River of Orchids: the M32 in Bristol

M32 sign.

A version of this piece appeared in The Modernist magazine for spring 2019 which had the theme of ‘Infrastructure’. You can buy a copy here.

Throughout the 20th century, Bristol’s civic leaders bet everything on roads.

First, they ran a dual carriageway through Georgian Queen Square in the 1930s, bending it around an equine statue of William III.

Then in the 1960s, “it was decided to provide for UNLIMITED CAR ACCESS to the City Centre”, as Dorothy Brown explains in her 1975 booklet Bristol and How it Grew. Planning was dominated by road engineers who were allowed to create out-of-scale 6-lane throughways, enormous roundabouts and motorway-standard curves, right in the middle of the city.”

In 1967 they installed a flyover near Temple Meads, simultaneously dominating and pathetic, resembling a rollercoaster as much as a road.

Plans for a grand Outer Ring Road, with a projected completion date of 1975, were abandoned, but parts did appear – stuttering into existence at the Cumberland Basin and Hotwells, and at Lawrence Hill roundabout.

Everywhere pedestrians were shoved into underpasses, herded along streets in the sky, or forced to wait at at anxiety-inducing crossing points.

The M32 was part of this unfettered road-building strategy and one of few parts that was completed, and that remains in place. The first stretch of motorway opened in 1966, then a second in 1970, and the final length in 1975. It is generally spoken of as a scar, an eyesore, or even a ‘dagger into the heart of Bristol’, reflecting the trauma of its birth.

Cars on the M32

To enable its construction, families were forcibly relocated to new estates, houses were demolished, streets cut in two, and communities broken apart. The new borderlands, bristling with brambles and dead ends, attracted graffiti, fly-tipping, muggers and caravan shanties. In 2018, the outrage might have died down, but resentment lingers.

Puschchair by the side of the motorway.

Infrastructure is usually intended to be invisible, or hidden, or at least ignored. Accordingly, pedestrians are held at arm’s length from the M32 for much of its four-and-a-half miles, as it cuts through Bristol, up the Frome Valley, and out into the Gloucestershire countryside.

Frome Valley sign.

It grows out of a dual carriageway in the city centre, like a river taking on tributaries, finally bursting into full being at Junction 3, in a frothing tumble of looping slip-roads and subways.

Land of Hope and Glory.

This is where the fences and walls go up, grey blocks and corrugated metal, protecting walkers from the roaring road, and the road from the strange behaviour of pedestrians. LET BRISTOL BREATHE reads repeated graffiti; LAND OF HOPE & GLORY says a banner on the bow of a concrete bridge, promoting a YouTube channel.

Twisted old trees.

Between St Werburghs and Easton, the motorway is pushed down into a deep cutting, and the path is pulled away from the road’s edge. Through black branches in buffering parkland there can be seen the odd glimpse of grey, the blue shimmer of overhead signs, the roofs of lorries whipping by. But the sound – the waterfall rush of rubber on asphalt – is swallowed.

Then it rises again, shooting above the rooftops, launching traffic into the sky, and pedestrians are allowed back, this time into the void left beneath the road. The space is extraordinary, a world of monumental columns and holy reverberation. People live here, in permanently parked caravans or converted vans, or curled up next to shopping trolleys full of possessions.

Trolley under the motorway.

Thin men in broken trainers conduct urgent, secret business in underpasses. In the deepest shadows, children, teenagers, young adults, and adult adults, send skateboards scraping and clattering, up and down graffiti-covered ramps.

The M32 cafe.

And then a symbol just too on the nose: the River Frome emerges from its man-made tunnel, following the course of the motorway for a few hundred metres, fenced in and covered.

Subway at Eastville

At Eastville roundabout it reaches a crescendo of on-ramps, off-ramps, levels and layers. Pedestrians are directed to hostile above-ground crossings, or channeled into subways where leaves and litter drift. One one side is the landscaped anti-wilderness of Eastville Park. On the other, soot-soiled suburban houses, and Pur Down, with the ever-watchful telecommunications tower like something from a Simon Stålenhag painting.

