The volcano in Iceland threatened to stop a long-planned trip to the Western Front. If the trip was to be saved, there was only one thing for it: to drive to France and Belgium. So we did, a long drive on Sunday from Dublin to Calais and then two and a half days touring the battlefields. None of it would have been possible without the huge motorway network that has become the arteries for the trade that is the lifeblood of Europe.
Growing up in the country, I found it hard to imagine that anyone could find any beauty in anything urban. With the possible exception of medieval buildings, I regarded anything of human making as necessarily inferior to nature. (It was only later in life that I reflected on the fact that the rural farming landscapes to which I was so attached were as much made by human hands as the concrete structures I so hated). I remember being confused by Stephen Spender’s poem, ‘The Pylons’. Was Spender suggesting that such hideous constructions had some redeeming qualities?
In recent years, I have developed a fondness for motorways. More particularly, motorways on late summer evenings when the traffic is light and the skies are deep hues and when the first lights are being turned on. The lights, the whites and the reds, shine out of a deep and looming background. There is a reassurance about the passing cars, like the night light shining in your bedroom when you were a child.
Perhaps after this week, I shall have a keener appreciation of what the motorway network means: how it makes possible road journeys that would not have been contemplated even twenty years ago; how much of the economic well-being of the nation depends upon the innumerable trucks that criss cross countries and sometimes the whole continent; how the massive jams and tailbacks, the most undesirable of experiences, demonstrate a vibrancy in the economy, whereby cars become the everyday norm,
Driving motorways in Ireland, Britain, France and Belgium, there were moments when the question came to mind as to where all the traffic could possibly be going. Wherever its destination, its presence on the road represented an economic and a political freedom not found in many countries of the world.
The motorway may be much despised; but without it, the European world would be a very different place. Perhaps motorways will never be beautiful, but they have an attraction of an old and familiar friend whose absence would leave life considerably poorer,