The sweet pork with savoury rice (or potatoes) at £3.40 doesn’t seem so bad to me, especially when it’s perfectly tasty and comes piping hot on a damp, autumn day. I could’ve had spaghetti bolognese for the same price or spicy chicken and special rice for 10p less. I could even have gone for the more Dickensian lamb’s liver, mash, steamed cabbage and onion gravy – a snip at £3. And there were several healthy options, including a cheese or ham salad with a jacket potato and coleslaw, weighing in at £3.16.
The combination of low prices and the slightly quirky price points – there are other dishes costing such non-commercial amounts as £2.09 and even £3.01 – should alert you to where we are this week, namely a works canteen.
Time was, I suppose, when the great majority of the British workforce had access to a subsidised works canteen of some kind – it was part of the great postwar settlement, together with such nostrums as full employment and a welfare system. Nowadays, we have no need of such frivolities – we have Starbucks and Bupa and sub-sub-subcontractors, for such is the way of progress. True, Go Ahead London is a private business but as Colin Opher, general manager of Stockwell bus garage, assures me, as we sit in the tiled canteen, there’s still some of the old London Transport ethos.
When it comes to food, at any rate. The canteen is open from 7am to 10pm every day (with last orders at 9.30pm), serving a full hot menu to drivers, mechanics and other staff. You can mosey in in the morning and Theresa, the canteen manager, and her staff will plunk down grilled kipper fillets and brown toast in front of you for a mere £1.75, the menu card noting that this healthy fare comprises 418 calories.
Colin tells me that the canteen is fullest on Fridays, the day after staff receive their weekly payslips. There may no longer be any physical pay day, but there is still the anticipation of the weekly wage going into the account; this engenders collectivism in the workforce.
My impression of the bus garage – which I walk past every day – is that it’s a happy enough place. In the late 1940s, the West Indian immigrants who arrived on the SS Empire Windrush were quartered up the road from here, deep underground in a giant air-raid shelter. A half-century on, Colin has drivers on his books who are second- and even third-generation African-Caribbean employees. He tells me that the African and African-Caribbean staff get on well together – unusual for this neck of the woods – and there are also sizeable Portuguese and British Asian contingents. The staff dispersed around the canteen seem relaxed, their high-vis jackets lending fauvist intensity to the light-green tiling on the walls. There’s a game of dominoes clacking on at one table; at another, newspapers are being read intently. A couple of huge fruit machines wink in the corner.
It helps that the canteen is well lit by high windows. They’re difficult to replace, Colin tells me, as they’re the original Crittall ones. That’s the downside of having a Grade II-listed garage that, in 1951, when it was built, had the largest pre-stressed concrete roof in Europe.
On sunny days, the drivers cluster by the main gates, smoking and drinking mugs of tea, while the mechanics have created a sort of “peace garden” that runs along the flank of the building, complete with its own makeshift shelter. I don’t want to overstate what a happy, extended family inhabits Stockwell bus garage, but if the truism that the heart of any home is its kitchen holds good, the sight of Theresa and her colleagues dishing up jerk chicken – Friday is jerk chicken day – must be perennially warming.
Time was when most bus garages had their own canteen, but now only seven or so of the bigger garages in London do. Drivers who have waiting periods at Euston usually eat at the University College Hospital canteen, which is also open to the public, while those waiting at the stand by Clapham Junction have recourse to Asda.
As I chase grains of rice about my plate, Colin casts an eye around to see if Lena, his oldest driver, is in. She’s been with the company since 1978 and, at 71, shows no sign of retiring. Even before the recent legislation, there was no mandatory retirement policy at London General. So long as they pass their medicals, Colin says, the last thing the company wants is to lose its older employees – it’s a job that benefits from the application of wisdom. Still, if drivers want to stay on the road, they’d better give the “London General Special” a swerve – a full English breakfast of artery-busting proportions – and pay attention to Theresa’s laminated card by the till: “KICK THE SUGAR”.