01/07/2010

Watford Gap



Despite its ubiquitous role in the British way of life for the past 50 years, there have been far fewer songs –and certainly less heroic ones - about the British motorway system than its American equivalent, with its Route 66 and Promised Land. There’s Tom Robinson’s 2,4,6, 8 Motorway, Chris Rea’s Road to Hell (inspired by the M25), and, of course, John Shuttleworth’s The Man who Lives on the M62.

There have been even fewer about motorway service stations, despite most people having visited one in their lifetime. In fact, I can only think of one, Roy Harper’s, Watford Gap, first released in 1977 as part of his Bullinamingvase album and fairly quickly withdrawn. For some reason, the Blue Boar company that owned the service station at that time objected to the jaunty chorus of ‘Watford Gap, Watford Gap, plate of grease and a load of crap’ and the references to a solid concrete-burger and plastic cups of used bathwater.Ironically, Harper’s perhaps two best-known songs, One of those Days in England and When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease, painted a very different picture of England, going back to childhood memories and beyond for an elegiac portrayal of a sunlit rural past. A long way away from burgers and chips off the M1

In many ways, 1977 seems late for this song: its descriptions could have come from five years or more earlier. Roy Harper had been on the English folk and rock scene since the mid-sixties without really breaking through to the major league and would have been well acquainted with Watford Gap and its significance to the music groups that nightly stopped off for an English breakfast at 2am. In this, the song describes a little slice of cultural history. The first English motorway, the M1, opened in 1959 and Watford Gap was its first service station, 70 miles or so north of London and en route for Birmingham and all points north. As such it was in a prime position for groups to stop off whilst travelling to and from gigs. A possibly apocryphal story is that Jimi Hendrix heard so many musicians referring to the Blue Boar (the name often used to refer to the service station) that he thought it was a night club.

Actually, it is now difficult to imagine the impact that places like Watford Gap had in their first few years, viewed with delight by many as an exciting culinary event and possibly the first cafe they had been to..Even the Blue Boar started off with waitress service but had dispensed with all the fancy stuff by the mid-sixties. By the time of Roy Harper’s song, the ‘fine dining experience’ promised at its opening was but a distant memory.

The song can be seen as more than a throw-away diatribe against bad food and is interesting in two other ways. Its mocking delivery in country and western style illustrates again that songs about the road and travel in England are going to end up as a joke when set against the American genre. Billy Bragg did his best with A13 Trunk Road to the Sea (‘It starts down in Wapping, There aint no stopping..’) but it is hard to imagine a British 24 hours from Tulsa or By the Time I get to Phoenix. Maybe it is to do with the relative scale of distances but it is difficult to make a car/coach/train journey across Britain sound glamorous. The ‘We boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh’ of Paul Simon’s America would become ‘We boarded a National Express in Milton Keynes’

The other is the little slice of history it offers, not just in the picture of motorway fare and the meeting point of the Blue Boar at a particular point in time, but in the lyrics themselves. Unlike much of Roy Harper’s work, the song was very much of its time. The references to football hooligans sticking the boot in and to Chopper Ronnie (Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris of Chelsea); the casual sexism of some of the lyrics; Spaghetti Junction: all say Seventies Britain. Like Sunny Goodge Street, it creates a little time bubble.

Alain de Botton has likened using such service stations to ‘like listening to a very sad Leonard Cohen song. In a way it is grim, but it is also redemptive’. One’s view of them may change according to one’s stage in life. As a child, they can be exciting places to stop as you journey to the seaside.; as a parent a place to enable kids to let off steam in the play areas while you clean up the back seats.: as a commuter, a place to escape for a few moments. For musicians of the 1960’s and 1970’s places like the Blue Boar were a meeting ground to swap stories and information in an age before mobiles, the internet and social networking.

Somewhere in the ether the Blue Boar still exists. The transit vans and motor bikes are in the car-park, the plates of congealed sausage, beans and chips are on the chipped formica tables with the plastic knives and forks, the fags are stubbed out in the saucers, the tea is stewing in the cups, the pinball machine is racking up the scores and Roy Harper or Stan Webb of Chicken Shack are slumped in a seat. Britain’s own Route 66.

Link to song

22 comments:

  1. Great column Geoff. have you been in a French service station? They are different. Full of local goods, souvenirs, maps - actually little centres of regional culture. Garrick

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  2. Everyone always seems so depresed in service stations. That's why the song's jauntiness is so great (ironic).

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  3. Very smart to mention Milton Keynes in this column - a whole other no-place that might as well be a service station for all its character!

