From A to Be

I wake in Hackney at six am and  get to Euston to the car hire joint by 9.30amthen  get the car and weave away from central  through North London and ontothe M1. The signpost says with ominous brevity  THE NORTH.   The traffic is  a lavaflow spilling from volcanoes  at indeterminate stress points, the cities,  on this North to South fault line.

It’s a pistol grey sky reflecting the pistol grey motorway as the nation shoots from one place to another.  Strange that we choose cars with such vibrant colours when most of thetime we are inside them and can’t see what colour they are anyway. We neverthink “I hope my neighbour chooses a nice colour of car” but in truth it is your neighbours car whose colour you actually notice (or covet) more than your own. Fact is your cars colour is the last post in the need a car  stakes yet quite often the first you  want. Mine is black.

I’m making a radio series called Into The gap for BBC Radio 4 which is why I am in this mobile metal box. The series  is broadcast to the nation in April.  After seventy seven miles of eating tarmac the car swerves onto the slip road and slides  itself into the contrastingly sedate car park. The Watford gap Services (North side).      In minutes I am asleep. Only a couple of days back I was in Canada. Jetlag is taking its toll.  My heads  all slip streams and motorway lanes  criss -crossing  behind my eyes into one  speckle grey ball of cosmic wool.  My eyes open and I’m still in the car park.  The Service station an oasis ofcalm in a sea of exhaust fumes beckons. Costa Coffee is calling me.  Must stay awake.

It’s here I meet the producer, Neil with his microphone and sound recording  satchel. We are to stay here for the next twelve hours – twelve freaking hours – and interview thepeople that use  the service station. This means simply walking up to people and talking straight ato them, about them. Inside the service station I sense  a tidal flow a rhythm  of humanity, splashing onto it’s shores and then drawing back to the deep: from A to Be.

It is here in this no mans – The Watford Gap.   All walks of life, all races, ages, classand  gender bask on the shores of the service station.  It is fascinating anthropology.   The first interview is the bus driver. He sits at a  formica table with a fan of circular paper  discssplayed in front of him and a book. He seems to be translating the elusive  marks on the discs into the book. “Tacograph” he says “it’s the tacograph if I don’t translate this then I can’t get paid” He’s taking time out, here in the gap,  to take time out of the Tacograph.  His pen rests as he talks to me. Assertively he reaches out for the lid and thoughtfully places it  snug. “I was in the army.... twenty years” he says answering my question. And then unfolds his story.  He’s retiring soon, The tacograph man.   

I went on to interview the RAc man who saved an elderly  couple from missing  aonce-in-a-lifetime holiday to Peru. “Does anyone have breakdowns when they have breakdowns” I ask. The story unfolds.  Then there’s  two besuited gents straight out of central casting for the next matrix instalment. They are Thermomen , They sell heat seaking magnification modules,  machines  that see the heat from an object person oranimal. They sell  to the secret service and for  other domestic uses, including thecameras used in Naturewatch and Police helicopter search cameras.  “They’re ours” says one of the men in a rich southern American accent and holds his stare.  I don’t know whether to look away or what to say.  He doesn’t blink. I blink first and the interview continues as if the blinkthing didn’t happen.

There was the one legged man and the accountant his best friend.   The accountants’ wife “won’t use Watford gap services anymore because – her name is July – because she went in the womens toilets here and there was this condom machine on the wall. Someone had graffitti’d a circle  around the entire machine ye see,  and then placed the words ALL FOR JULIE  above the circle. she swears it was me” he says.  I get a sudden pang of guilt. “Is she in the carpark now” I says “Noooo” he replies with derision. “She won’t come here, to the services, at all. 

I didn’t even know there were condom machines in the women’s toilets!   There’s two guys  both mixed raise, young and handsome. Both in t shirts and jeans. They do look a bit hollyoaks.  I am not here to judge but discover.  That’s  the thing about discovery, how much is  informed by prejudgement? 

The boys are both from Manchester. One of them has clearly had his teeth whitened  by an over zealous tooth merchant.  They are both professional actors in their first years of a lifetimes career. And one is in Coronation Street. In fact – he opens The Sun Newspaper which he just happened to have bought – one of these two is in the newspaper today. “What’s that?” he says and sure enough he’s there.   The story unfolds

Sat across the way is the campanologist architecht, The seventy two year old Lorry driver with his girlfriend, at 84,  who is s also his cousin.  “we both have the same second name so why should we marry”.  The two Kenyan Asian women outside smoking  under a burning sunset. We talked of the scorched history of their parents the partitioning of theirhomeland and then the  Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.... The list of fascinating  interviewees is endless.    Each interview is validation of the  journey to be here.

Just before midnight hundreds of students pour in. What seemed like a serine end to the waves of incoming and outgoing Watford Gap Service users is now a midnight  tidalcrashing through its doors. T. “we’re on our way to Amsterdam” sang  gangly boyman “we’re gonna party” said a blonde girlady.   How long will it take to get there I ask – they’re going by coach “Sixteen hours by coach”  replies another.  

I watch  the realisation dawn upon them.  It was brutal. They are going to Amsterdam for two days but they are going to spend thirty two hours of that travelling on a sweaty coach.  They are travelling all that way to knock out a few memory cells. You’ve probably done half the journey though I said hopefully.  How long’ve you been travelling. “’Bout er half hour” says one as  he kicks his bag aimlessly.   

It’s midnight and I am tired.  The students, all two hundred of them pour out and once again silence returns, except the distant hiss of the motorway  through the gap of the open central doors.  I am supposed to drive back now, to East London, for two hours, to home  but – I’d fall asleep. I check in to the adjacent hotel. The relentless hiss of the motorway as rhythmic as the sea, upon the shoreline.  I am lulled to sleep:

I like traffic.  We think of technology and industry as counter to nature. But it isn’t. We theanimals make things to live, just like termites make mounds we make cities. Justas ants or buffalo have trails we have roads. I am sleeping by the trail. Tomorrow is going to be a trip.  The producer has  caught  whole shoals of sparkling narrative  in  hissonic nets.  Today we were fishermen by the shore, resting at night under the stars.I sleep at 12.30am. I put my alarm on for 4am.

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