An Unpainted Portrait, Gastrointestinal Fortitude

Leo Simmons


Gastrointestinal Fortitude.

Recruit life rapidly began to assume a pattern of hard work, more hard work, not very much relaxation and – it’s worth pointing this out – truly appalling food. The academic aspect of the course was very much our professional focus – as a colleague put it: our job at that time was “…to learn about a lot of sh*t”. Surprisingly, the discipline regime, the food and the tiny amount of time that we could realistically call our own were much greater psychological pressures. Those of us unused to living in what amounted to a military camp – we were not permitted to leave the campus until our release each weekend – experienced a kind of shock.

Food breaks became the punctuation of our working day; and the first public act of each morning was the trudge from our accommodation block to the main building, there to do battle with the first efforts of the machiavelian kitchen staff. Their goal, it became obvious, was to make us eat sh*t as well as learn about it. Anyone choosing to avoid this unpleasantness was subsequently asked to explain themselves to the authorities (they knew, you see) and warned to never repeat such outrageously reckless conduct. Almost every transgression of the rules entailed being summarily removed from post. Yes, really. Everything we did, it seemed, was observed.

The main building complex of the centre – part of which included the dining hall – was essentially unchanged since its formative days as an American army camp. Dull brown brick walls were broken up with cast-iron window frames painted in a daring institutional beige. The overall effect was of a small hospital with extraordinary security measures and a fully-fledged program of malnutrition overtly intended to starve the patients to death. It’s been suggested that this was a deliberate attempt by the Home Office to shore up our digestive resistance to eating twenty kinds of crap while working an unsympathetic shift system. Plausible, perhaps. However, I think this bestows an unrealistic level of benevolence upon the workings of that meal production facility. Generous by nature, I can no longer continue mis-using the word ‘kitchen’ in relation to that collection of misanthropes behind the counter.

The food hall had a ‘Tardis’-like quality; a large and austere room opening out from an innocuous entrance and a truly tiny cloakroom which was entirely incapable of dealing with the numbers of coats, helmets and caps requiring storage while their owners suffered unspeakable torture within at the hands of a ‘coconut sponge’. As many as two hundred helmets and caps were left hanging in the cloakroom, a practice which over the following fourteen weeks would result in many unintentional and perhaps unavoidable helmet-swapping episodes. I was fortunate to avoid this irritation; having a kidney bean-shaped noggin to which my helmet had conformed meant that nobody walked more than half a dozen paces wearing my helmet before returning to find their own headgear.

At strategic points on the walls of the dining hall hung diverting items designed to entertain the waiting customers. Between things such as peeling flakes of pale blue paint or an occasional mysterious blood-coloured stain, hung force crests looking for all the world like mediaeval ceiling bosses. To distract us from our gag reflexes, we had merely to look upto find framed photos of fierce-looking former commandants. In pride of place where everyone had a view of it, sat a rather incongruous, out-of-date portrait of the monarch. It all felt very archaic and out of touch with what I considered to be modern Britain. Nevertheless, I doubt that the countenance of Her Majesty had ever looked down upon a more unhappy group of new public servants. Mealtimes – and I’m using the word ‘meal’ generously – were not parts of our day that anyone anticipated with relish. As we queued around the walls of the large room, not a single soul expected to find the smallest amount of comfort or succour at the serving counter.

Sweaty, unwashed constables were most definitely not welcome inside the dining hall. Anyone engaged in PT or sport before a meal break was obliged to shower and change into a hot, itchy uniform before eating. In the heat of that summer, this was a less than attractive proposition. However, rules were rules. Besides, itchy pants were a distraction from whatever was on our plates. Anyone caught missing a meal was hauled over the coals for – without any obvious sense of irony – risking their health and wasting Home Office cooking talent (an oxymoron if ever there was one) and/or public resources.

After a frustrating wait in the long queue, the malnourished recruit would shuffle into position at the dolloping counter, tray trembling in hand. Invariably, he or she would be grimly presented with a dispiriting choice of boiled everything. Even the grilled or fried food was boiled for good measure to make sure that no calorific value or colour remained. Credit where it’s due: their success rate was one hundred per cent. I had never before seen beef which was the same colour – and a remarkably similar texture, come to think of it – as my potatoes. This was, I told myself, just another new experience to endure, courtesy of my training. The trick was to bear up under this kind of treatment, and press on regardless, in the Blitz spirit. It was, nevertheless, apparent to everyone that our worst memories of school dinners were nothing compared to the horrors that would live with us after eating at the Home Office counter.

It really was, without a doubt, the worst food I had ever been expected to eat and was obviously the product of many years of practice of steadfastly removing any lingering nutritional value from all the basic food groups. It felt not altogether unlike being sick backwards. The only reason that anything was consumed at all was that being engaged in hard physical training each day, we needed something – anything – to fill our growling bellies. Even that strange ‘tart’ creation with the dried coconut shavings on the top of it…boiled, of course. Only in the last few years of my life did I find this appalling cuisine’s equal, within the mis-named ‘diabetic menu’ of Vancouver General Hospital. A mighty achievement indeed.

The vast majority of us facilitated our survival using another food group entirely – that which was supplied by a purveyor of hot vittles situated in the centre’s dimly-lit, grim bar. A fun palace it was not. A jacket and tie were required for the men to attend. Pants, as well, thankfully…Women were simply expected to dress ‘smartly’. Oh, how we laughed hysterically each night as we crawled over there, nursing stomach cramps. This sanctuary of hot, non-boiled grub catered to our cravings for that great British staple: grease. Thanks to generous helpings of sausages and chips, egg and chips, hamburger – we were big on the hamburgers because it included a bread roll, too – and chips, chips and gravy and chips and curry sauce, we at least kept our net calorific intake slightly above fainting level. I think we also kept the local potato industry on its feet. The fats and cholesterol levels were off the scale of course, but we were young and felt quite indestructible, and if it meant that we survived another day of boiled something(s), we really couldn’t give a hoot about the distant future. Twits.