Adam Wells writes about wine from nine to five, then goes home and writes about whisky and cider for an increasingly large gaggle of magazines, both printed and online. You can find most of his scribblings about drinks on Twitter, where he started out as The Whisky Pilgrim but now goes by the handle @Drinkscribbler. When not writing about alcohol he’s often to be found falling over on one of Reading’s amateur stages. He is the careful owner of one spittoon, and shares his West Reading home with several hundred bottles and one geophysicist.
What have you missed most in lockdown? Probably the ability to just go somewhere. To just walk out of the door. Doesn’t matter what it’s to do or who it’s to see. Just the fundamental, liberating act of leaving the house for a non-essential purpose.
What’s your favourite thing about Reading? The independent scene, especially restaurants, but specifically the way that the people in Reading who know and care about these places gather around them so tightly and champion them so fiercely. It’s something I see a lot on your Twitter and at your lunches and I think it stems from the sneers that occasionally float this way from people who don’t know Reading, who think it’s just grey and bland and a place that’s on the way to other places. There’s such a depth of pride in the independents that are here. They’re not taken for granted, and I think that’s special. If I’m allowed a least favourite thing, glass not being collected with recycling is a runaway winner.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten? It was very recent, in San Sebastián. Part of their “txotx” season, when the new ciders are tasted from barrel – every cider house does it and the menu’s the same at each place. Chorizo in cider and honey, salt cod omelette, cod loin with peppers and onions, t-bone steak (half a cow, really). The food was incredible – perfect – but the occasion and the theatre of it was what lifted it to my top spot.
You write about wine professionally, you then started blogging about whisky and now you write a lot about cider, and are working on a book. If you could only drink wine, whisky or cider for the rest of your life which would it be? Wine. It isn’t a substitute for cider or whisky, but as a whole category wine scratches more itches in more ways than the others do.
What’s your earliest memory of food? Primary school dinners, aged about four. They were cartoonishly horrid – they defied exaggeration. The memories are all the more vivid for a vicious bully of a teacher among whose many dictatorial pleasures was not letting children get up until plates were clean. I don’t think she cared much about allergies or real, deeply-held hatreds of certain food. I remember classmates being properly, bawlingly upset, sat by these plates of utter filth for an hour a few times a week, occasionally being sick, this teacher snapping and scolding and shouting the whole way through. I think parents thought she was some wonderful, characterful old battleaxe, but she was a Trunchbull, and every kid in the class loathed her. It was an early insight into absolute power, and it put me off certain foods for life.
What is the worst job you’ve done? Packing envelopes. It was only for two days, but I felt every second.
From your pictures on Twitter your drinks collection frequently puts most pubs to shame, but what’s your favourite Reading boozer? The Nag’s Head. I think there’s a lot of room for their ciders to improve but I still think they do more things right than any other pub in Reading from an interesting booze point of view. They’re also my local these days, which often sways affection. If I lived the other side of town the Weather Station or the Retreat could easily be my number one.
Where will you go for your first meal out after all this? Sapana Home. It’s our in-town staple, especially when we’ve not planned anywhere specific beforehand.
Who would play you in the film of your life? David Mitchell’s probably a bit too old. Is there a younger equivalent?
Which writers, living or dead, do you most admire? Shakespeare (clichéd, I know) and Martin McDonagh for plays. Terry Pratchett and Harper Lee for novels. A.A. Gill for non-fiction, although I’d put an asterisk next to “admire” in that instance, as I know you wouldn’t approve.
What is your favourite smell? Really good, mature claret. Doubly so if someone else is paying.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? I’m not sure, although I daresay my readers could give you dozens. It’s a bit niche and pretentious, but I feel I write and say “caveat” a lot. Probably precisely because it’s a bit niche and pretentious. It’s also a cheap get-out, a bit don’t-blame-me. It’s quite a cowardly word, I suppose, especially for a reviewer.
What one film can you watch over and over again? Just one? Alright, In Bruges then.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food? Salt and vinegar crisps – the Co-Op’s in particular. I resent sharing 150 gram bags, and mistrust people who take more than one sitting to see them off.
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? My closest friends. There’d be no conversation otherwise; I’m appalling at talking to people I don’t know, and I can’t imagine the embarrassment of meeting all of my heroes at once and stammering awkwardly through a meal. I bumped into David Mitchell in the street once and literally ran away. I wouldn’t make it through the aperitif if there were four or five of them. In any case, if we’re talking dream dinner parties I’m more interested in the food and drink than the guest list.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you? Nothing and nobody lasts forever. You can’t reclaim lost time. Use it properly.
Tell us a joke. Two cats are swimming the English channel. One’s called “One-two-three”, the other is called “Un-deux-trois”. Which won? One-two-three. Because Un-deux-troix cat sank.
It only really works aloud.
What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)? See my answer above, but it absolutely bears repetition.
