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Another one for the road

26 April 2024

The anniversary of the publication of the Highway Code inspires Philip Harbridge to draw some parallels


A road sign indicating the new 70-mph speed limit is carried to its position in Hendon, north London, in 1965

A road sign indicating the new 70-mph speed limit is carried to its position in Hendon, north London, in 1965

ON THE day I was born (22 December 1965, since you ask), the 70-mph speed limit was introduced on UK roads. I am not suggesting that these two events are linked, although, as a toddler, I did own a cherished collection of Matchbox cars, and my late dad’s party piece — long before I learned to talk — was to call out at random the name of each model and have me silently point to it, with (I blush) 100- per-cent accuracy.

No, that legislation late in ’65 was provoked by car manufacturers’ racing their prototypes on the M1 with undue haste and too little care for others on the road. Along with the recent Wales-wide speed restrictions, it is a rare example of the applying of brakes to an ever-accelerating modern culture: fast food, instant messaging, speed dating, and Snapchat.

In the month of my baptism the following year, an unlikely single shot to the dizzy heights of 25 in the charts. It set the rather dry words of the Highway Code to Anglican chant, was sung by four churchgoing teachers from Abingdon School, Oxfordshire, and, remarkably, was produced by George Martin, of Beatles fame. A later collaboration gave the same treatment to the weather forecast.

Like the Bible, the Highway Code is one of the few books in print that can lay claim to having saved thousands of lives. It is probably also true of both that they are rarely read from cover to cover. The Highway Code’s present paperback version runs to 127 pages, but the first edition — published almost a century ago, on 14 April 1931 — had only 18, of which several were adverts for the RAC, AA, and other motoring organisations, as well as a genteel introduction by Herbert Morrison, the Transport Minister at the time.

Given that there are no references to road signs, stopping distances, traffic lights, or mirrors, its slimness is unsurprising. But it bulked up in later editions as improvements in traffic management and road safety, the arrival of motorways, and wider social developments necessitated significant additions and revisions.

Quaint and archaic directions regarding horse-drawn carriages quietly disappeared; and in came lengthy instructions on how, when, and where the use of a mobile phone is permitted in a vehicle.

Yet, throughout its history, an appeal for drivers to be respectful of one another has lent the Highway Code a sense of continuity, no matter how fast and furious the driving experience — or modern life — has become. One rule that features in both the original and the latest editions is that all road users must be careful and considerate towards others, putting safety first.

ANOTHER code bears the same hallmarks of renewal and reinterpretation: the so-called Deuteronomic Code: found in the book of Deuteronomy, and on through into Kings. At its heart is a setting out of a collection of laws that make up the terms of the covenant between God and nomadic Israel.

Deuteronomy is the last pit-stop on a long road trip — at the border between Israel’s looking forward to the Promised Land and being in that land. Like the Highway Code, it provides rules for the road, presented as a motivational sermon, given in Moab by Moses, urging faithful obedience to the laws received 40 years earlier at Sinai.

Scholars generally agree, however, that the book dates from a much later period, and point to evidence of edits and accretions. Arguably, final composition and compilation took place over the course of 300 or so years, from the eighth century BC to the Exile and beyond.

As new situations arose, time and time again, the rhetoric of Moses was wheeled out and recalled. Hence, whatever the twists in the road — enslavement or wilderness, repression or exile — Israel clung to God’s covenant faithfulness, and to a shared tradition of its origins in an exodus from Egypt: remember Yahweh; remember how you have been saved.

In this way, the Deuteronomic Code can be understood as a long-term exercise in Israelite identity formation, and reinforcing that identity in the light of deportation, displacement, and diaspora. In particular, Israel was to have no truck with foreign cults and their newfangled practices. Rather, to understand who they were, they only had to look back — to the past, and whence they had come.

AT TIMES, we are all prone to this course of action. Even this article began with birth and baptism stories. It was an attempt at telling you who I am by telling you who I was — and where I have come from.

These can be considered alpha stories: establishing our identity by telling others about our origins, where we set out from. Christians often resort to this. We read ourselves back to Genesis, to its story of creation or of the Fall, to explain why we are the way we are, pining for God’s company and yet too often reaching for the wrong things.

For as long as there have been humans, there have been stories like these: stories of our beginnings, of our ancestors; default settings that help explain who we are and why we are here. Alpha stories speak to and comfort us, especially when we seem to have stalled in life or met a roadblock. Retracing our steps offers one kind of route home.

But omega stories are important, too: not our origin stories, but our destination stories: the ones that identify who we are by telling us where we are heading — and shape us for that ultimate destination. Here, Easter leads the way. Jesus has completed the course, done life’s journey already, gone on ahead, prepared a place for us; he is “the Way”, and we are encouraged to follow his tail-lights.

In this season, the highways are roads to Emmaus and Damascus. We “press on to claim the prize”, unconcerned with what is in the rear-view mirror, looking instead for resurrection (as the Creed puts it).

IF YOU do drive from coast to coast, as it were, reading the Bible from cover to cover, before long, Genesis and the garden of Eden are dots in the distance. Eventually, you ride into Revelation, and, at length, the New Jerusalem — that beatific vision of God’s end-game for creation. It is a a future that Barbara Brown Taylor puts well: “One . . . where you will never suffer from a shortage of high purpose in your life . . . never wonder why you are here or what you are for, because from now on you know both where you came from and where you are headed. You are pointed in a certain direction — toward full communion with God and neighbour.”

This destination is not another garden, but a city; for we are not routed back to a perfect paradise for two, but forward, to a conurbation for every nation. It is a reminder that our lives are more than the sum of all our logbooks. As trees rooted in the earth rise towards the sun, so our lives unfurl towards their ultimate purpose — in the Son.

At journey’s end, the one who is seated on the throne says, “It is done! I am Alpha and Omega, source and summit, your A to Z, the beginning and the end. You have arrived.” Or so a loose translation of Revelation 21.6 might put it. . .

The Revd Philip Harbridge is a Priest-Vicar of Wells Cathedral.

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