Cathedrals of Despair by Barbara Nadel

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I’m spending a lot of time on the road these days. Although I live in the north of England most of my work happens down in London and so my car is currently as close to a home as I can get. Why I can’t move just at the moment is a very long and tedious story and so I won’t burden you with it. Suffice to say, my life is now dominated by petrol prices (where can I get the cheapest unleaded?) and motorway service stations.

Back in the good old, bad old days of the 1960s, Britain’s very few motorways were serviced by old fashioned petrol stations and even more old fashioned transport café’s (known in London as caff’s). Caff’s, which had been around for workers and truckers for years served what could be called Plain English Fare or the good old British Fry Up. Chips, baked beans, sausages, fried bread, tomatoes, mushrooms, bacon, if you were lucky, black pudding and of course, loads of white bread with margarine. You could have tea or coffee to drink, smoke yourself daft and there were always toilets. There was also a lot of noise, much of which was laughter. Truckers were a crazy, maverick bunch back in the days when I remember transport caffs, when my dad used to take us out in one of his ancient cars for ‘a run in the country’ or on holiday. At some point we always ended up in a caff if only for a cup of tea and some passive smoking.

I can hear the dreaded word ‘cholesterol’ being murmured in the wings and yes, chips, sausages and bacon do contain that fat. But is it ‘bad’ cholesterol or is it not actually too bad for you in moderation? There is some evidence to suggest that taken irregularly the good old British caff fare is not such a wicked old beast after all. Trans fat and artificial sweetner laden ‘modern’ foods, particularly some takeaways, can actually be worse. So why not more good old British fry ups on the highways and byways of the UK? Well, caff’s were ‘grubby’ weren’t they. 21st century people need clean things. Well some of them do. Not me.

It was my son who came up with the expression Cathedrals of Despair to describe what has replaced caffs, namely the Motorway Service Station. This is a one stop shop where you can buy your petrol (at vastly inflated prices), have a drink of skinny macchiatto with a hazelnut shot, eat a croissant containing 30,000 calories, go to the toilet as quickly as possible and stare into the abyss of your own isolation. Everyone in these places looks like a well dressed refugee from some terrible middle class apocalypse. Only the smokers relegated to a set of ghastly red and yellow plastic seats three miles from the front of the building retain any semblance of normality. They talk quietly, not like the shrieking artificial sweetener and coffee stuffed hoards  with their eyes bulging like hanging victims inside. And then there are the shops.

If anyone can tell me why I might want to buy a bean bag in the shape of a giraffe halfway up the M6, I’d like to know about it. These places are like random warehouses for the incurably insane. What makes anyone buy a book about teenage vampires, a guava and banana smoothie (at least a zillion calories), a family size box of chocolate, a plastic cricket bat and a watch with fake diamonds around the face I just don’t know. I’m tempted to say that these shops have been designed for low rent footballers and their families but I can’t honestly think of any British footballer who is poor enough to have to go to these places. Unlike the rest of us.

I never buy petrol at Cathedrals of Despair and I try not to buy anything else. Like the cheapskate that I am, I use them for their toilets and I wander their Book of Revelation style grounds in an attempt to relieve the aching in my drivers legs. If these places were still caffs I would tarry and linger. But they’re not. They are soulless franchises with all the appeal of a boil on the bum and they make me sad. The last time I remember going into a caff on a major road in the UK was back in 1980 when I hitchhiked to Scotland and Wales. Around about Northampton I found a caff in the middle of the night. It was full of smoke, bacon smells, truckers and the women who ‘serviced’ them on the road and lots and lots of laughter. I was just a kid but they all took me to their hearts and I even got to meet a man who spent much of his time off the road chasing an invisible budgerigar. Not that’s what I call entertainment!

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