Let’s take the good old 0 to 10 rating system. 0 being the worst and 10 being the best. Then let’s take 5 as the average, the mediocre, and then make that 5 the 10 so that everything beneath 10 is less than average. Then we repeat the process a few times until 10 marks the least worst rather than the best of anything. Then take the 5 from our new scale and apply it to a place you have been to that is really crap. A Jamie’s Italian, a Sam Smith concert, a nuclear power plant in melt down, a crack den, Idris Elba’s acting range. And finally from that already abysmal low point drop right down to 0. And then sink further into negative figures, let’s say -17. The place we’re thinking of is now -17 on a scale where 10 is bloody awful and 0 is not very far from hell on earth. If you’ve followed this process properly and you can imagine what that -17 might feel like then you’re probably sitting in a motorway service station.
On the whole the collected service stations of the United Kingdom, and indeed pretty much anywhere I’ve ever been, mark the very nadir of the modern human retail and hospitality experience. I have never looked forward to stopping at one and I have never left one without feeling ever so slightly dirtier. It says a lot that amongst those who love a good service station (there is no such thing) is a man who has no identifiable reason for existence anyway: Morrissey. As a general rule of thumb if Morrissey has a good word to say about something then I will avoid that something just as I would avoid licking the armpits of a leper. The fact is that even the very best service station is still a thoroughly grotty and cynical place to be. So is this site, but at least I don’t empty your bank account.
The least worst example I can think of is the one high up on the M6 in the Lake District. It’s given itself a fancy name because it thinks people will be fooled. I’m easily fooled but in this case even I can smell a rat. Once you’re in there is a poncy shop that rivals Harrods for it’s pricing policy and a large café where you can look out over a grey duck pond with a suspiciously low duck population. It is also mathematically impossible to sit anywhere in this café without being 2 tables away from a couple of crappy children and at least one of their utterly incompetent parents. And it is always busy. It’s almost a tourist attraction because it is slightly better than most others. Sadly it can never be the best because how can one judge a competition to establish what the world’s best turd looks like? And why would you bother?
Further down the scale we find homes for all walks of life, every level of society mingling in an unparalleled stew of as many polar opposites as you’d care to imagine. As a result no one is ever happy. But lots of people are very fat. Fat young and fat old. Fat old couples shovelling home the next 30 minutes off their life expectancy. Everyone looks ill and they look ill because they don’t want to be there. If they had a bigger petrol tank and bladder and didn’t have a metabolism they would never wander in somewhere like this and spend so much money on an early death. I suppose some people must decide on their stop depending on the eating options. An M&S or a Waitrose might offer some sparkle of hope but otherwise it’s Burger King over McDonald’s over KFC over Costa over Greggs. Why would anyone want a Gregg’s Cornish Pasty or a KFC bargain bucket in the middle of a 6 hour drive? Or indeed any time.
And that isn’t the only cause for confusion. Service stations feature many ‘services’ that seem a little baffling. Why do they have nail salons and phone accessory shops? Why do they have empty arcade game/fruit machine rooms (18’s only!)? How many people stop off on a long journey just to settle their urge to gamble or play Double Dragon? Why does the WH Smiths (they are in almost all service stations and are also the worst ranked high street shop, which makes plenty of sense) feel it necessary to sell chocolate at twice the normal price and keep a straight face while they’re doing it. Why do the adverts in the men’s toilets always feature van hire companies or cures for erectile dysfunction? In the first instance it is unlikely that you would have made it to a service station and also need to hire a vehicle and in the second it seems a touch harsh to be trapped in a crap-house half way between two nicer places and then have to be reminded that your willy might not work.
So, all bad then. In the great pantheon of spaces created by humans motorway service stations rank very highly. Though in fairness I’ve never been in a crack den. Airports are pretty close but the promise of something a bit more exciting on at least one end gives them a leg up. Occasionally you might find a station that shows a big picture of the smiling station manager. In their heads they have risen up through the ranks to become a significant pillar of the community. But service stations don’t belong to a community. They are a separate transient ecosystem peddling misery and fraud and you should stop and take a look at those photos. Careful examination will reveal a cheap suit, bad skin and lank lifeless hair, as befits someone who eats shit at discount rates almost every day. And though the smile may be there the eyes say something else. They are helpless and scared because they don’t know when this life will end and if they can ever return to the real world. A world without bizarre garden ornaments and scandalous pick-and-mix stands and so, so much more of so, so little value. But this is the same of any place that you only go to because you have to. I just wish they could make a bit more effort.
And the petrol prices are ridiculous too. Bastards.
G B Hewitt. 16.06.2018