Michael Walker analyses the geopolitics within vehicle logistics and importing/exporting goods.
I live, as many Britons do, near a major road, the M42 in my case. There is no quiet here. Be it 2am or 9, its faint roar penetrates the glazing and worms into the brain; a comforting hum only noticed by absence, when sleeping in a new bed in Foreign Parts. This familiarity entraps cognition. The Motorway is a subject of hilarious mundanity, it’s junctions and services objects of a vague shared background contempt (see, for example, the endless digs made at Watford Gap, and the Cult of Tebay, earned for resisting somewhat the expected dinginess). Any serial commuter can, and given the chance will complain at length of minutely poor and wondrously specific design choices, of incompetent fellow users, of endless works that appear to accomplish nothing at all. Sections of the road are iconic, even if only to yourself. Municipally dull bridges and failed monumentalism form deeply personal gateways and milestones, perhaps halfway to Grandad’s house, or Nearly There on a family holiday. Or simply Home.
Yet this landscape of endless asphalt is for most encountered looking out through the ontologically secure bubble of the automobile. When you come across the motorway from a different vantage point, familiarity and resignation are difficult to maintain. From a narrow pedestrian bridge, replete with uneven surfaces, disconcertingly lacking railings and ever-present slicks of near-freezing rain, the effect is rather more direct. The roar is no longer to be drowned out by some Radio 2 person and the scrunching of fast-food wrappers. It is full. It surrounds you. The sheer width is striking, and decidedly unwanted as the mind inevitably wanders to just what would happen if you were to fall into this Canyon of Death. On any walk into town, that must cross the Motorway, it acts as a clear line in the fields. The exurban to the suburban, the Home Counties to the Metropolis. Not much changes from side to side, yet the minutely traumatic experience of the crossing lends weight to its status, its prominence as a Border. A view from above reinforces this status, as their snaking forms cleave through the houses and patchwork of the nation. From the ground or the air, it can appear difficult to see the major road as an infrastructure of connection.
That it is, in purpose, formed in order to connect places is basely accepted when considered on any level other than the most primal or most abstracted. Sure, they facilitate flows. We Get It. Flows of what? People, getting to work, seeing others, having Freedom? OK. But most discourses of the motorway seem to focus on the mass of freight pulsing through their harsh courses. This is all the more visible as of late; the recent relationship between frivolous mobility and death has acted to all but banish the private car. The ever-churning mass of lorries flowing through the countryside sustains us all, and of this, we are all implicitly aware. When this mechanical circulation is ever interrupted, the motorway becomes a site of anxiety for all. Brexit changes have prompted a new ubiquity of the ‘New Docs From 1 Jan’ message on the roads, reminding us of a vast matrix of bureaucracy that exists both below and crushingly above all. The recent French closure of the port of Calais (and thus Dover) put the centrality of the lorry on British motorways into focus, forcing media into a (fair enough) hysteria. Images of the M20 choked by freight were broadcast across the nation, and it could be clearly understood just who takes priority in this network.
Also vital to that particular crisis was an understanding of the port. A largely post-industrial island, Britain must get its Stuff somewhere, and thus a lot of boats must be involved. While most of the boats come in at Dover, most of the Stuff doesn’t. That honour goes to the port of Grimsby, with the badly named Port of London coming in second (PoL actually comprises a battery of smaller ports across the Thames estuary, very few of which are even debatably in London). However, much of the cargo transported here is liquid; gas terminals and oil tankers and so on. When discussing the more tangible Stuff – food, consumer goods, industrial parts – Dover is a somewhat bigger player. But still, most of the Stuff coming in at Dover is shipped in on lorries already. Just a big ferry, really. Very mundane and understandable. What holds a somewhat deeper attraction are the container ports. Tilbury, Southampton, Liverpool and, of course, Felixstowe. These are the places where the famous standardised 1TEU containers are taken onshore. And Felixstowe is by far the most significant of them all.
Driving South-East along with the M6, you find yourself at some point in a tangle of concrete in rural Leicestershire. It’s just past Rugby, but there’s little to mark the town from the depressed vantage of the road. This is the newly redesigned Catthorpe interchange, where the M6 meets the M1, going North/South. Decline the invitation of the vast artery, and carry on straight, driving along the A14. This road is woefully inadequate for a section, made severely worse by the works undertaken to improve its efficacy. The landscape becomes flatter, the quality of the light changes as the bright noon sun starts to fade over the open fields. None of that is noticed, as you are jostling with the throngs of lorries, hoping against hope that none of their pilots have neglected to properly check when moving to overtake one of their own. Once past Cambridge, the road improves somewhat. You are for a short section granted the privilege of 3 lanes, and a significant quantity of the non-lorry traffic has peeled off down the M11.
The road takes you around Ipswich. The spectacle of the Orwell bridge is soon over, and it’s not long before you come into Felixstowe. Or rather, you think you come into Felixstowe. Despite being home to around 25,000 people, you see virtually no houses for the entire drive. The port appears as a vast ocean of paving. The drive around reveals nothing but endless parking for lorries to be loaded and containers to be stacked. The multicoloured boxes appear pleasing from afar, inviting many a trite comparison. But the scale is overwhelming. Standing at the end of the country, a slightly-stiffer-than-comfortable sea breeze whipping at a rather inadequate windbreaker, in the shadow of the vast inhumanness of Logistics. Everything here is efficient. Everything has a carefully marked place, mostly to wait as the ceaseless robotics of the cranes lifts yet more boxes off the ship. Nobody is visible as this architecture of consumption carries ever on.
The ships themselves are evocative. Great leviathans that dwarf all around them, unrivalled even by the giant cranes at the dock. They appear otherworldly, creatures of the Great Elsewhere. At home in the in-between, but out of place at their destination. The feeling is similar to that one gets standing in a windswept square, at the base of a vast municipal titan (see – Albany’s empire state plaza). Overcome with inferiority, a clear sense of not-belonging, yet the place is designed to facilitate life as you have never not experienced. Unlike the road, there exists no lens of the prosaic through which the port is legible. It must first be diluted with the quotidian, passed through a chain of ever more familiar warehouses and vehicles. It is a pure space of logistics, where all but a vital handful are banished by lack of purpose. In a base-superstructure understanding of the world, Felixstowe port appears baser than the base. Here is from where Things emanate, the full materiality overwhelming in its effect. A place moulded and nurtured by centuries of ideology, the mechanical efficiency and rawness of the port strips away all ideology.