Where is your happy place? The Great Glen. I’d say the highlands generally, but that’s far too broad. I used to live in Inverness and getting out into the hills around Loch Ness was how I spent most of my free time. The Isle of Arran would be a close second. Our family holiday go-to, growing up.
Describe yourself in three words. Worrier. Overthinker. Writer.
I’m delighted to announce the results of the competition I’ve run with The Lyndhurst. As always, it was a writing competition rather than a prize draw, and I asked entrants to send me 250 words or less on their favourite food discovery of lockdown. Over the course of four months of lockdown I discovered a love of hash browns, black pudding, Cocio chocolate milk, Ascot Brewery’s magnificent imperial stout, Clay’s ambot tik, making my own coffee and countless other little gastronomic pleasures that have made virtual house arrest far more enjoyable. But what had your discoveries been?
I received a postbag full of interesting entries. From home-made flatbreads to cakes and mimosa for breakfast, from foraged wild garlic pesto to the joy of saying “fuck it” to home cooking and ordering fish and chips from Valpy Street, ER readers are an adventurous, imaginative and hungry bunch. I’m glad I didn’t have to judge this one, because that task fell to Glen Dinning of Blue Collar. Before I announce the results, I also asked Glen to tell me his food highlight of lockdown, so here it is:
When Blue Collar first started at the Madejski, one of my inspirations was The Ribman, a street food regular on Brick Lane who also pitches up outside West Ham’s London Stadium on match days. A flick through his Twitter feed shows the level of devotion he receives – he’s turned West Ham fans into street food obsessives, and made opposition fans wish their own clubs would be more imaginative.
As lockdown hit, he started offering vacuum-packed, chilled deliveries of his rib meat, along with bottles of his homemade ‘Holy Fuck’ sauce. I quickly discovered it became essential to repeatedly refresh his web page at 5pm on Saturdays in order to stand any chance when they became available.
When they arrived, it’s fair to say his instructions were to the point – eat with a soft white bap, no butter, no salad and buckets of sauce on top. A friend of mine gets as excited as I do about these sort of things and had followed the rest of the country in turning to baking, so chipped in with a couple of rolls in exchange for a few dollops of meat.
I’d vowed to ignore the hype but it was, of course, my lockdown food highlight. The meat is so tender, the sauce so beautifully spiced: the whole thing just melts in your mouth. At that moment you understand the devotion he receives, and why even the most clichéd football fan would realise how lucky they are to eat something this special.
Off the back of this glowing write-up from Glen I also ordered a kilo of ribmeat, hitting refresh again and again at 4.59pm on a Saturday afternoon. I can definitely recommend following his example, although I would also advise you that it’s far too much for two people and that you should definitely eke it out over a couple of meals rather than lapse into a meat coma with a frightening amount of it still in the saucepan.
Anyway, on to the results, only pausing for me to add a picture of some of my other favourite slow-cooked meat, the star ingredient in the Lyndhurst’s chilli nachos. I had some last weekend and – seemingly more chilli than nachos – they’re every bit as delicious as I remember.
WINNER: Poppy Rosenberg
In “normal” times I’d say that my day revolves around meals; but in lockdown I’d be forced to admit that this focus has become obsessive. During what’s been a tumultuous time (postponed wedding, job loss, career change) food has been a source of excitement and comfort. Thanks to our town, I’ve been able to indulge from my sofa in style. From the ever-incredible Kung Fu Kitchen, to reliable old Honest burger, to Soju, Thai Table and many great Indians, we are spoilt.
Surprisingly though, my food highlight of this lockdown was a meal my fiancé cooked. It was a re-make of the first dish he made for me and, sentimentality aside, it was delicious and gave us the impetus to put screens away, stop arguing about what film to watch and attempt a proper at-home “date”.
The dish was Jamie Oliver’s Duck Ceviche (I know, such culinary ambition!) – a fresh combination of citrus fruits, chilli, avocado and tender duck. Having something presented to me with such interesting flavours, cooked with quintessentially “special” ingredients was a treat. Eating it, I felt like the mouse from Ratatouille with flavours exploding in my mouth (rather than my usual state which is more akin to Pumba scoffing down vast quantities of something slimy yet satisfying.) It may not have been the best dish I’ve had in lockdown (sorry fiancé), but it was the one that felt refreshing, comforting and in a very lockdown way, reminded me how food forces people together.
Glen says: They were all brilliant entries but this one in particular was written with such warmth and emotion. Even though this was a meal cooked at home, it clearly made a big impact and I think it encapsulates how many of us relied on food so much during lockdown.
RUNNER-UP: Graham Walmsley
Whisk eggs and sugar, then gradually add heated milk. Add vanilla, then put on the heat, stirring slowly. Magically, it begins to thicken.
Custard has got me through lockdown. At the end of the day, when I feel myself start to worry, I make custard instead. It’s simple, but takes all my attention: you gaze into the yellow liquid, watching intently for the first signs of thickening.
