Canteen Days

“Canteen” | a place in a factory, office, etc. where food and meals are sold, often at a lower than usual price.[Cambridge English Dictionary]

“Craic” | (Irish English) enjoyable time spent with other people, especially when the conversation is entertaining and funny [Cambridge English Dictionary]


I hear some people are finding it hard to stay at home and shun human contact during this Covid-19 crisis. Understandable, especially if their regular lifestyle involves daily socialising. But I am experiencing an unexpected bonus. Ever since I stopped going to work I have found it increasingly difficult to find the time to keep up with this blog; suddenly I have no excuse but to knuckle down and resume normal service. Thanks pandemic, for the first time in ages I have time on my hands.

I am fascinated with communal eating, and it’s ironically apt at the moment, when eating out is banned until further notice, by edict of BoJo. In particular, canteens are a thread which runs through much of my life, from school dinners to university refectories, via worker’s canteens, in the UK and overseas.

Even without the virus crisis I just miss the canteen experience these days, as a social diversion, a welcome pause in the working day. Looking back, there have been periods when no canteen was available on a daily basis, such as when I went freelance after leaving the BBC in 1983. At such times, the lack of a canteen was a minor disappointment, something missing in the working day.

Of course, it’s not just about the food, but the craic as well. Actually, like Commisario Montalbano I am rubbish at eating and talking simultaneously, so it’s eat-first-chat-second for me if I have a choice, but for sure there’s not much to be said for eating alone. .                

London 1948 – 61

My first memory of canteen eating was at my primary school in Kingsbury, London NW9, Fryent primary, when I was enrolled in the infant school as a five-year-old, in 1948. My memory of it is quite sharp, mainly because the food was very unpleasant, as was the iron discipline meted out by teachers on dinner duty in those days. There was no choice, just the plat du jour, daily variations on the theme of post-war English stodge. Main course, meat and three veg, typically including mashed potato with lumps. Vegetables, boiled to within an inch of destruction. Gravy – thin, tasteless. Pudding – typically, jam roly-poly (aka Dead Man’s Leg) or Spotted Dog and custard, also with lumps, or a milk pudding such as semolina or rice pudding. Milk puddings made me feel sick. They still do.

Especially rice.

The house rules were made very clear from day one: no-talking-and-eat-everything-on-your-plate, or else. The sound track was a symphony of food splatted on innocent cold plates, knives and forks clattering and the heavy echoing footsteps of the teachers in charge as they patrolled the prefab canteen. Not so far from Oliver’s experience at Mr Bumble’s establishment really.

All in all, not a good start to my canteen days.

My rating (if only because we were fed)

Ironically, years later, we moved from our relatively remote prefab estate into a flat opposite Fryent School and Alice, my Mum, got a job as a lunchtime supervisor, looking after the kids in the canteen and afterwards in the playground. Apparently she was much loved in the role, as an unofficial surrogate mum. Presumably the strict eating regime had changed for the better by then.

The only other communal eating experience I remember from the prefab days is the street party to celebrate the new Queen’s coronation in June 1953. The tables were set up just outside our end-of–row prefab, which was handy. My memories of the day were the slight problem of navigating deep holes dug in the road for some reason, a stupid boy eating live beetles to show off and a display by the Haarlem Globe Trotters basketball team. Hard to say if I enjoyed the experience, but it certainly made a change from school dinners.

My rating (for memorability mostly)

What I didn’t know then was that street parties were an English tradition, occasional outdoor canteens:

When I somehow scraped through the notorious eleven-plus exam and found myself at Kingsbury County Grammar School, things were no better when it was time for lunch. I did try the canteen, but far from the strict behaviour regime at the primary school, here the canteen was a bear pit – chaos, noise, casual violence. Food was regarded by some kids as ammunition and cutlery as weaponry. Projectile mashed potato was not unknown.

The dinners were served from a hatch (more cold plates,) and eaten at wooden tables by kids sitting on backless benches. One of the favourite japes was for a gang of boys to sit side by side on a bench then at a secret signal, shove the boy sitting on the end on to the floor, often dinner-and-all. And so on. I stuck it out for a few weeks, until the School’s secret culinary weapon was deployed.

