The car, a green Seat hatchback, is travelling on a motorway dead with traffic. I’m in the rear-left seat, aged nine. My mother is driving and my five-year-old brother is in the passenger seat in front. The seat beside me is empty. A bag lies at my feet. This is the M6 southbound, the longest motorway in Britain. Finished in 1958, the M6 was an extension of the first motorway in England, the Preston Bypass, a drab stretch of road running east of its namesake, connecting with the M61. Traversing a distance of some two-hundred-and-thirty miles, the M6 is a crucial stretch of what’s often referred to as the Backbone of Britain. It is rigid, scoliotic, bent with labour. I’ve made this trip before. From the side-window, I recognise the boughs of certain trees, as anyone might recognise details in an image presented to them countless times over (an ordinary image, a forgettable one), as in some moving Rorschach-test, seeking any familiar element.
Seven-hundred-and-fifty-thousand tonnes of rock were shifted with explosives in creating the Lune Gorge Pass, at the connection of the M6 and the M61, amid the Cumbrian hills. We pass men in high-vis coats. The stereo has cycled through the same song multiple times, and on this track, the CD skips, making that ominous and irreparable clashing sound. The pass has been described as beautiful, the recipient of a civic award. But two-hundred workers protested the expansion of the roadway, demanding a pay-rise of fifty-five shillings-an-hour. The then-Minister of Transport Industries, one Mister Peyton, apologised in the inauguration speech at Burton West services, telling the crowd he had forgotten to bring the money. The CD is skipping again.
Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn,
Fahrbahn ist ein graues Band,
Weiße Streifen, grüner Rand.
Were Kraftwerk seeing only the markings on the road in front of them when they wrote of the white stripes, the—Weiße Streifen—of the green edge, the—grüner Rand—and the road itself a band of grey? The CD repeats the chorus over and over, Autobahn again and again. Vocoded voices pass and amplify. The bass synthesises the song’s strange colours. In a simple way, the German electro-pop innovators came closer in 1974 to the ideal of the motorway than almost any other artist, musical or otherwise, to understanding the nature of this most contemporary form of daily navigation. The motorway, stripped back to itself, without its cars and its lorries and its shipments and its commuters and its families, is a pure abstraction. Colour and motion. Point and direction. A linear space.
Jetzt schalten wir das Radio an,
aus dem Lautsprecher klingt es dan.
The lines change and repeat. There is a possibility I could fix the scratched disk, go into this text and remove the CD from the stereo of my mother’s part-exchanged hatchback, but it’s already too late. By the first rule of motorway traffic, which needs no highway-code to figure out, no one can redirect their vehicle, no one can turn around. The only possibility is to continue forwards. Junctions and hard-shoulders roll by, impossible to reroute or pause. Its logic is admirable. And such poetic naming has rarely been used by road-officials as—hard-shoulder—that place where children get out to piss, where wreckages, where breakdowns, are shrugged off.
I became interested in the overlap between the trajectory of the motorway and its logic of incessant progress. All roads must lead, and all lines must have an origin. I sought out the first. In 1906, the Vanderbilt Cup took place in New York state. That year, two spectators were killed under the wheels of Elliott Shepard on Krugg’s Corner, Mineola. But drivers often manoeuvred at high speed, the evasions of the crowd part of the thrill. William Kissam Vanderbilt II, great-grandson of railroad and shipping magnate, Cornelius Vanderbilt, was something of an automobile enthusiast. He had ridden steam-powered tricycles over miles of road from Beaulieu-sur-Mer to Monte Carlo at the age of ten. He raced yachts from his country place at Lake Success. His cup, despite problems with crowd control, then drew over two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand spectators. It must have been a great sadness for him to cancel it following the deaths in 1906, at Krugg’s Corner. But this would not deter him.
The Long Island Motor Parkway is a stretch of road around forty-five miles long, initially planned to last another twenty-five, but cut short after Vanderbilt had shelled out some $6,000,000 on the project, partly financed by vested homeowners of the Gold Coast, beginning in Queens and terminating near Lake Ronkonkoma, with banked turns, steel guardrails, a roadbed of reinforced concrete, all of the trappings of what was the first high-speed motorway ever constructed, built especially to hold the race, privately-owned and as such with no speed-limit, to be put to use by drivers who would tear along it hemmed in by dismal elms, killing, in 1910, two spectators and two mechanics, injuring twenty others, in a crowd of three-hundred-thousand or more in attendance of the cup.
If newspaper accounts are to be credited, the race was a gladiatorial sport, the audience not exempt from the threat. One of the spectators was mangled when a driver known as Fleming ran him down, mutilating his body, severing both legs. He was sent to the hospital in Nassau. Ribs were broken, faces smashed in, skulls fractured, hips dislocated, bodies crushed, bones shattered, the lucky ones lacerated and bruised. The entire rhetoric of this first motorway is one of violence, of wealth, of triumph. It is a very distorted and specific phantasm of the much-interpreted American Dream. The weaker masses are crushed under the glorious will of the powerful, and the majority thirsts for their blood.
I. Noi vogliamo cantare l’amor del pericolo, l’abitudine all’energia e
When Fillipo Tommaso Marinetti opened his Manifesto del Futurismo of 1909 by singing his love for the danger of temerous modernity, the Long Island Motor Parkway had been in use for one year. There can be little doubt that he and the rest of the Italian Futurists shared an enthusiasm for motorsports, and it’s plausible to assume they knew of the Vanderbilt Cup. Its thrill and its brutality mirror the hyperactivity of the Futurist project. Ten years later, Marinetti, the poster boy of Italian Futurism, would found the Partito Politico Futurista. The party lasted one year. By 1919 it had merged with the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento, headed by one Benito Mussolini. Marinetti, in what seems almost self-parody in retrospect, would co-author the fascist manifesto the same year. In his 1909 Manifesto del Futurismo, he had called to sing the praises of the driver who held the wheel, the perfect shaft of his mechanism traversing the orbit of the Earth.
V. Noi vogliamo inneggiare all’uomo che tiene il volante, la cui asta
ideale attraversa la Terra, lanciata a corsa, essa pure, sul circuito
della sua orbita.
It seems a pale irony that the driver he would be figuratively praising ten years later would be the author of the fascist disaster in Italy, and inseparable from the decline of the Futurists, with their love of violent abstraction, clashing colours and intersecting lines, all fading into the ecstatic mass. If the high-speed automobile race had enchanted the Italian Futurists with its brutal modernity, it had perhaps appealed to the roman-imperial nostalgia of the fascists in its gladiatorial spirit. By 1924, the Autostrada A8 would be completed, and Mussolini’s PNF in power. The autostrada would be the first dual-highway in the world, with a single lane in each direction, running from Milan to Varese, a paltry marathon of some twenty-seven miles. Marinetti, consistently struggling to unite his own artistic ideals with a consistent nationalist dogma, would die in 1944, two years after volunteering for military service at the age of sixty-five. His last body of poems in praise of the war, was left incomplete.
As for the Long Island Motor Parkway, the cracked tarmac of this world’s first motorway, in part, can be traversed about a century after its obsolescence. But Robert Moses, New York master builder of the roaring twenties, declared it a white elephant. Integration into the then-growing highway network was vetoed by Moses, and Vanderbilt’s motorway, once the home of the cup and a lucrative toll route, steadily declined. He divorced in 1927, after a long period of separation from his wife Virginia, daughter of a wealthy stock-baron. Years before, together at the Idle Hour, the couple had experienced the unexpected tragedy of the mansion they were honeymooning in, burning quite completely to the ground. Seventeen years after the divorce, he died of a heart ailment, and was interred in the family vault at the Moravian Cemetery on Staten Island. A fair distance away from what was once his road.
The tragedy of the Futurists was the farce of the fascists, but both are driven by the same fixation with power. Infrastructure as an expression of violence and supremacy seems linked inextricably with oppression and domination of one force over another. There is another way of saying this. Motorways run over the bones of the dead. Here is another road. They dig and they dig. What are they digging for? Берлинка, the Soviet soldiers will call it. Berlinka. They dig and they dig. But construction has gone on for six years already, undertaken by the unemployed, the destitute, the hopeless. From Prussian Königsberg to Elbląg, a strip of tarmac as straight as a Roman road crosses some seventy miles, interrupted by the Polish border. As far as Barwice, construction efforts have taken place, protected by soldiers of the Wehrmacht, in an effort to link the road in Prussia to a curved route passing close to Szczecin, before onto Berlin.
