Glovebox Britannica

Up the Great North Road to Yorkshire in the spare, suspended days after Christmas. I’ve long liked the A1 and have been mulling the idea of a songwriting trip up and down it: maybe an album’s worth of tunes, flipping onto the b-side at Scotch Corner.

The way we see places being entirely conditioned by personal narrative, I realise that my love of touring England by car is partly down to that unsung psalter of British topography, The Reader’s Digest AA Book of the Road. First published in 1966 and remaining a glovebox staple for the next thirty years, it was emblazoned with the Association’s new yellow logo, which, along with the British Rail ‘double arrow’ design and Kinneir and Calvert’s iconic road signage, belonged to a mid-sixties typographical revolution that transformed our perception of the domestic landscape. We still don’t picture journeys without them.

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So, in a junkshop in Knaresborough, I was glad to pick up a 1967 edition for a pound – pristine, though lacking the groovy black vinyl jacket they originally wore. In an era when road atlases, if used at all, are flimsy and forgettable, the quality of the Book of the Road’s design and production is striking – especially its ingenious ‘continuity flaps’, map pages whose extra bulge is satisfyingly offset by the half-width sections before and after. A gazetteer of town plans and interchanges, these include a tiny blue portion covering the nation’s motorway ‘network’ – basically M’s 1, 4 and 5 and the A1(M).

When extended, the flaps not only aided navigation but also were crammed with useful information about the culture, customs and scenery of the page you were on. Travelling in September up the A44, for example, you would be alerted to the Chipping Norton Mop Fair, or (if you already possessed a mop), join the likely tailback making for Orange Rolling at Dunstable Downs. With irresistible headings like ‘dark soil’, ‘broken character’ and ‘secretive river’, this commentary sparked the imagination and unfurled the place you were throttling through, turning the metalled miles – and the British Isles – into a land of boundless curiosity. ‘On the road map you won’t drive off the edge of your known world’, wrote geographer Doreen Massey. ‘In space as I want to imagine it, you just might’. In the Book of the Road, you did.

The transfiguration of ordinary routes – from ‘non-places’ (French anthropologist Marc Auge’s term for transient spaces that hold little significance) into what might be called ‘deep’ places, with a texture of memory and association, is usually enhanced by linking human activity to natural ecology. In this respect the Book of the Road also functioned as a roadside primer, illustrating the wild flowers, fossils and creeping things innumerable to be found along the way. In the seventies, poring over these charts in the overheated queues alongside Stonehenge, it seemed to me that Britain was a teeming playground of curlews, cowslips, coypus and and ammonites: an inexhaustible place.

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The Ordnance Survey, whose peerless mapping was adapted for the Book of the Road, are national guardians of this kind of deep topography. Given the soullessness of much satnav space – bleak blocks of primary colour between cartoon routes – it is encouraging that the OS are developing new apps to bring alive the storied landscapes that belong to all. In the meantime, I’m keeping my Book in the MG, and seriously considering restricting my trips to the road system as it was fifty years ago – in antithesis to Google Maps, who only show you paths vehicles commonly go down, so that you miss the ones less travelled. Those, by contrast, will be the only ones I see. Meet you at the mop fair.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Glovebox Britannica

  1. Kit Ward

    Lovely piece – there’s something Proustian about the AA Book of the Road…

  2. Andrew MacLachlan

    I remember the road atlas well. Dunno how it fits in an MGB glovebox though ? I have recently procured a Land Rover Defender which has no interior storage for such whatsoever … my sat nav however sits on the dashboard … now after reading your piece … regretfully
    Andrew MacLachlan

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