Spam Fritters.

My rating (on slim evidence)

So back to mum’s sandwiches until I left grammar school. Thent when I was in the sixth-form I did have a few holiday jobs, which I have written about in my post “Jobsworth”. Some of the workplaces were too small to have canteens, but two were substantial factories with works canteens. My memory of the canteen at the Watson Electro-Medical factory in North Wembley is vague, but I did make good use of it, but I seem to recall that some fellow diners were not that inclined to chat, probably because I was classed as “management”, and a progress chaser at that – not a role likely to appeal to some shop-floor workers.

My rating (for the craic anyway)

The last holiday job was at the Goodmans loudspeaker factory in Wembley, and I do remember the canteen there quite clearly. It was not very large, and the food was not that great, but it was friendly and I got to know a few co-workers who worked in other parts of the factory. The difference was that my job, operating a metalworking lathe on the machine shop floor was not in management; once they got to know me, I was accepted as one of them, even though they knew I was really a student, bound for university. I quickly learned that there was a clear line between shop floor workers and office workers at this place. Two tribes, both of whom used the canteen at lunchtime, but never sat together.

My rating (for both food and craic)

France 1961

Then, I escaped school and went to France and a training school near Lyon for young people learning to qualify as moniteurs in a French colonie de vacances up in the French Alps. The learning methodology was to require trainees to do everything that the children would when they left their city homes for six weeks in the countryside. The emphasis was on teamwork, comradeship and interdependence. And that included meals in the dining room, aka canteen. Good food, good craic, and the perfect way to learn French.

The training worked. When a few weeks later I put it into action as a fully-fledged moniteur in a colonie in Savoy, we not only ate with the kids, but assembled after their bedtime for a late staff-only supper cooked by a wonderful Spanish lady from Lyon. The wine flowed, the cuisine was marvellous and we quickly became a well-fed close-knit team. More good craic. Or I suppose badinage.

My rating (for food and craic)

Though I didn’t realise it at the time, I had become a canteen freak.

Leicester 1962 – 66

Back in the UK, my next canteen experience came when I started at Leicester University in 1962. Here the canteens had a posher name, refectories. In my first year, it was a choice of two, one in the hall of residence I was assigned to, Digby Hall in Oadby, and the other the student refectory in the Percy Gee student union building on the Victoria Park campus in town. Both had their charms.

Halls of residence in those days were still single sex, and at Leicester they clung to the traditional academic models including genteel eating at the refectory, housed in a substantial oak-panelled hall, complete with matching tables for the undergraduates and a high table for the Warden, senior academics and occasional honoured guests. Just imagine Hogwarts without the Gothic. On Sundays it was particularly good value for the quality of the food and the scholarly hushed atmosphere. The cost was included in our accommodation fees, which in those days were, for most students, met by the student grant. In other words, the food was free. The craic was very variable, dependent of who you happened to sit with, but the food was always good, in a good-old English kind of way. Nice gravy too.

My rating (for food and craic)

The Percy Gee option was quite another matter, which I have written about in my Turbigo Days post. Much more relaxed of course, and often alcohol fuelled, but you had to pay. At the start of my second year I did have a go at cooking in the grotty flat I moved into, but that was a disaster, so the Percy Gee was the place to be. Mealtimes and drinking sessions on campus were the highlights of the day, more for the social aspect than for the necessity to stave off thirst and starvation. I guess that because communal eating at school had been such a no-no, and my lunchtime experiences as a casual worker had been short-lived, I now hankered for the full-strength canteen culture. I may have over-compensated.

My rating (for food and craic)

France 1964/5

In my third year, when I was shipped off to France ostensibly to improve my spoken French and teach French schoolchildren spoken English, I had more opportunities to sample the French communal eating tradition. School meals at the collège Henri Brunet in Caen were something else. As a member of staff I could lunch there for free on school days, and I often did, because it was free, and because the food served up to staff by yet another wonderful cook was invariably delicious. After all, Normandy is regarded by the French as the best food in the land. The downside was having to dine with colleagues, who mostly ignored me.

