At dusk on the day I reached the end of the M62, two boys, Kieran (7) and Guy (6) attempted a short-cut home by riding their toy scooters across the M56 motorway in Preston Brook, Runcorn. In the growing dark they were unsighted until close up. The drivers of three vehicles hastening home at the end of the rush hour could not avoid hitting them. The boys died instantly. As for the adults involved - drivers, parents, neighbours who spoke to the boys minutes before - something terrible has been awoken in them by this awful incident. In their troubled TV interviews, you can see it in their eyes.
All along this journey I seem to have been sensing ghosts. The villages of Holderness lost to the brutal North Sea. The dead roads sundered by the building of the motorway and its service routes. Noises - under the M62 Ouse Bridge (cracking, clanking, like chain-bound bogeys); in lanes of trees between IKEA and the M62, Birstall and on cobblestoned Philips Park Road by the motorway near Whitefield (hissing, slashing, whispering spectres). The village of Outlane viciously severed, its nerve ends exposed to the M62 which fires ferociously through what used to be the high street.
The Rocket invokes the ghost of William Huskisson MP who was killed by a train at the Rainhill Trials and who, as Rebecca Solnit points out, was not mourned by the crowd then or by anyone since, our heads having been turned by the speed of the motorised vehicle. And all along my route, on motorway bridges and beside every other form of carriageway I have seen floral tributes tied to trees and lampposts, memorialising those who died just there at their or someone else’s wheel, and whose spirits hover in horror and condemnation.
Most of the ghosts I have seen have hands and faces. I have seen them whilst standing on motorway bridges overlooking hundreds of vehicles rocketing beneath, the deranging violence of their motion rocking the bridge stanchions, exposing my sense of vulnerability. I have seen the fixed look on their faces, the greyness of their eyes and the whiteness of their wheel-grasping hands and I have over and again heard a voice from Eliot come to me, describing this eidolonic scene: I had not thought death had undone so many.
Their death (my death, for I drive these roads too) is in a deep disconnection betweeen themselves and their environment, themselves and those around them, themselves and their context... themselves and their own bodies. Continuing her contemplation on Huskisson, Solnit writes,
In a way, the train mangled not just that one man’s body, but all bodies in the places it transformed, by severing human perception, expectation, and action from the organic world in which our bodies exist. Alienation from nature is usually depicted as estrangement from natural spaces. But the sensing, breathing, living, moving body can be a primary experience of nature too: new technologies and spaces can bring about alienation from both body and space.I am certain that those who have unwittingly killed pedestrians in road accidents have hardly been aware of the destructive power at their steering wheel hands, until it has been fatally revealed to them. I am certain that children are often the victims of such incidents because they have not yet had their senses dulled - not yet been estranged from the natural spaces through which they move at natural speeds. I am certain that many of those who behave aggressivbely towards other road users whilst behind the wheel, feel ashamed of themselves even whilst in the act. I am certain that those who only ever walk from house to car to workplace to car to leisure place to car, know that they are killing something in themselves, but feel impotent to resist their slow death.
The more I have been pummelled in the tumult of motorway ghosts speeding past me on my slow journey, the more I have become convinced of the deadliness of the disconnections our society has accepted. A people who can no longer move at walking pace, a people who must wall out children or run them down, a people radically disconnected from each other (whilst sharing the same spaces), a people radically disconnected even from our own bodies... I think we either have already died or are in an irreversably critical condition.
If you walk the upland paths of England you may occasionally fantasise that you can see the shape of Roman Legions moving towards you on the straight green avenues beyond. In its day this would have been a frightening vision: one to send you scurrying to safety, deeply fearful of the deathly power in those booted feet. One day - and it won’t be in my day but perhaps in a day which the classmates of Kieran and Guy will see - the motorways will become dead roads, mossed over, and people will fantasise about the roaring violent convoys which once used them.
After the oil runs out, or some inevitable catastrophe hits our dying civilisation, future people will look back on us that way. We will be ghosts to them. But now I am troubled by this question: what is to become of those of us who can see these ghosts today, and who know we are among them?