Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Roundabout safari

Roundabouts. Small but perfect islands, still jewels set in hostile, rushing rivers of metal and tarmac noise. Islands of silence, uninhabited, unvisited. How often, as you have swept off at the second exit, cursing the poor lane management of the driver in front, while catching momentary, parting glimpses of your sidewards fellow voyagers, each, like yourself, tight lipped and frozen darkly behind glass – how often have you not longed to explore, at your leisure, the strange topography of that grassy Eden, planted with two silver birches, a few shrubs like tired mounds of pubic hair, and a small placard sponsored by a local haulier – a topography of which you have been aware, as of an unsatisfactory vision in a dream, only from the corner of your eye?

Cease your motion, says the vision. Stop a while. Visit me. Find refuge here.

But there are no visitors. These are deserted islands. Cousins, in fact, to the desert islands in that peculiar genre of single column, quick gag cartoons, now probably encountered only in the cartoon museum, that are set on gentle, circular mounds with a single palm tree, against the horizon of a sea that is featureless, save for the occasional circling shark fin. But cartoon islands sustain, miraculously, two or three shipwrecked characters. (Seated woman glowering at edge of island, her back to standing man who leans casually against the palm tree as he addresses second woman: “My wife thinks I’m having an affair.”) So where are the Robinson Crusoes of our roundabouts, the astronauts who will land upon these inverted craters? Where are the actors to create situations in these open air theatres in the round, these amphitheatres of turf?

Their absence has been noted. The official mind has considered the emptiness of these spaces and has logged it as a source of social anxiety. And it has offered an improving solution: roundabout sculpture. As a genre, this has been properly neglected by the critics. It is produced, like much civic outdoor art, by artists you have never heard of, usually references some local industrial heritage in which the community is to be encouraged to take pride now that it is long and entirely gone, and is often financed by a distant European Union fund. As art pops up across the panoramas of the planning departments, our roundabouts now sprout industrial abstractions, spangled Pegasi, or rusting piles of steel that resemble abandoned rockets. Most of this is regrettable. None of it begins to compensate for the human absence.

For three decades until his death from pneumonia in 2007 at the age of 86, Josef Stawinoga, generally known as “Fred the Ring Road Tramp”, lived under canvas on a stretch of the grassy central reservation of the Wolverhampton ring road, where he busied himself each day sweeping up the leaves into neat piles under the overlooking trees. There are some interesting aspects to his story, not least his veneration as a holy man by the local Hindu and Sikh communities, and the urban legends that attached to him – had he been a guard in Hitler’s SS? Did he really have a huge stash of untouched pension money? And so on. But the essential point here is that Fred had colonised, if not a roundabout, at least a sizeable piece of virgin urban no man’s land, untrodden by any human boot since that of the engineers and landscapers who laid it out, and had claimed it as his habitation.

That this was setting a dangerous precedent was recognised shortly after Fred’s funeral by District Judge Shamim Quereshi, in imposing an exclusion order on Christopher Phillips, aged 26, who had been living in a tent on another section of the ring road with his partner whom he had assaulted while drunk and disorderly. Judge Quereshi defined the limit of the exclusion order as the outer edge of the road. “This is not going to be a tented ring road for people who have nowhere else to live,” he declared. “Only one tramp was allowed to do that, and he is now dead.” He added helpfully: “This will effectively make you homeless but you are homeless anyway.”

But these are only the pioneers, the first to hear the call of the last wild places on earth. Our roundabouts demand their explorers, their settlers, their dramatis personae. Had I the time, energy and sponsorship (which I have not), I would take steps immediately to organise a well equipped and substantial expedition, that would traverse England by foot from Newquay to Norfolk, planting its tents on each roundabout within its route. Photos would evidence these small triumphs, an enormously popular blog would record the team’s progress, and documentary rights would be sold to Channel Four.

So be brave, my imaginary crew, and take back the roundabouts of Albion! Carve your pathway through the mosaic of KFC wrappers and cracked plastic wheel trim, the flotsam and jetsam of a tired civilisation that decorate the outer shores of the chosen ground that will host your tents. Ascend the gentle but significant dome of turf that marks this as a real place, a locus that requires your genius – your mound, your castle, your keep, your finders keepers. Brush apart the corporate daffodils and plant firmly at their centre the flag of your new republic. The world will applaud.

(from 101 Unrealised Projects, a work still in progress)

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