For comparison:

My rating (for food anyway):

I suppose Caen must have boasted had some fine restaurants, but they would have been well beyond my slender means, so in order to eat at other times I shopped around to find alternatives, subconsciously hoping for a canteen or two, rather than eating alone in a restaurant. Fortunately, I  found some.

Because I had enrolled as an auditeur libre at Caen University I could dine either in the staff dining room (aka Senior Common Room) or in the student canteen. I tried both. The staff dining room was expensive and rather snooty, but the vast student canteen was just like a much bigger version of the Percy Gee common room. The food was cheap and much better quality than anything the crafty university caterer in Leicester had the nerve to dish up. One feature I remember was the huge vats of lentils and pasta that apparently were included in the price of your meal. However, I found that when eating in either place, I was, once again mostly ignored. Probably my fault, I admit. Good food, no craic.

My rating (for food only)

Then, quite accidentally, a breakthrough. Somebody told me that, as a worker and a member of the teacher’s union, I was entitled to eat out at the local Communist Canteen. This proved to be a life saver. The antithesis of the snooty senior common room. I will always remember the first time I went there. The canteen occupied the upper floor of the Party HQ in Caen; bare boards, simple wooden tables and a huge portrait of Lenin above the serving hatch. No, really. Back with the workers.

I remember the first meal, pot-roasted duck and peas. Delicious and absurdly cheap. Cider on the house! My French was not really good enough to chat much at first, but my fellow diners knew that I was English and that I taught at the collège Henri Brunet and so qualified as a comrade. (Maybe someone checked me out with the union rep at school?) I was a bit surprised that everyone was so friendly, wanting mostly to know about the Beatles and what I thought about De Gaulle (tricky….) but I was happy to go with the flow. Looking back this canteen was easily the best I had experienced up to then. I very nearly joined the Communist party on the strength of it. Well, almost.

My rating (for food and craic)

London 1966 – 67

The only canteen I recall after graduation was a school dinner hall in a failing secondary modern in Willesden, called Pound Lane, where I had a temporary job as a French teacher. Temporary indeed – they closed it down at the end of term. All I can say is, they meant well, including the canteen. Then in 1967 I married and we emigrated to New Zealand. In the six years we spent there, as far as I remember, not a single canteen. No school dinners up in Dargaville, no canteens in the NZBC in Auckland, Wellington or Dunedin.

London 1973 – 76

When I first queued up at the first floor restaurant at BBC Television Centre at White City that I realised what had been missing. As you would expect, the BBC did canteens in style, even though they called them restaurants.At the TV Centre there were two lunctime eaterties, on different floors, a proper canteen on the first floor and a very posh restaurant above it. I used the posh place only once, when somebody else paid. Most workers opted for the first-floor canteen. Years later comedienne Jennifer Saunders nailed the set up: “If you needed a proper lunch, you went to the canteen that overlooked the Blue Peter garden.  If you wanted a posh lunch, you went to the silver service restaurant that was on the balcony above the canteen.  Same food, but with a waitress serving your peas with two spoons.  Executives would eat there with guests or stars.  This was before the days when they all felt they had to get a limo to the Ivy and spend unnecessary amounts of licence fee.’

When the BBC created the TV centre canteen, they gave birth to the ultimate workplace communal eating venue. It was always packed at lunchtime, so I found myself queuing at the long servery with performers, technicians, makeup-girls, set builders, audience members, security guards, engineers, musician, dancers, even middle managers. This was not the place to be if you wanted peace and quiet and chatting was almost compulsory. We could always tell what programme was in production by the performers who were grabbing lunch, some with studio crew, others with the cast, sometimes both. I remember Ronnie Corbett clowning his way along the serving line, keeping the dinner ladies in stiches

Wendy Craig: Butterflies. Ronnie Corbett: The Two Ronnies. Various pop stars: Top of the Pops (Thursdays mostly). ‎James Ellis, ‎Stratford Johns, ‎Frank Windsor Brian Blessed: Z Cars…. You name ‘em.