Caravan and Purdown communications tower.

As Eastville becomes Stapleton, the motorway curves off across Bridge Farm, where trespassers are not welcome. It doesn’t appear again until the bridge at Heath House Lane where parked vans advertise breakdown services and fly-tippers ignore ‘No Fly Tipping’ signs.

The motorway below.

Scrambling up to wind-battered Stoke Park reveals the stroke of the motorway laid out almost in its entirety, headlights like tracer fire connecting the city with its target.

Even if the Queen Square carriageway has gone, even with the Temple Meads flyover demolished, the 20th century at least left its signature here – careless, but with a certain elegance, and distinct vigour.

Playlists are my secret weapon for writing

A Rhodes electric piano.

When I’m working on a novel or script, playing an imaginary soundtrack snaps my head back into the project and gets me ready to write – a kind of hypnotic trigger.

As a teenager, I used to make over-elaborate compilation tapes. Then I got into making complicated iTunes playlists. Since 2011, though, Spotify has been my go-to playlist playground, with what feels like all the world’s music a click or two away and clever algorithms to help me find pieces connected by mood.

The first book I recall making a soundtrack for was a conspiracy thriller police procedural called Long Knives. If you’re curious, here’s the playlist:

Although it’s one hour and forty minutes long, the most important tracks are the first two. The first track, ‘Electroconvulsive Shock’ by Peter Broderick, is a kind of instrumental overture that sets the mood – forlorn, minimal, ever-spiralling.

The second is a song, ‘You are a Knife’ by Danish band VETO, which I imagine playing over the opening credits of a TV adaptation or film version.

The funny thing is, neither of these is the kind of music I usually listen to. They were chosen purely because they seemed to work for the book, as if I was the music editor on that imaginary TV adaptation.

I used to make visual mood-boards and sometimes still do; this is an extension of that.

In this particular case, I think I was also after something that would help me picture the action as if it was a Scandinavian crime drama on BBC4, all washed out colours and frosty cityscapes. The theme tune I choose doesn’t sound unlike the one from The Bridge.

The book that eventually got published, The Grave Digger’s Boy, also has a soundtrack. This is more melancholy, with lots of solo piano and mournful cello, as befits a book about memory and obsession. Here it is if you fancy a listen. The same thing applies – I probably wouldn’t wander around listening to most of this music for fun and couldn’t tell you much about most of the artists.

The single most important track – one that I ended up playing on repeat for hours, sometimes – was ‘Theme’ from the 2009 soundtrack album And in the Endless Pause There Came the Sound of Bees by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

There’s a passage in the book where the protagonist, Ben, is with his mother on a beach. I found it difficult to write and extremely emotional. This music – quite cheesy, now I listen back – seemed to suggest ‘bittersweet’ perfectly and helped me access feelings that I keep buried most of the time.

Sometimes, I berate myself over the time I spend tinkering with these playlists. Why have I just wasted fifteen minutes trying to find just the right piece of music when I could have been increasing my word count? Classic displacement activity, you idiot!

Except the more I think about it, the more I think my brain knows exactly what it’s doing.

First, it’s a way of engaging with and meditating on the project without jumping straight into writing. I’m restless with a short attention span – not great for a would-be novelist – and struggle to spend time thinking when I could be cracking on. An hour spent in Spotify focusing on the mood and tone of the book, with the plot and characters slowly marinating, is progress, even if it doesn’t always seem that way.

Secondly, the playlists are important because they help me envision the finished product and conceive of it being credible and successful. If there’s a TV or film adaptation it must be good, right? And it’s certainly no worse than some of the stuff that does end up on TV. This tactic is vital in overcoming impostor syndrome and the fear of the blank page – of the 80,000 words left to write.

