There is a deep, almost primordial satisfaction to be gained from eating at a hatch. By this, I don’t mean being served from a hatch – the sine qua non of institutional existence is the shuffling queue to be slopped upon. Prisons, factories, barracks – all are the same in this lack of respect for the individual. No, eating at a hatch somehow reverses this relationship: the hatch is freely approached and leaned on, while the servitor, rather than being just another robot in the production line of life, is consorted with as an equal.
Perhaps the best sort of hatch-eating experience, assuming that you’re human, is had at those mobile cafés scattered along the byways of the land. British high streets may have lost in the clone wars and motorway arteries may be clogged by fast-food joints, yet turn a touch athwart the stream of life and there they are: little trailers blazoned with Union flags and cheery signs, wreathed in the bluey-grey smoke of frying. You approach the hatch, inhale the odours of burnt pig, engage the proprietor in cheery banter, drink deep of sweet tea, watch the shreds of black plastic bag caught on the barbed-wire fence riffle in the stiff wind that blows across the turnip field – the whole sitch is so goddamn Orwellian that if there were a clergyman’s daughter to hand, you’d probably ravish her on the soft verge.
In Leverburgh on the Isle of Harris the other day, I espied something called the Butty Bus and approached it with a spring in my step. True, this was an upmarket wayside-eating experience, confirmed by the wholesome stench of home-made lentil soup. There was this – and there was also the handsome yet slightly haunted-looking man in khaki overalls who sat at a dinky counter.
Recognising me, he introduced himself: “I’m John Maher. I was the drummer in the Buzzcocks.”
“Aha,” I replied, not missing a rim-shot. “In that case, you must have been at the seminal Sex Pistols gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976?”
“Indeed,” he conceded. “It was our first outing together as a band.”
Maher, it transpired, had decamped to the Hebrides years before and now idles his days away building flat-four VW engines from scratch for echt Dormobile enthusiasts. I know, I know … This seems not so much too good to be true as too true to be good. I’m sure that you, like me, are certain that the butty buses and burger hatches of the kingdom by the sea are clogged up with superannuated punk rockers: the Ruts dunk Eccles cakes at a Formica counter near Stoke-on-Trent; Captain Sensible chews a cheeseburger on the seafront at Weston-super-Mare; the ghost of Joe Strummer picks fragments of prawn-cocktail-flavour crisps from his beard in the web-foot country of Lincolnshire …
Heading south to my familiar munching grounds in the Scots rust belt, I found myself walking through penetrating smir down Dalziel Drive in Motherwell. On one side of the road, billboards advertised “prestigious four-and-five-bedroom residences” and the houses pictured were bathed in implausible sunshine. On the other, there was a perfect trailer with “Hot Food” painted on its side. I knew which I found more gemütlich, so I hustled up to the hatch and stood there in the shelter of its raised shutter, sipping my milky-sweet tea, while mein host fried me a bacon-and-black-pudding butty.
He had, he said, been stationed here for six years, servicing the requirements of the hard hats who had demolished Motherwell High School and were now transmogrifying an ebullient education system into an asset bubble. Six years in a six-foot-long trailer equipped with tiny shelves of Irn-Bru — it sounds like a torment, but the young man, who bore a family resemblance to Johnny Vegas, seemed quite content.
We chatted while spirited-looking girls wearing leopard-print macs and carrying zebra-striped bags tripped along the pavement towards Our Lady School. The bill came to £2.30 – I felt like tipping but suspected this might be considered a little outrageous. A hard hat pitched up for a burger. I said my goodbyes and trudged on.
The grim slab of the school appeared between sodden leaves. Twenty feet up, clamped to its weeping concrete wall, was a glass cubicle, within which was housed the eidolon of its namesake. Idly, I considered whether I should steal a ladder from the building site and climb up to see if she, too, was serving food.