Thursday, February 3, 2011

An Ode To Service Stations

Motorway Service stations are the coaching inns and caravanserais of the 21st century.

There are dozens of them throughout the UK (and on motorways in Europe too); each one of them feels like a small, fully-autonomous unit - for you science fiction fans, they're like a spaceport for the tired motorist, as (s)he powers along the circuits of the national network, traffic acting as the lifeblood to the economy, service stations as circuit boxes, relays for resting drivers.

OK, I'm waxing lyrical. But anyway, like there are tv programmes about airports, I would love to see a fly-on-the-wall production set in a service station. Each station employs dozens of people; each day, thousands of people pass through the doors of service stations, a multitude of lives.

OK, I'm still waxing lyrical. I'll get to my point. Since being a child, service stations have had a strange nostaligic hold on me.

There's something quintessentially British about sitting in a service station "restaurant", on plastic seats around food-stained formica tables, pouring tea from a scalding hot metal teapot (leaving you with second degree burns), from a spout that spills most of the tea on to the table and not into the polystyrene cup. Yes, those were the days!
Yes, those were the days; when you could guarantee a reassuringly awful meal from a service station, and you knew that you would still be determined to enjoy it no matter what. No matter that the chips were wet and tastless; no matter that the fried eggs swam in grease! No matter! Because we are British, and we are used to it! We are a nation that revels in adversity; we are ecstatic for blandness. And this is why: because modesty in pleasures enlightens and emboldens the mind!

Of course, this is probably complete tosh. British service stations were never pleasant to hang out in; but they were never meant to be. There was always something vaguely Socialist about British service stations upto about fifteen years ago. But people didn't complain; they were functional places and that was all they needed to be.
This changed though around fifteen years ago. Since then, instead of containing socialist-style canteens of culinary crappiness, they now are miniature commercial respites from the motorway. The service station industry of the UK learned about marketing and the high street. Since then, service stations have become retail outposts on the motorway; inhabited by WHSmith, Marks and Spencer, Burger King, Costa Coffee (which is not otherwise a major coffee house competitor), Starbucks and the like.
So now service stations, especially since the huge growth in car usage, are little money-making machines for their owners: the retail spaces pay their hefty rent to the leaser; the cost gets passed on to the too-busy-to-care motorist.

But at least service stations now look better; and the food is better; and the choices are better. The old-style socialist service stations are no more; the American-style capitalist havens of retail have taken their place. This is progress; or so they say...

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