Donnington Park services — a place between places?

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Let’s hunt out the gerund.

It’s sometimes tempting to think that only nouns matter. ‘The cat’ and ‘the mat’ loom large. The ‘sitting’ part of the sentence is a sort of anonymous thread that joins the glorious activity of its protagonists. But verbs also matter, not least – to be fatuous – because sentences would not be sentences without them. In much the same way, the starting point and the destination of a journey will, for many, figure as the chief concern. How they get from one to the other is merely practical.

The general public rancour, impatience, and tetchy irritation with the inconvenience of over-priced public transport suggests that, although getting from a to b might be desirable, the act of doing so is not. If the train or bus is not either exorbitant, late, over-crowded, or too noisy, then the motorway is either jammed, or entirely populated by other drivers who treat it as an opportunity for evolutionary regression. And if flying is an option, the airline will be run by someone who credits you with no more significance than a battery-farmed chicken clocking up returns in a retail ledger.

This characterisation makes the idea of ‘a place between places’ mythological. Can the infrastructure of travel ever provide something like either the place from which we begin or at which we arrive? My contender is Donnington Park services, a midlands service station conveniently positioned where the M42 meets the M1 and in close proximity to the East Midlands Airport.

Why? Let’s be clear; I wouldn’t want to pitch a tent there for any length of time, but it’s a cut above the average motorway services. It has an airy and spacious sense of imitated grandeur. Or if that’s over the top, it at least makes Burger King and Krispy Kreme donuts seem more refined.

It’s telling that before the 2010 general election, Newsnight in their search for the elusive but psephologically significant ‘motorway man’, concentrated their search at Donnington Park. In other words, well-cultivated north-London journalists singled it out. Notice they didn’t pick nearby Tamworth.

In many of the arts – design, composition, drama, writing – it is often said that creating empty space is as important as the detail of the creation. Knowing when to juxtapose noise with silence, ellipsis with expression, white space with colour, is part of the skill. Most motorway service stations are claustrophobic. So much so that the great unwashed clamour and coagulate around each other like an infected and amorphous invasion of mucus. The volume of space at Donnington Park contrasts with this typical experience, and somehow makes even the most unkempt and brain-boiled behaviour graceful and natural.

So what does this mean? Has Donnington Park pioneered a way (granted St Pancras is quite good too)? Shaped only by ‘utility’ does something get lost? Perhaps it means that we should not forget the gerund – that verbs, in the right circumstances, can become nouns.

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