Later on, after those heady showbiz days, the BBC did away with the posh canteen:

“Geoff Posner suggested a very sensible use for part of this building in 2007.  As a seasoned producer/director of many comedies over the years, he pointed out how hard it is to find rehearsal space.  The old BBC rehearsal rooms in Acton are no more, so sitcoms mostly use draughty, cold and smelly church halls around London.  He suggested turning a floor in this building back into a rehearsal room for the following few years until the BBC decided what they were going to do with it.  Blow me down, but that’s exactly what they did and some BBC Comedy shows for a while used the old ‘Waitress Service’ floor to rehearse sketch shows and sitcoms.  Glory Be!” [History of the television centre]

What I really loved about the first floorTelevision Centre canteen was that it was classless. No obvious hierarchical stuff here, just media industry workers, famous or not, grabbing lunch and trying to earwig everyone else’s conversations. The food was pretty good most days, plenty of choice and hot food was always hot.

“earwig” | Collins English Dictionary: (UK informal): to eavesdrop

My rating (for food and craic)

Now it’s all gone.

Southampton 1976 – 83

Fed up with job insecurity in London, I was accepted a staff job as an Assistant Producer (BBC-speak for programme director) at BBC South. Apparently all BBC canteens were supposed to offer the same menu every day, but I’m not sure this edict ran as far as Southampton in practice. The canteen there catered for both BBC South and Radio Solent staff, but it was minute. It was run by two quite eccentric ladies, who did their best to feed the staff and meet BBC standards. What it lacked in size, it certainly made up for in intimacy, with TV and radio types all jammed in together eating and talking at the same time, as you would expect from broadcasters. Meals had to be booked in advance, which was only reasonable given the limitations of the building. Occasionally creativity was on the menu too as production types became inspired by full bellies. I remember this canteen with affection. I may well have eaten there on my last day in the BBC in 1983.

My rating (for food and craic)

Yorkshire 1983 – 2001

After that, canteens came and went as, after a brief assignment teaching video production to redundant steel workers in the canteenless desert of a Meanwood industrial estate Leeds, I found myself an occasional canteen diner in various universities and colleges, ITV companies and overseas broadcasting companies. Only a few are worth mention.

Following the debacle of the Meanwood operation, I set up and I ran a TV training operation on the Leeds University, called Broadcast Training Centre. The premises there had no catering, but under the terms of the lease, staff had the right to make use of the university’s catering. The situation was similar to that of my year in Caen – a senior common room for academic staff and a chaotic student’s union canteen. The same advantages and drawbacks applied. The SCR was useful for entertaining clients, but otherwise mostly occupied by academic cliques, served by pretty waitresses. The food was excellent. The only disaster I remember there was suffering an anaphylactic shock attack when dining with a freelance TV grapics artist. Nobody’s fault. It turned out the culprit was raw beansprouts in a salad. You discover food allergies the hard way.

My rating (for food and craic)

The student canteen was more fun. Even then Leeds University was a market leader in overseas students, so the sound track was a babble of foreign languages, generated by hundreds of students eating junk food. OK now and then, but not habit-forming.

My rating (for food and craic)

Later, as a freelancer once more, I used to run short courses in ITV companies such as Yorkshire Television, Tyne Tees, Border TV, Central and STV, but they had to be scheduled at weekends, when usually their canteens were shut or scaled down, but at I did spend quite a lot of time at Yorkshire’s Kirkstall Road TV Centre, including some very pleasant lunches in their canteen. As at the BBC, the food was good and so was the craic.

1994 – 98 Finland, Gambia and England

In the nineties I also ran similar courses for YLE, the Finnish state broadcaster, at their impressive TV centre in Pasila, near Helsinki. “Canteen” hardly describes the main eating place there – a vast peaceful atrium with exotic indoor trees and good food where staff ate and chatted to the background sound track of Nordic birdsong piped through hidden loudspeakers.