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  4. Your column made me wonder if there is a whole genre of songs about non-places - not the everyplace of Paul Simon's "America" or the nostalgic present-past place of the seaside town, but a non-place: the airport, the hotel, the motorway. The blankness of homogeneity.

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  5. Love how your column points to the whole political meaning of road culture - especially that semi-mythical region "Middle England"!

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  6. Geoff, do you like my own song about the Watford Gap: http://www.strum.co.uk/sounds/watford.mp3. I also have one about the Magic Roundabout: http://www.strum.co.uk/sounds/magic.mp3.

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  7. Don't forget the Smiths' "Is It Really So Strange" where a man chases his love up the M1 and loses his bag in Newport Pagnell (the first service station for the M1, opened in 1960).

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  8. Anyone seen the movie Butterfly Kiss from 1994? It's all set in a motorway service station - brilliant. I take Geoff's point that there are more American references (and road movies), but it's one example.

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  10. I love this song's mockery element. Thatcher was a huge advocate of motorway construction (especially the M25). Saw her cut the ribbon at its final section near Watford (the Watford in Herts, not the Watford gap!), when she went on about how she had lead the way in building dozens of new motorways - the "car economy" etc etc. But why did we want to celebrate the destruction of the natual landscape, the uprooting of communities, etc? The song is brilliant because it points to the greyness of the motorway and service station placenessness - the end of local community and beautiful natural environments. We should be joining Roy Harper in mocking the service station as a middleclass Tory monstrosity. So there!

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  11. Can I just say that I love the British motorway? Its lorries, the grass verges, factories and office buildings lining the sides, its bridges. It has its own topography, its own landscape. I did laugh a lot at Geoff's imaginery song line though: "We boarded a National Express in Milton Keynes". And loved the final paragraph in particular: "Somewhere in the ether the Blue Boar still exists. The transit vans and motor bikes are in the car-park, the plates of congealed sausage, beans and chips are on the chipped formica tables with the plastic knives and forks, the fags are stubbed out in the saucers, the tea is stewing in the cups, the pinball machine is racking up the scores and Roy Harper or Stan Webb of Chicken Shack are slumped in a seat. Britain’s own Route 66". Genius. Move over Bill Bryson.........................

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  12. Geoff! I remember when they opened Watford Gap - used to go there to play pinball and eat icecream. It was so much more fun than the other all-night place nearby , which was a launderette. Then we'd stand on a bridge and watch the traffic. Also we'd steal cutlery, trays and even a loo seat once.

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  13. Dear Geoff, I think you would enjoy my film London Orbital http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0333817/. I explore the M25's peculiar psychogeography, including its violence and conspiracy (the Essex gangsters who use it to move drugs). I suggest that we experience a quest for transcendetal boredoom and a perfect kind of amnesia. A doorway to another reality. Chris.

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  14. I agree with Steve. Remember the Thatcher white paper of 1989, Roads for Prosperity? It described thousands more miles of motorway (with the attendant service stations I'm sure). We killed it with anti-road campaigns during the 1990s though.

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  15. I don't think we should be too sneering about the Watford Gap or service stations in general - Geoff's column wasn't and I think these comments shouldn't veer into that territory either. The development of service stations was connected to the growth in car ownership (no longer an upper-middle class luxury) after World War 2, and the investment of the British government in national roads in that same postwar era. If we now associate service stations with nightmarish commutes, traffic jams and tedium, it's in part because of massive under-investment in our transport system (i.e., Thatcher). Plus, doesn't some of the snootiness about this service station in particular come from our association of it with a dividing line that separates the north and the south?

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  16. I'm with Laura. Remember that the motorways (and service stations) have become what the Thames used to be- the place where the middle class sends its waste, its unglamarous everyday parts. The Thames used to be full of working docks, now its a heritage site, a gentrified residential area. So the motorways have taken on the freight traffic, the landfill sites, the retail parks. All the stuff we want at a safe distance - keep the nasty trade goods away from our well-to-do suburbs. Why not celebrate it as the site of the overlooked and marginalized (as well as a postwar egalitarian space, which is what Laura describes), rather than mocking it?

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  17. And aren't we missing the public service element of service stations? They were initially leased and regulated by the government, because there needed to be proper planned services for long distance drivers.

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  18. That is an interesting point, Laura, about the north/south dividing line. We often just say 'North of Watford' now but originally it was north of Watford Gap. Not that either is anywhere near the north!

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  19. This has obviously hit something in the national psyche!
    Thanks for the songs, David-I love the Swindon roundabout one-could apply to the Hemel Hemsptead Magic Roundabout too!

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  21. hey Geoff, not sure if you check previous blog comments or just the current one. But I came across this and thought you might enjoy it.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m-CbSyD42lc

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