It was not a plan of the new regime, but of the old Weimar Republic, to construct a corridor of travel through the surrounding territories, connecting the states on a vast autobahn, one that would bridge nations, one that could be the envy of Europe. Understandably, the new Generalinspektor, a balding and prosaic individual by the name of Fritz Todt, supported its continuation. Todt, a determined fellow, would see several promotions for his work on the Reichsautobahnen, all the way to Minister of the Military Economy.
But the German invasion of the Free City of Danzig on the Baltic Coast, close to a planned route of the Berlinka autobahn, proved the source of international dispute. War may have been declared, with its blitzkrieg into the expansive Polish nation, but for some, Todt included, the dream of the glorious road was renewed. What a fine motorway it would be. With the fall of Poland by the end of 1939, there came an influx of conscripts, later bolstered by others from the hundreds of thousands of Zwangsarbeiter from conquered territories. Forced labourers, working as prisoners to the completion of the road, or their death. And the road was never to be complete.
Todt himself, in what was recorded as an accident, died in an air crash in East Prussia in 1942, not long after take-off from the Wolfsschanze: the sometimes-mythologised Wolf’s Lair. There is a certain tragedy in his supposedly accidental death that seems at the same time too-naïve and too-perspicacious. A year earlier, he had surveyed the military prospects of the Russian offensive, and had advised that material deficiency justified bringing the operation to a halt. Of course, his advice was dismissed. It is beginning to seem more and more clear, like the lights of an oncoming traffic accident, the inevitability of movement and conquest, the motorway and mass-destruction.
It’s possible to visit the remnants of the Berlinka Autobahn, many of the bridges long-exploded by German units trying to delay the Soviet army, the same army who had once invaded the Polish nation as allies from the opposing front. The S22, a road reconstructed and opened to the public in 2008, runs a distance of highway from Kaliningrad, formerly Königsberg. The Polish S6 Expressway is set to run from Szczecin to Gdańsk, formerly Danzig. The A18 connecting Berlin and Wrocław, long in-use, has seen many calls for renovation over the years, much of it laying over the dense concrete slabs put down as long ago as the thirties, one after the other for miles, stone against stone.
In 1871, a hole opened up in the earth. Stone after stone came up from the mine. Hand after hand saw to it, recruited from the local populace. One year later, some fifty-thousand hands were at work at the Groot Gat, the Big Hole, in Kimberley, South Africa, in searing heat, with meagre provisions. They brought these shiny pieces of stone out of the earth, which were quite pleasing in their way, and exceedingly valuable, too. By 1888, after staggering loss of life, a few Europeans, most of them English, decided to conglomerate their noble efforts as overseers into one company: De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited. Among them was a hopeful student of Oriel College, Oxford, a believer in the supremacy of Empire, whiteness, and Oxford Men. This charming fellow was Cecil Rhodes.
The mine made Rhodes’s fortune. The mine robbed miners of their lives. Rockfalls and collapses, accidents with explosives, scurvy and malnutrition, tuberculosis and pneumonia. The Basotho men, inhabitants of the region since the fifth-century, went on strike. Still, the mining continued. A seemingly anonymous miner’s poem described their thoughts on the matter, their words translated to English.
A woman of witchcraft was already hard at work;
I saw her early going to the graveyard,
She puts on a string skirt fastened with knots,
She takes the arm of the corpse and waves it,
A mouthful of blood, she spits into the air,
She says, ‘Men gone to DeBeers.
They can come home dead from the mines.
