This is a fucking weird book and I’m a fucking weirdo for having read it. No, that’s not fair. I’m a fucking weirdo for having read about it, thought “This is a book I want to read”, found the publisher’s website, seen it was out of stock, found the publishers on social media and directly contacted them, telling them I was desperate for a copy of In the Company of Ghosts and was prepared to do whatever I could to get one. I paid in a shadowy manner through PayPal, just a requested figure (rather than thru the online shop) and I waited, patient, for the book to arrive. I took it with me on a day trip to Sheffield (yes, I went on a day trip to Sheffield) as a treat for myself, because this is the kind of person I am, the kind of person I have become: I am the kind of fucking weirdo who reads a 200 page indie book of poetry, essays and fiction all of which share a theme, a subject, a conceit: Today I have read and enjoyed an entire book about the British motorway network. This, truly, is the most bizarre breakdown I’ve ever had.
In the Company of Ghosts is published by Liverpool-based Erbacce Press, and is edited by Alan Corkish with the co-editors of Edward Chell and Andrew Taylor, both of whom also contribute to the book. There is poetry in here, some short (“Twitter poems”, whether or not they were actually published on the social media site I do not know but they are certainly short enough that they could have been), few longer than a page but one an extract from a larger work that could have been set to music. The book also contains a 20 page short story by Emma Brooker, which is one of the stronger pieces in the collection but stands out somewhat as there is nothing else categorised as straightforward fiction. Most pieces are essays – some in that contemporary, life-writing, essayistic, memoiry style of writing that veers towards fiction in style if not in fact; while some are academic, footnoted, referenced, etc. Contributors include some people who are relatively well known – Iain Sinclair and Will Alsop, for example – as well as less established voices, but all of them are brought together through their shared interest in and focus on the British motorway network, especially the M62, the Liverpool-Hull motorway that reoccurs on these pages most frequently.
Some of the pieces are about memory, some are about the creation of the motorways, about personal experience walking or driving beside/along the roads; there is imagistic and theoretical discussion as to what it is like to drive a motorway, how drivers and passengers relate to the landscape, how pictorial/linguistic representations of place included on road signs affect knowledge of location; how the verges are spoken/thought of in common parlance, how we relate to service stations and to the experience of the roads themselves: what they say about humanity, what they do to the countryside they cut through, how motorways (wherever they are in the world) landscape the environment they are set upon and cut us off, separate us, from the lands we inhabit. There are some great ideas, as well as some great explorations of artworks inspired by motorways. There is also, of course, the creation of literature inspired by motorways, and the collection is a satisfying whole looking at an idea, a sense, a thing, that is rarely explored in a creative way. Probably the central idea of the book is that motorways have been self-consciously constructed to avoid encouraging direct engagement. On the motorway, one is not expected to cogitate on the notion of the motorway. On the motorway one is expected to drive or, as passenger, wait for arrival. In the Company of Ghosts seeks to place us amongst the faceless, characterless indivduals who inhabit the cars that inhabit the motorway. They are as dead to us as we drive; we see cars not people, glimpses of a cogniscent flesh underneath the metal shell. The human is only partly there, and anonymity is one of the thrills of the reckless motorway driving most people secretly enjoy, even if they claim loudly and publicly that they don’t.
There’s a lot to enjoy and a lot to learn about here. To be honest, none of the poetry stood out to me, but I’m not an avid reader of poetry and perhaps I was keen to move on to the essays, a form of which I am a very big fan. One of my favourite pieces here was ‘When A to B is not the point… The Nocturnal Geography of the Motorway Service Station’ by David Lawrence. This, with a focus on transgression – sexual, musical, escape – he looks in detail at the night time environment of the service station, and the role it has historically played. He discusses the development of service stations as a particular type of permissive non-space amongst the many distinct non-spaces of the motorway, and what it is they mean and evoke, especially how they have been appropriated in popular and erotic culture: it’s a great essay. The other one I especially enjoyed was ‘Looking for the Linear City’ by Joe Moran, which is an informative but relatively casual article on the towns and cities surrounding the M62. It read like the kind of thing that appears on CityMetric, my secret favourite website and probably the ultimate cause of me reading this book. (I pitched an article to CityMetric once and they were interested but I didn’t have time to write it and I feel very ashamed about this.)
In The Company of Ghosts does what it promises with its subtitle and explores, satisfactorily, The Poetics of the Motorway. I learnt a lot, I laughed a lot and I reminisced upon many fun motorway adventures. A pity there wasn’t more about the M6, M5 and M42, the main motorways from my Midland childhood, but you can’t have everything. A great read if you’re a literary nerd with an interest in infrastructure, like I am, but maybe not if you’re normal. It’s now seven weeks since I had a drink. I don’t really believe I exist any more.