Once I’ve got the soundtrack, it also makes me more productive. I can listen to it while I’m walking and thus force myself to think about plot or character problems. It also means that wherever I am – the canteen at work, a hotel room, a train – I can immediately slip back into a virtual version of my own work space.

There are a couple of bits of music that I use in less specific ways.

The first track from Brian Eno’s Music for Airports has become a sort of magic reset button I can hit when I’m suffering from writer’s block. I don’t know exactly how I trained myself with this habit but it works: I hear the first couple of cycles of the piano loop and the tap comes unstuck. It also seems to magically slow my heartbeat when I’m stressed. Handy, that.

My other half isn’t a fan of Michael Nyman or Philip Glass and I’m not sure I am, necessarily, except when I’m writing, but I do find them useful.

Glass – specifically this slightly weird playlist I made myself – doubles my productivity in short bursts. Repetitive, insistent… A kind of amphetamine for writers.

Nyman, on the other hand, is where I turn if I’m working on characters and need to give my emotions a prod. In particular, his soundtrack for Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland is a go-to, giving ordinary lives a kind of poetic grandeur it’s easy to deny them.

And his song ‘If’, written for a Japanese animated adaptation of Anne Frank’s Diary, is similarly soupy but what can I say – I’m a sap. It makes me well up and sometimes I need to be in that state to write what needs writing.

My latest project, the title of which I’m going to be coy about for now, has a soundtrack and theme tune already. The score is a mix of Shostakovich, Bernard Herrmann and David Shire – dark, moody and just a touch spiky. The theme is this wonderfully wonky piece from Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols:

That should give you a clue about what you can expect from the book when it’s done.

Uh… At work I’m always telling clients they need to include a call to action here. So, here it is: please buy The Grave Digger’s Boy, or rate and review it if you’ve bought it already.

Reading 1959: 13 Days, The Manchurian Candidate, The Vodi

Three books from 1959.

The three most recent books in my #reading1959 project were Thirteen Days by Ian Jefferies,The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon,  and The Vodi by John Braine. They fit together oddly well.

One common theme emerging in many of the books from 1959 I’ve read this year is the legacy of war – PTSD, institutionalisation, lives arrested or derailed, and a sense of the world recovering from a nervous breakdown.

The Manchurian Candidate takes the Korean War as its starting point, telling a wonderfully compelling story of paranoia and brainwashing. The 1962 film is better known than the book and perhaps rightly so: the book was essentially written as a movie pitch and is far less subtle or convincing. In fact, it’s positively baroque.

Sergeant Raymond Shaw is an unlikable man, unpopular with his platoon. He is identified by a Chinese-Soviet brainwashing project as the perfect candidate to be programmed as an assassin, not least because of his privileged upbringing as the stepson of a rapidly rising American politician.

The early chapters, set in Korea and depicting the brainwashing in progress, are the best. Shaw’s cold-blooded murder of his comrades, under hypnosis and in front of an audience of Communist dignitaries, is chilling.

There’s also something grimly fascinating in Shaw’s uneasy friendship with his former commanding officer, Ben Marco, each having been forced to like the other through hypnotism. There’s material enough there for an entire extra novel.

Shaw’s mother is the other standout character – a controlling, social climbing psychopath who nailed a puppy’s feet to the floor as a child and maintains her perky attitude with shots of heroin between embassy balls. She both uses her son for political gain – the Chinese fix it so that he is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, making him a valuable PR tool – and (just when you think it can’t ramp any higher) seduces him while he’s hypnotised.

What makes the book difficult to enjoy in 2019 is exactly that hysterical, over-the-top tone, which carries through into the writing style. It’s part wannabe beat prose, part Mickey Spillane, all pure ham:

There is an immutable phrase at large in the languages of the world that places fabulous ransom on every word in it: The love of a good woman. It means what it says and no matter what the perspective of or stains of the person who speaks it, the phrase defies devaluing. The bitter and the kind can chase each other around it, this mulberry bush of truth and consequence, and the kind may convert the bitter and the biter may emasculate the kind but neither can change its meaning because the love of a good woman does not give way to arbitrage.