Rhodes, however, was a difficult man to satisfy. The simple pit, two-hundred-and-forty metres deep and four-hundred-and-sixty metres wide, that would yield some fourteen-million-five-hundred-thousand carats of diamonds by 1914, was not enough. By 1890, in that unsurprising collision of wealth and power, Rhodes was the seventh Prime Minister of the British Cape Colony, a position he would only lose after a series of treasonous colonial intrigues that would coincide with the Second Boer War. Meanwhile, Rhodes envisioned a big road, the biggest road of roads, in fact. So big it saw him caricatured as the Colossus of Rhodes, or Rhodes the Colossus, standing precariously over Africa, in Punch magazine in 1892. The Great North Road was to stretch from Cape Town to Cairo, spanning the entirety of the East African continent, through Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan and finally, Egypt, cementing the supremacy of imperial power.
But the hold of the European forces would wane, and colony after colony fall away. The great road, with all of Rhodes’s practiced methods of deploying manual labour, was never finished, and the first attempt in 1914 to travel its length, had led to one ambitious Captain being eaten alive by a leopard before he had even left Rhodesia, the territory once stamped with Rhodes’s name. The eponymous tyrant died in 1902, of the heart condition that had kept him company throughout his life. And so the caricatured colossus was buried in what is today known as Zimbabwe. A pleasant memorial was made to Rhodes on the edifice of Oxford’s Oriel College, left unremoved after much protest. And the dreamed-of road, promised to legion on legion of colonial subjects for so long, was patched up in part, in North Kenya in 2008, by a team of Chinese investors. Anti-colonial spirit may have empowered Chinese and East African collaborations to more fruitful ends. European roads in Africa were trade routes. They led not to homes, but to the water.
And every land must have its roads. As an extended single highway, the Jingxin Expressway (北京－乌鲁木齐高速公路) is one of the longest in Chinese territory and in the world, at around thirteen-hundred miles, spanning from Beijing, to Ürümqi. A connection from east to west, from the capital to the outlying Xinjiang province, a region disputed since at least the Battle of Talas in 751, and once traversed by a route of the Silk Road, as early as the first-century CE. The most illustrious highway of all. What faith, artistry, and commerce flowed along the veins of the Silk Road made its name eponymous with the exchange of goods, with the moving zeitgeists of transmitted culture. Islam played a major part in its history, the Abbasid Calliphate defeating the Tang Dynasty in that fateful battle of the 700’s. The great Ibn Battuta, explorer of the fourteenth-century, travelled its routes himself, later writing of his visits to the Chinese Empire.
In Arabic, Battuta speaks of an encounter during his visit, in the house of Zahir al-Din, where he had taken up residence, in which he met with a man of the Sabbatarian faith. This Sabbatarian was called Al-Bushri, a man who, though at first sensing a guilt in his eyes, gave Battuta a sense of his old homeland, distant as he had travelled from it. Battuta asked the man his place of birth. He answered Ceuta. And Battuta, himself hailing from Tangiers, couldn’t help but see a companion in this far-drifted soul, from the same North African coast, though they had found themselves so dislocated from their home, in the lands of China. Renewing peace on him, Battuta himself cried, at Al-Bushri’s outpour of tears.
When Battuta inquired after the Great Wall, believing it to have been built to contain Gog and Magog as it read in the holy Qur’an, no one could tell him of its existence, or of having ever seen it with their own eyes. Would each section be under constant repair, like the highways of modernity? In the Kafkaesque way, would orders sent along the route for construction be rendered obsolete by the time of their arrival, workers returning to the beginning no sooner than they had finished constructing the end, to correct the faults in the places where the veneer of tarmac had once been new? A circular fantasy of a linear tract.
The Jingxin Expressway was unveiled for public use in 2017, three years after the War on Terror was declared. In 2014, a pair of bombing attacks had been carried out in the motorway’s destination city, Ürümqi. Approximately forty-three people had been killed and some one-hundred-and-sixty wounded in the two hits of April and May. And the year of the motorway’s inauguration saw the establishment of many other facilities in the region, as centres for reeducation and forced labour for the Uighur people of Xinjiang, who in resisting occupation had seemingly committed the bombings, where they and other Islamic minorities, were to be sentenced to ideological reprogramming. Camps near Turpan, Ürümqi, Pichan, Qumul, and Toksun were captured via satellite imagery. The East Turkistan National Awakening Movement, disclosed the map of colourful pinpoints online in 2019. Digital coordinates, blurred landscapes, points reduced to markers. White stripes, green edge.
