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?

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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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