all that often. You can see this in any good public library where there will be racks full of erudite volumes about past and present railways, but (apart from highway atlases) nothing on the roads we use every day.

This oddity has now been redressed. Joe Moran's book `On Roads' celebrating what Moran calls "the most commonly viewed and least contemplated landscape in Britain" is now out

The job he sets in this book is a new one. It is to make us look afresh at modern life on our roads, and to appreciate their hidden history and their oddities.

I need to say immediately that Moran steers clear of both highway pre-history and our residential and town centre roads, which he sees as owing more to the surrounding urban surroundings, instead preferring to concentrate on the development of our main inter-urban roads over the last century or so.

He also digs deeper than just looking at the development of the tarmac forming a waffle iron pattern across our land.
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Format: Hardcover
What a delightful book! If at first at first sight you are tempted to think that it just serves to feed the inner nerd you are mightily mistaken. Take the trivial example of road-numbering. Even a brief discussion may tempt some into a detailed perusal of the nearest wall, but that would entail missing out on the crucial revelation that we can blame our road numbers on none other than Napoleon. If that is not interesting then I don't know what is! This instance illustrates one of the aspects which I feel have been missed by other reviewers - the extraordinary range of reference which Moran brings to his subject. While there is no bibliography, just look at the works mentioned in the notes. Virtually all of these are apposite and not there for the purpose of showing off and show that the book is effectively a social and cultural history of roads.

A second feature of the book which seems to have gone unnoticed is the felicity and wit of the author's style which make it a surprisingly entertaining read. He occasionally soars to the lyrical level which driving certain stretches of road can elevate one. He is also capable of coining some very exact phrases.

Having driven along so many roads I thought I knew a great deal about them. Now I know a great deal more. I won't bore anyone with examples - entertain yourselves!
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Format: Hardcover
The reviews I read elsewhere for this book were right-it is a well-researched, topical and absorbing record of all things road-related, with some fantastic observations on our habits on the road, both good and bad. The attention to detail belies the author's age...I think I managed to work it out from an early passage in the book! A must for anyone that travels on the road a lot (that'd be a "motorist" then?!) and especially the motorway network; those boring stretches of landscaped tarmac and concrete will never seem quite as dull again-who'd have thought that motorway services have a social history all of their own?! Amazon take Pole Position for offering the hard-back edition of this book on one of its promotions; I only wish I'd ordered the soft-back as well-that way I could have kept it in the glovebox of the car to read next time I'm in those roadworks on the M1!
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