Sunday, 14 October 2012

Meg and Mog and the M4

Helen Nicoll, the author of the Meg and Mog books, died a fortnight ago. I discovered from her obituary that these books were largely written in a cafe at Membury Services on the M4, where she and her illustrator, Jan Pienkowski, would meet because it was roughly equidistant between their houses in Wiltshire and London. I think this may be the only example of a literary collaboration forged at a roadside service station - with the arguable exception of Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlop's The Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, an account of their month-long residence by the side of the Autoroute du Soleil, the road that runs from Paris to Marseille.

For most of us, motorway service stations are non-places where we have only brief, anonymous encounters with other human beings. But people do meet there. They are a well-known no man's land for divorced couples to exchange children, and for football transfer bungs to be handed over in brown envelopes. You can sit in a service station for hours and, for all the attention you get from the table clearers and floor wipers, you might as well be a ghost. That’s why low-level lawlessness has always thrived in the anonymity of the cafes and car parks. Unwanted babies are dumped here, illegal immigrants exchanged, drugs and contraband traded by small-time criminals.

In the 1960s, gigging musicians would bump into each other after midnight at the M1 service stations and exchange gossip about venues and recording deals. The Beatles, according to one Newport Pagnell counter-assistant, were ‘very unruly’ and threw bread rolls at their manager, Brian Epstein. Pink Floyd’s drummer, Nick Mason, once recalled the Blue Boar at Watford Gap at two o’clock on a Sunday morning looking like a Ford Transit van rally as bands made their way back from gigs, and ‘crushed velvet trousers outnumbered truckers’ overalls’. When Jimi Hendrix first arrived in Britain, he heard the name ‘Blue Boar’ so often that he thought it was a new nightclub and asked which band was playing there that night. Chris White of the Zombies called it ‘the feeding trough of the mid-60’s Beat Boom’.

I'm doing a talk on roads as part of the Liverpool Biennial on 7 November, and I have to relate them somehow to this year's theme of 'hospitality'. Of course, most people think of roads as pretty inhospitable places, but then most of them don't know about the role of Membury Services in helping to create the Meg and Mog books.

1 comment:

  1. Sad loss to children's writing, I love the Meg and Mog books and the wonderful simplicity of the bold illustrations.
    thanks for sharing