I have friends in China, many miles from Ürümqi, in skyscraping Shenzhen and in millenia-established Beijing. They are my students, a group who want to read the works of Charles Dickens. One of the women, herself the organiser, described them as moms. They have a book-club. Their children went to school together, in a class of forty-five pupils in a year of several-hundred. That was in Beijing. A Tale of Two Cities. That was their choice of novel. An oddly apt choice. Prisoners-without-trial, violent revolutions, secrets of the human soul. Certain characters, certain chapters, certain sentences, have a certain invisible sting.
‘Did you ask me for my name?’
‘Assuredly, I did.’
‘One Hundred and Five, North Tower’
‘Is that all?’
‘One Hundred and Five, North Tower’
With a weary sound that was not a sigh, nor a groan, he bent
to work again, until the silence was again broken.
Now I wonder how much history and the writing of it is a parable of blanket condemnation, how many moms are made complicit in crimes they have no hand in. But how these lives can disappear so easily, like roads in a dust-storm, that when the wind blows, vanish without a trace. We can laugh and share knowledge, but we know we cannot, or rather should not, mention this, any more than I should speak for the atrocities of British colonialism in East-Asia. These pains have no home between us, they drift. Only the organiser speaks of it. One of her work-colleagues had recently visited Xinjiang province, she told me, knowing that in the West, news of the camps was taking hold.
The people in Xinjiang are happy, everybody smiling—she explained to me on one of our separate, one-on-one sessions—my friend went and said that even those minorities, not just us Hanzu, they all seem very happy and smiling—she paused. We had been describing places to visit in China, but had quickly drifted from the topic, and our lesson had come to an end. If Tibet and Xinjiang want their independence, I don’t understand why China doesn’t let them!—she laughed, continuing a little too long—But they seem very happy—she said. We all doubt it—she advanced, her voice tremulous—I think the Western media must have got it wrong.
I also have an American tutor who help me with this book, and we sometimes talk about his home country. When I was in America—she continued—I was in Boston and I like it very much. Did you visit America?—she said (I told her I had)—Yes. My husband studied Harvard so we stayed in Boston. Their transport system is not so good. They call it a subway? But the trains in the subway were very old. I like that it was like being a little bit in the past. That’s when I knew Chinese infrastructure was Number One. And I don’t think American infrastructure is so much Number One. Many Americans got to be very frustrated when they visit China and see that transport and roads are much better here—she continued—I also like Maine very much. The roads there take us quite far.
All motorways have an end, I realise, with a strange feeling of futility, the routes of highways dispersing into belt systems and ring-roads, carrying articulated trucks onto gloomy industrial estates, transporting numberless cars onto cities, onto further roads, traversing the length of Britain, from Penzance to Scrabster. A map is a calming thing, in its way, with all its spacious absences, its tangle of road networks. The lines seem to draw themselves into patterns, pulling nearby locations, events, disturbances, into their orbit by some force of gravity, until they have no meaning on their own. Dislocated to paper, to screens, the roads still have a certain continuous power.
My mother has parked the green Seat hatchback and opened the door. Outside, I can walk in whatever direction I want. I feel a sense of vertigo. Junction 19 of the M6 lies behind us, with its service-station ahead, the glowing sign, the telecoms mast and the copse of trees. Over their tips there is the constant sound, a drone that should be deafening, of numberless wheels rolling over tarmac, as if some destination was left where the motorway could take them, some place not linked by any route. I’m surprised to find my father waiting in the car-park, waiting to take my brother and I for the weekend to his parents in the rainy Black Country of the Midlands. A sense of impermanence grips me. The M6 has two-hundred-and-thirty-two miles, twelve more than the Severn, England’s longest river. Everyone along it is only passing through.
Joshua Calladine-Jones is a writer and literary critic-in-residence at Prague Writers’ Festival. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of journals, including Marble, FILLER, The Stinging Fly, Entropy, 3:AM, Literární, and Snitch. It has also been translated to Czech. He is currently working on a first collection.
Image by EthelRedThePetrolHead, published under CC BY 2.0.