Will Self: PsychoGeography

Highway to heaven
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The Independent Online

At Tebay Services, between Junctions 38 and 39 on the M6, a brass ensemble parps and poots its way through a selection of festive ditties. Up here, in the North, there is a notable shift in the appearance of the generality of mankind, and the Dr David Kelly/Dr Harold Shipman phenotype predominates. Many, many men, lost in the fastness of late middle age, their grey beards spade-shaped, their cardigans tightly buttoned, the lenses of their sensible glasses reflecting the phenomenal offers available: £14.99 for a black-and-white, 14-inch television, complete with cigarette-lighter plug adaptor. Oh, to buy one! Then drive the rest of the way to Scotland with one eye on the humped whale-back of the motorway, and the other on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Albert Finney in a string vest, Rachel Roberts in her slip. Bliss.

Instead, I munch a cheese selection - Boursin, smoked German, Wensleydale - and look out over the ornamental duck pond, to where the Cumbrian Fells loom and lower. Tebay is easily the best motorway services in the British Isles. It has an authentic country kitchen and a farm shop (opened by the Heir to the Throne in 2004). It is also a family-run business, staffed by local people, and instead of the bland featurelessness of most service centres, Tebay, with its rough-textured stone buildings, seems to predate the M6, rather than being a mere outgrowth of the motorway.

Indeed, as the tubas honk and the ducks bib and bob, I find myself transported back to an earlier, more romantic era. Perhaps the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, on one of his legendary stomps across the Lake District, chanced upon Tebay Services, all huddled beneath its high gables. I like to imagine the great idealist, sweating off an opium binge in the Westmorland Hotel, while bemoaning his failure to win the heart of fair "Astra". Meanwhile, Sara Hutchinson, that sturdy lass, is being tupped senseless by William Wordsworth in the next bedroom. Later, Wordsworth will retrieve his fustian breeches from the trouser press, and with his legendary fastidiousness, make them both a cup of tea, adding one small container of UHT milk to hers.

If only I could stay here in Tebay for all of 2007. But why stop at a single year? If I reside at Tebay for long enough, the M6 will fall into desuetude and become grassed over, a second pre-industrial age will dawn and instead of glib satires, lyrical ballads will flow from my pen. No dice: "That willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith" is gone. Instead, I load up the family, ejaculate 40-odd litres of low-sulphur unleaded into the black womb of the Fiat, and head north.

What a strange interregnum the Christmas season is: the British people forsake their gainful employment and take to the roads for a fortnight, en masse, forming an atomised caravan of Hyundais, Volvos and Chevrolet Voyagers. In a peculiar inversion of the ways of our forbears, we made the round of visits, relatives and friends, but rather than a gentle progress of a couple of score miles, we drove for hundreds, the length and breadth of the country. In Jane Austen novels, if the Misses Bennett got a slight cold, they would impose on their hosts for weeks. By contrast, we stop to see the relatives for a few hours then motor all day to stock up on Vicks nasal spray at the next services.

I calculate that between 23 December and 2 January I did a full, 35-hour week behind the wheel. I drove so far that I visited both the northbound and the southbound Southwaite Services (between Junctions 42 and 41 on the M6) twice. Suitably enough, the season ended in Tinshell Services between Junctions 29 and 28 on the southbound carriageway of the M1. This is an ancient, industrial landscape: the Drax Power Station cooling towers rising up over the flatlands like malevolent, smoking deities. Tinshell is a cold-comfort car-farm. There's no brass band - there are no rustic gables. In the Wimpy, where I buy the kiddies their junk-food fix, the staff display their occupational stigmata: dreadful acne.

The time since the men's toilets were last cleaned is inscribed by red, LED letters: "Aeons". We have been weighed in the balance and found wanting, that's why Tinshell is so chilly, so dreadfully mundane. The kids want to disappear into a booth advertised as "Van Gogh's Colour Studio" - but I fear for their little ears, and so I palm them off with 20p's-worth of jelly beans. Does it have to end like this? The Dr David Kelly phenotypes moribund in this unbeauty spot? I crack, and we spend the next three hours on the motorway watching Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of £14.99 must be in want of a car television.

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