The typically pulpy attitude to women doesn’t help, either. We’re supposed to like Marco and root for him, for example, but he uses women and even occasionally hits them if they won’t do what he wants, the latter being presented as evidence of his impressive virility. No thanks. Otherwise, women are mad bitches (see above), sexy angels (Marco’s fiance) or plot devices to move forward the stories of Important and Vigorous Men.

***

Thirteen Days (or 13 Days in some printings) is also about foreign wars and the madness they encourage in otherwise ordinary men.

Set in Palestine in 1948, it presents another Sergeant, Sergeant Craig of the Royal Engineers, who has embraced the chaos and corruption of the Middle East and lives a maverick life of arms smuggling and artful skiving.

A characteristic moment is his admission that, building a vital water storage tank for a far-flung British Army base, he made up for a lack of concrete by using boulders in the foundations, only because of a lack of boulders he actually used dead donkeys: “What with the heat and everything they must have swelled. But anyway, the foundations cracked…”

Something about him brings to mind Len Deighton’s unnamed insubordinate spy, christened Harry Palmer on film, but Craig also has something in common with the protagonist of Absolute Beginners – a young man who’s not quite as hard or impervious as he likes to think.

When idealism surfaces, unexpectedly, he becomes allied to the Jewish cause, falls in love with a beautiful young woman who works as a driver for a paramilitary group and ultimately has his heart broken when all this proves to be more than a game.

The details of Army life and of the landscape are well drawn, clearly based on the author’s own first-hand experience (Ian Jefferies is a pseudonym), as is the sense of detachment and unreality triggered by being forced to live so far from home, with so little purpose.

Thirteen Days is an interesting book but hard to latch onto: is it supposed to satire, or a straight-up thriller? (Check out the cover, above, which suggests Doctor in the House.) It succeeds best when it settles on the latter and gives us a stretch of suspenseful action into the finale.

***

John Braine’s The Vodi is a peculiar and rather brilliant book, up to a point.

Dick Corvey is recovering from tuberculosis in a sanitarium in the north of England from where he reflects on his life and misfortunes, battling the onset of bitterness as much as TB.

Structurally, there are echoes of Free Fall, All in a Lifetime and No Love For Johnnie, with memory and The Now intermingled throughout.

What gives the book its interest is the bleakness of tone – the north here is all shadows, decay and drizzle – and, of course, the Vodi. The Vodi is an organised crime gang made up of goblin-like minions under the control of the monstrously fat Nelly. The Vodi controls the district, torturing and ruining the lives of its victims, primarily out of spite. There’s a hint of Arthur Machen in it but also of Cruella De Vil.

Dick and his best friend Tom invent the Vodi as boys but Dick persists in clinging to the idea as a luckless adult. A key moment in the book, the point at which Dick and Tom diverge, is when Tom disavows the existence of the Vodi immediately after his first sexual experience with a girl. Tom goes on to take control of his own destiny, embrace risk, and eventually finds success; Dick bounces from Army to clerical job to sanitarium to sanitarium job, passive and pathetic.

And that’s Braine’s argument, in the end: that you have to fight, strive and desire. Only when Dick falls in love with a nurse, Evelyn, do things change for him. Evelyn loves him but becomes engaged to another man because she can’t bring herself to shackle herself to a sad case like Dick. Tempted as he is to blame the Vodi and surrender, his passion for her prompts him to discover the inner resources he needs to overcome the disease and make the bold decisions necessary to become a full personality.

***

War, the maddening power of institutions, sinister controlling forces, the struggle to work out what being a man really means… As the final stretch of #reading1959 begins, a thesis is certainly beginning to form.

And though this wasn’t the plan when I started out, it’s all proving very handy for my current writing project, a crime novel based on a true story and set in the late 1950s. Surface detail is easy but I feel as if I’ve really got into the psychology of the time.