I’ve just finished a book called On Roads: A Hidden History, out in June. I was very sorry not to include in it an extended discussion of the highly visible object that encapsulates how roads themselves have become invisible, unnoticed until our smooth passage across them is irritatingly disrupted: the fluorescent orange-and-white plastic bollard, between three-quarters and one metre in height, used to divert traffic at roadworks. Let’s hear a shout out for the traffic cone, people.
Although concrete cones have been around in America since before the First World War, the first rubber cones were not used until the building of the Preston bypass in 1958. At first a thousand cone types bloomed but now international standards have been harmonised - all cones need to be a certain weight, height and angle, to ensure, among other things, that they can be stacked on top of each other. There are about six million of them in circulation in the UK at any one time. A single motorway contraflow gets through about 10,000.
The faintly anthropomorphic appearance of cones seems to invite psychological projections. In their book Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlop speculate that the cones at the Orange-le-Grès rest area on the Autoroute du Soleil are witches’ hats, and that this is the place where witches are tried and executed, the swings in the rest area doubling as gallows and torture racks. The witches have been buried upright in the road, leaving their hats over their graves, pour encourager les autres. In Britain, police have long suspected lorry drivers and motorists of staging ‘skittle’ contests to mow cones down (a cone’s plastic top being designed to disintegrate safely when hit). Another popular pastime is ‘cone-flipping,’ catching their bases with your wheel so they ping into the air like tiddlywinks.
A cone’s life is nasty, brutish and short. Frontline motorway cones survive for only about two months before they are bent, squashed or splattered with cement slurry. A cone needs to be eye-catching, and its attention-stealing orangeness probably explains some of the irritation it produces. We would be more charitable towards cones if we learnt to see the road itself not as a smooth, sterile ribbon of asphalt but as fragile and mortal – every road is in a constant battle with the cars and the elements - and in need of protection by these chivalrous knights in retroreflective stripy armour.
Mundane quote for the day: ‘Nor do we perceive the familiar. It is not as if we shrink from it, as we do in the case of refuse; we just take it for granted without giving it a thought. Intimate faces, streets we walk day by day, the house we live in – all these things are part of us like our skin, and because we know them by heart we do not know them with the eye.’ – Siegfried Kracauer