My rating (for food and occasional craic)

By contrast I also ran a month-long course in the Gambia at Gamtel’s HQ in Serekunda, where I lunched daily with the lovely journalist students in a tin-roofed makeshift canteen. Apart from the unsurprising bouts of diarrhoea, communal eating here was a true delight, especially the beautiful Gambian ladies who cooked and served out lunches. It’s a memory I treasure.

My rating (for food and craic)

During this period I also taught TV production in a few UK universities and colleges, and often lunched in their canteens, which varied between a run-down staff dining club at Teesside, to a rather genteel SCR at St. John’s College York. Finally, and rather unexpectedly, I accepted a post in Lincoln as a senior Lecturer at Humberside University, later renamed University of Lincoln, where the canteen is another atrium.

Lincoln, England 2001

After years of footloose freelance working, here I was, back in salaried employment, happy to become institutionalised in my dotage, munching average canteen fodder alongside both colleagues and students. At first I found it hard to adapt to this egalitarian arrangement, and there were times when I hankered for an nice quiet senior common room, but I soon got used to it. If there was a problem it was with some colleagues, not the students, who were mostly charming and respectful, eventually realising that lunchtime was not a good time to harangue tutors, especially those old and grumpy enough to be their grandparents.

Though this canteen is open to the public, I won’t be dining there again; too many memories, not all good ones. Learning outcome: never go back.

My rating (for food and craic)

So that’s my canteen life story to date. I don’t expect to eat in another canteen now but in writing this post, prevented from lunching out by the pandemic, I have just realised that I have hardly mentioned the most important element in canteen culture, the usually genial army of kitchen and serving staff who slave away, often unnoticed and unappreciated, just to feed the workers. The wonderful Victoria Wood nailed it in her brilliant TV comedy Dinner Ladies:

Well, from eccentric English ladies at BBC South to beaming African beauties in the Gambia, by way of jolly Afro-Caribbean girls at the TV centre, cool French communists and Nordic canteen staff in Finland, I salute you. I noticed you and, as instructed, I always made sure to eat everything on my plate.


Historical note: British Restaurants

I suppose canteens must have a long history, but I’ll stick to my own experience for now. Not long ago I discovered the phenomenon of wartime public canteens around the UK, when I wandered into a large upstairs room in the Guidhall Museum in Boston (Lincolnshire!). Apparently this space was used as a British Restaurant, managed by Miss Nora Carter, offered nourishing three course lunchtime fare and regularly attracted between 200 and 400 people in a session. On one occasion it even apparently fed 1,000 soldiers who suddenly descended on it. The meals were prepared in the kitchen, with the dining rooms on the upper floor. It features in this propaganda film, starting at 08.29 minutes:

The idea for the restaurant was first proposed in 1941 with the intention that it would also cook meals for schools and other establishments in the Borough such as rest homes. These ideas were approved in 1942 and, after the appropriate equipment had been purchased, staff appointed and the restaurant was in operation before the end of the year.

Women from the Women’s Voluntary Service were used to provide assistance in preparing tables and serving meals. The prices charged initially were: Soup 2d; Meat and vegetables – 7d; Sweet – 2d; Tea or coffee – 1d. These prices, however, were gradually increased in the years that followed.

The Guildhall restaurant continued after the war was over, but, in January 1949, there was a crisis when an outbreak of food poisoning occurred at Carlton Road School after a meal had been supplied from it. The fish cakes were found to be carrying the agent involved. The Medical Officer of Health submitted a report and recommended improving arrangements in the Guildhall kitchen. These recommendations were adopted but the supply of meals to schools was not resumed. The restaurant was finally closed in May 1949. It had been running at a considerable financial loss and the daily average of people eating in it had fallen to 147. Even so, it had served the people of Boston well for several years in a difficult period of this country’s history and it was remembered with affection for many years by members of the local populace. [Wikipedia]

Related posts and external links:

Fryent Days
Kingsbury County Days
Me and my Puch
En Marche!
Turbigo Days
Working for Auntie (London)
Working for Auntie (Southampton)
I love Helsinki

History of UK school dinners
French school dinners
Colonies de vacances
French communist party (PCF)
BBC Television Centre
BBC South
Yorkshire Television
YLE (Finland)


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