The local answer, I am forever being told, is the right answer. I agree. Let's take my local pub.
The pub sustains me with food and drink, obviously, but there's much more to it than that. Since it has had a Switch machine with cashback ‘facility' installed, I no longer need to go to the bank. This saves me a huge amount of time since, like those people who ask you for spare change in town centres, I was only going to spend it on drink anyway.
Food, drink, cash; the list goes on. The pub will take delivery of cars and parcels, and I have successfully sourced a plumber, a plasterer and even legal advice down the puborama. There's a cabby who drinks there every night, so if I need a lift the following morning it's a simple matter of sloping off for a pint and making a booking. The pub is a hot bed of essential services and avant-garde thinking. I have never been sent a ‘joke' by e-mail that I haven't already heard in the pub.
But there are still some things the pub can't provide. Bog roll, for one, a loaf of bread, washing-up liquid, razors and aspirin. For these things I used to walk 125 paces in the opposite direction to my local 24-hour petrol station.
But a while back, it closed down. For ever. If every other shop in town had been boarded up, barely a ripple would have disturbed the motions of the May household, but with the garage gone, a wholesale lifestyle review has become necessary. I am now enslaved by those uncompetitive high-street retailers and their slack, left-wing practice of shutting at night.
For some reason the single man always identifies the need for a pint of milk, a roll of Andrex, bleach, a car magazine or some instrument of his smoking vice at 2.30am after a night of drinking, brawling and seduction. There was a time when the petrol station provided them, but not any more. The next nearest shop is twice as far away and closes at a frankly pathetic 10pm.
"Since the early 80s, when all-night garage-cum-corner-shop emerged, men have been staying single for longer"
Am I the only person who thinks this is the ruin of England? I tell my friends that the petrol station has closed down and they delight in telling me that good fuel costs less at Sainsbury's. What they fail to realise is that I never bought bloody petrol. The sale of hydrocarbons was a mere front to disguise the true function of the place, which was as a glittering late-night oasis where a chap might satisfy his sudden and inexplicable craving for a pork pie. I can't believe the place was unprofitable. I know for certain that eight pork sausages with beans in a tin was something of a cash cow for its proprietor.
It is surely no coincidence that since the early Eighties, when all-night garage-cum-corner-shop emerged, men have been staying single for longer.
And mine is not an isolated case. Within a half-mile radius of my house, five local garages have closed down within the last year. They have been turned into wine warehouses, Internet cafes and what have you, and on the face of it this may be seen as part of the gentrification of the suburbs. There is even a campaign by my neighbours to turn the desolate and wind-swept shell of my local petrol station into trendy flats. But these people have not stopped to think what will happen when they roll home at 2.00am after a locked-in darts tournament to discover that there's no Marmite left.
The contribution of the local 24-hour petrol station to society is immeasurable. It is another of those great gifts that the cult of the car has bequeathed to humankind in general and its bachelors in particular. Yet they are being allowed to disappear with dire consequences for what councillors always call the local community. Soon the streets will be full of half-starved and unshaven men who have lost the will to go on. It's already happening around here.
But no one, as far as I know, is campaigning to save them. I heard a bloke on the radio the other day whining about how his local post office had closed down. So what? You can get a stamp from the garage. The brewing business has acknowledged its cultural obligation to preserve the local pub and its traditions; it's time for Esso, BP, Shell and Texaco to recognise that it has a moral duty to uphold the sanctity of the local petrol station. Come on, you oil barons - wake up and smell the bacon past its sell-by date.
Consider this. My nearest 24-hour garage is now a mile away. I mean, for Pete's sake - I'll have to drive there.
This article was first published in September 2003.