A1 - The Great North Road

I used to buy a lot of photography books. They take up shelves and shelves of space and the last time we moved four years ago, all the books went into boxes and stayed there out of sight (and therefore sort of out of mind) until last year when we finally got round to getting some bookcases1. I somehow got out of the habit of looking for interesting titles.

However, A1 - The Great North Road by Paul Graham (MACK, 2020 - reprinted from the 1983 privately published edition) piqued my interest not just for the superb content (large format camera, beautiful colour) but because The Great North Road was also part of my childhood fantasies.

That name - The Great North Road - sounded just like the gateway to a mythical land (The North - I was from the south, just north of London) and it went past near where we were living so I felt like I had a personal connection to an adventure - Smithfield Market, London to Princes Street, Edinburgh, nearly 400 miles in old money, a kind of yellow brick road for my childhood, imagining some eternal city at the end.

I was not the only one. In the introduction is a quote from one of my favourite novels - J. B. Priestley's "The Good Companions" from 1929:

At one place they had to slow down a little and then Oakroyd read the words painted in large black letters on the whitewashed wall. The Great North Road. They were actually going down The Great North Road. He could have shouted. He didn't care what happened after this.

I used to feel the same way as a child when we passed the sign "Hatfield and The North" going in the other direction from London. (Somebody liked that sign so much they named their band after it).

My sense of adventure was also heightened because my parents didn't have a car so we drove nowhere. I was only ever in cars when we were going Somewhere with Somebody Who Had A Car. This was always a treat and heading for The Great North Road was often the gateway to that adventure. Like Jess Oakroyd, I didn't care what happened after. Being there was enough.

Contributing to the connection with The Great North Road I have a dimly remembered notion of traveling the entire length from London to Edinburgh with my mother in the motorcycle sidecar of a friend of my parents called Berry Dawson when I was very young but I have nobody left in the world to recall it for me. It must have been a brutal journey to Edinburgh - we usually went on the train (a steam train, I remember The Royal Scot - another big adventure). Perhaps I have suppressed the memory.

The irony is that I am now living in "The North" and The Great North Road has been subsumed in many places by the "A1" and it is as homogenised as most other roads in the UK. Long sections of the road are now designated motorway status rather than an "A" road. The services too are as depressingly similar to all the others on comparable roads. The North is not all that much different either. 400 miles/640km seemed like an infinitely long distance when I was young. Sadly, it isn't very far. Even the old sign that stirred me then now just says "The NORTH Hatfield A1 (M)". Nobody would call their band that.

The plates in the book don't take me back to when I was a child, they are from the 1980s not the 1960s. However, I also spent a lot of time in similar services between 1978 and 1981 traveling back and forth between Manchester and London. The photographs evoke the difference between then and now (for me anyway) and are a stepping stone to my 1960s childhood rather than reaching directly back. Paul Graham is probably the same age as me so he could well have felt the same about The Great North Road in the 1960s.

I got the signed edition with an additional plate on the back cover.

Highly recommended.

  1. Bookcases for photography books? High deep wide and robust? IKEA KALLAX are nearly perfect in this respect. And relatively cheap...