Photo © Nicobobinus @ flickr
For East Londoners the A13 is the great escape route. It runs out of the city through Essex towards the seaside towns of Southend and Shoeburyness.
I'm currently reading London Orbital, Iain Sinclair's account of his walk around the M25. Early in the book he writes that "the A13 shuffle through East London is like the credits sequence of the Mafia soap, The Sopranos; side-of-the-eye perspective, bridges, illegitimate business about to be overwhelmed by the big combos". The prose on the previous page is even better:
The A13 has got it all, New Jersey-going-on-Canvey Island: multiplex cinemas, retail parks, the Beckton Alp ski slope; fly-overs like fairground rides, three salmon-pink tower blocks on Castle Green, at the edge of Dagenham; the Ford water tower and the empty paddocks where ranks of motors used to sit waiting for the transporters. The A13 drains East London's wound, carrying you up into the sky; before throwing you back among boarded-up shops and squatted terraces. All urban life aspires to this condition; flux, a pastiche. A conveyor belt of discontinued industries. A peripatetic museum, horizon to horizon, available to anyone; self-curated.
Carnival Saloon regulars won't be surprised that when I read that passage my thoughts turned to Billy Bragg's Essex-man take on Route 66.
MP3: Billy Bragg - A13, Trunk Road to the Sea
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The song's great appeal to me lies in its thrall to Americana (why are there no good British road songs?) combined with its absolute Englishness. Billy's put it better. Bragg's evocative essay about his revered highway, written some years before Sinclair's book, concludes, "the A13 is still there, rolling through a Springsteenesque landscape in which riverine Essex takes the place of the New Jersey shore, a tarmacadam trail to the Promised Land".
Whenever my 'American cousin' John Barner visits he arrives with a demented to-do list of things he wants to see. No Tower of London or British Museum for this tourist. Last time we took a vaguely Sinclairian jaunt out to Barking to admire the cul-de-sac named in honour of Billy Bragg. Next time I won't be shocked if we end up taking "the A road, the okay road that's the best" and "go motorin' on the A13."
Doing Woody's Work - MP3s of the Mermaid Avenue demos
Billy Bragg & KT Tunstall - odd gig at HMV Oxford Street last year
Billy Bragg - official site
Iain Sinclair - official site
A13 Flickr Group - see what Sinclair and Bragg are on about