Little Chef – the big man of motorway service stations. Photo: Getty.
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Stop off at the roadside garage for petrol, some crisps, Zovirax, porcini and a cup of crappuccino

No one in their right mind would ever visit a garage for the love of gastronomy, yet everybody who’s passing through seizes the opportunity to put something in their mouth.

If motorway service centres with their sweaty agglomerations of Burger King, KFC and Costa are the brothels of fast food, then garages are its knocking shops: the places where stressed-out people commit unspeakable and degrading acts with Peperami. No one in their right mind would ever visit a garage for the love of gastronomy, yet everybody who’s passing through seizes the opportunity to put something in their mouth. Why, when the combination of foods that are necessarily high in salt and preservatives with the tension of driving almost always results in flatulence, heartburn, or – a meal deal – both?

My theory is that garage food feeds that portion of our psyche that, through long association, has begun to mutate into a car’s on-board computer. Every habitual driver knows the strange melding that occurs between them and their wheels: feet rubberise, eyes acquire two semicircles of clarity and girth expands to fit the carriageway available. After hours in this altered state, when the fuel gauge indicates that you’re hungry, you pull on to the forecourt and ram the nozzle in, only to discover that nothing is glugging into your stomach.

The human-car chimera next enters the kiosk. Once upon a time, this was just that – a small booth in which a man in an oil-stained boiler suit counted out half-crowns while sucking Spangles – but now this has prolapsed into a supermarket-sized zone of commerce, offering everything from foldaway barbecues and lottery tickets to hormone supplements for pre-op transsexuals … and stupid amounts of food.

There’s a garage at the Woodstock Road roundabout on the outskirts of Oxford where I regularly stop. On heading in to swipe the plastic, I am every time freaked anew by finding myself inside a fully functioning M&S Simply Food outlet, complete with north-Oxford yummy mummies wandering around putting duck à l’orange in their baskets while little Tansy kicks off in her Maclaren buggy. The gathering pace with which supermarkets have gone into coalition with petrol stations suggests that complete mutation is not far off and that soon consumers will fill buckets with a mixture of Strongbow and V-Power unleaded, add Cadbury Mini Eggs and a tube of Zovirax, then knock the whole cocktail back. There’s still a Wild Bean Café tucked into the far corner of this giant garage but once you’ve ploughed your way along furrows full of porcini and cod in miso sauce, will you feel like putting a flaccid, microwaved sausage roll between your lips?

Yes, of course you will! You’ll also drink the piss-poor crappuccino and buy lots and lots and lots of crisps. After all, there are the kids to consider (even if you’ve never had any or they’re grown-up) and everyone likes different flavours, so you’d better get at least three bags of Walkers and one of those big, white ones of Kettle Chips seasoned with sea salt, because they’re sort of healthy, aren’t they? And they suggest to you – subliminally, at least – that modern Britain is a sophisticated sort of place where, for a modest outlay, you can stab your gums until they bleed with spears of deep-fried potato and at the same time rub salt in those wounds. Oh, and then there are Jelly Babies and Bisodol and two folding chairs for a tenner and a bottle of vintage Taittinger, which you buy simply because it’s so bizarre to see such a thing – and, what with the petrol, the cash register doesn’t stop sticking its paper tongue out at you for quite a long time.

I was in the local garage at lunchtime today and a man in pale jeans and trainers was holding a “light” chicken teriyaki sandwich and a package of two “individual” Melton Mowbray pork pies while he filled out his form on one of those National Lottery stands that looks like a giant, upended, blue turd. I considered the croissants and pastries that had been “baked in-store throughout the day” and meditated on the “savoury eggs”, neither of which seemed any more appetising than Go-Cat, which was also available in bulk. I’m not trying to pretend I’m some sort of hardened ascetic, I can assure you. I’d have been sucking on that ageing breakfast muffin full of warm bacteria like it was my mammy’s teat if it weren’t for one limiting constraint: I’d walked to the garage, rather than driven there. Try doing this and I guarantee you won’t buy any garage food at all – except for crisps.

Next week: Will Self’s Psychogeography

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle