Fahr'n Fahr'n Fahr'n
Last week, I spent some time on the motorway. Due to a combination of cowardice, principle and mostly, personal preference for public transport, this is not something that happens often. But to get to Glasgow in order to write one of these on the Second City Of Empire, we decided, in retrospect bafflingly, to hire a car, which was driven by Jeeves, sorry, Joel, for some 20 hours there and back. This was a fairly novel experience for me, with the last time I spent anywhere near as long on a road being somewhere in childhood, so the following may have the sound of a Martian visitor to the Motorway network. The first thing you notice here, unlike on the railways, where towns, suburbs, and most of all sheds provide punctuation for the countryside, is space - sheer, useless, unused space, which is often - though as I will get to, not always - surely ripe for having our glorious cities of the future constructed on it, as absolutely fuck all seems to be happening to it otherwise. This empty space goes on forever, utterly featureless, and, if you have the right music on and are in an appropriate frame of mind, it is thrilling. Going along the A1, noting the geometries of concrete bridges, skeletal pylons ('bare like nude giant girls that have no secret') and floodlights, with the green at each side as abstract as the asphalt, it's only when you're deep into Yorkshire that you notice any difference from the Hertfordshire landscape where you began. There are, we know, business parks and distribution centres nearby, but they'll be off road, reached by a complex series of junctions and sliproads. The A1 was a fine (accidental) choice, with a lack of traffic enhancing the sense of space, and service stations hugging the road rather than involving the loops round roundabouts of proper motorway service stations.
Rather than the Costas that besmirch the M1, the A1 is Little Chef territory, and seemingly any building can be commandeered by them and turned into succour for the traveller - 1920s roadhouses, 80s vernacular, 50s futurism. We had programmed the hired car's GPS (with which the driver maintained the requisite flirtatious dialogue, which gradually degenerated into an argument between a tired married couple) to guide us to the services at Markham Moor, Nottinghamshire, because therein is a building by one Sam Scorer, one of Britain's few representatives of Googie. A sweeping hyperbolic paraboloid containing the branch of Little Chef, playing all the games now expected from decon/regen but for the sake of sheer spectacle and capitalist potlatch rather than as edification, it is enormously striking after several hours of straight lines. Inside the Little Chef we note that the place has had something of a makeover of late, in that it has become self-conscious, marketing proper English comfort food with classic cafe imagery and a familiar Eric Gill-esque typeface on the menu. The Olympic Breakfast was excellent, bar a freakishly oversized and greasy mushroom. Outside, Murphy speculates that the Little Chef is a later insertion into the parabolic roof - well, it turns out that originally the roof enclosed nothing at all, being a mere gateway for cars on the way to a garage - a ceremonial, non-functional architecture.
The North is designated by the shadows of Cooling Towers and Power Stations, frequently right by the road, structures so stark and imposing that any carbon emission-based concerns must be dropped for a few minutes of awe. The landscape gradually starts to mutate, and then the motorway traverses Cumbria as we approach dusk, a darkly cinematic landscape of burial mounds and sudden changes in scale, becoming even more sinister until we take the M8 and get our first glimpses of Glasgow, with the motorway bisecting serried rows of tower blocks, like one of Ludwig Hilberseimer's urban schemes realised in the wrong order and illuminated by seedy sodium lights. More of that later. On the way back we visit what is surely the diametric opposite of the Googie Little Chef: what can only be described as the Innocent Service Station, Tebay Services, which helpfully has a panoramic view as part of its website. Designed in 1972 and in proper contextual vernacular fashion out of stone and timber, the real interest is inside, where Urban Splash white walls and jolly writing which is surely by the same designer as the Innocent Smoothie enclose a range of organic food, Keep Calm and Carry On chocolate bars, and numerous hoorays taking their little Tarquins to sample what is apparently the best tea in England. That something so clearly pleased with itself should be so obviously complicit in the polluting (by all of us in there, whether using the loos or buying local sausages) of the very countryside it fetishises is another example of the pointlessness of irony.
On the M6 we pass underneath the viewing bridges of T.P Bennett's Forton Services, the most famous of the Futurist buildings that originally accompanied the motorway network before we decided to ensure that environmental destruction was in keeping. In order to complete the review of service stations that we had been accidentally composing, we were intent on finding an OK Diner (warning: contains soundtrack), of which there are several along the A1, all of them in chrome and vitrolite, making clear that the A1 is the S&M Cafe of the motoring world, a simulation of pre-1979 England for the benefit of popculture nostalgics. Unfortunately we don't manage to go to any, so eventually resort, starved and nearly hallucinating, to a McDonalds next to a Travelodge somewhere near Peterborough. As we pull into the drive-in at this ungodly hour, our driver asks the middle-aged McAssistant how he is. 'I'm here' is the reply.