When it does thicken, things get tense. Do I take it off the heat now, when it’s milky like an eggnog? Or do I push it further, trying for that perfect creamy consistency, watching intently for the first signs of graininess? Both are delicious, especially with tinned fruit: we have a shelf of that, from when we stocked up four months ago, and now we’re trying to eat it all.
I’ve produced more complex meals in lockdown. There were mussels: I cooked them with white wine and cream, then kept the shells and made a velouté the next night. There was a soufflé, which tasted luxurious, and a parsley sauce, which tasted of childhood. And the Bakewell tart was a revelation, with a soft frangipane better than anything Mr Kipling had provided me with.
But it’s the custard I keep coming back to. Eggs, sugar, milk. Sometimes vanilla, sometimes orange flower water, sometimes just those three ingredients. Stir it, stare into it, lose all sense of time, watch it thicken.
Glen says: This one really made me smile – a piece on custard was always likely to get my vote and using it as a way to get through lockdown seems a shrewd move. And the Bakewell tart sounds delicious.
Many congratulations to Poppy, who wins a meal for two at the Lyndhurst, and Graham who wins a curry night for two at the Lyndhurst. Thanks too to everybody who took part!
Originally from Sicily, Salvo Toscano moved to the UK in 1994 “just for a couple of years.” After some time in Bristol and a couple of other places, he ended up in Reading in 2001 and been here ever since. Having spent time working in IT and telecoms and a spell as a stay at home dad, he is now a photographer who has worked alongside Jelly and regularly exhibits at the Whiteknights Studio Trail. He lives in the university area with his wife and daughter.
What have you missed most in lockdown? Aside from the impact on photography of course? Not being able to hop on a train to London to enjoy a nice exhibition and not being able to sit in a café for some people watching.
What’s your favourite thing about Reading? People who, on a variety of fronts, endeavour to provide alternative and interesting ways to live and experience life in Reading, making it a more engaging place than just another dull clone town.There are many challenges and, to a certain extent, what feels like resistance, but I feel one of the learnings from the lockdown will have to be that we look at different ways of experiencing urban life. The focus on what constitutes and contributes to a better quality of life will have to be adjusted.
What’s your earliest memory of food? My grandmother in the country house frying arancini on a summer evening… and me eating them.
When did you discover a passion for photography, and what triggered it? As a little kid I wanted to use my dad’s shiny camera but I was not allowed, so I made do with a little plastic toy one. Later on I got a proper one as a present. This was in the pre-internet days, so help and information was pretty limited. You had to rely on hints and tips from friends and the occasional magazine; lots of experimenting, trial and error, keeping an eye on not wasting film frames and saving money for supplies and lab costs. Not to mention people wondering what the heck I was taking photos of (this carries on to these days, albeit to a lesser extent!). In my adult years, bored with just the technical aspects, I started spending more time researching bodies of work and learning more about photography as a creative and expressive tool.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten? A recent best must be at Les Apothicaires, an excellent small restaurant in Lyon. It was a superb combination of service, food, wine, atmosphere and people. For me a great meal more than just food and many different elements have to click: the whole atmosphere plays an important role. I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy many great meals, be it a Georgian feast in somebody’s home in Tbilisi or in some randomly found izakaya in Tokyo. But all of them have that same thing in common: the combination of a great convivial atmosphere and good food.
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? The cast of Lost In Translation.
Do you think the proliferation of cameraphones, and social media, has made people better or worse photographers? Probably neither. We see more great photos and more bad photos: we are exposed to a flood of images everyday and arguably we have become desensitised. Also, social media’s pressure and need for instant gratification has resulted in an abundance of the same kind of images and “looks” (see for example Insta Repeat). Cameraphones are ubiquitous, convenient. They do the job. They are tools and we will use them badly or well. Ultimately, “better” and “worse” are relative concepts. Photographically speaking, there was lot of tosh well before the advent of smartphones: it was just less visible.
Where will you go for your first meal out after all this? I’ll be lacking in originality here but it has to be Clay’s! (Nandana, if you’re reading this, can I book a table now please?)
What, to your mind, distinguishes a snapshot from a photograph? Nothing, in my opinion: a snapshot is a photograph. I understand that many of us tend to see the snapshot as a rushed, low quality, often vernacular image. Probably many are, but there’s nothing wrong with that. However, I can also look at a “snapshot” as an immediate, visceral response to an emotion, a visual language or aesthetic that can be as or more expressive than a “proper” photograph”.
A photograph, if you mean a technically good, well composed and constructed image can be immensely boring if, in my eyes, it doesn’t draw me in. Or it can be beautifully made and so expressive that I feel completely captivated. We can play with semantics, but they’re both good and valid, people enjoy making either, they serve a purpose and it is a matter of context how you want to see or use them.
What one film can you watch over and over again? Spirited Away.
What is your favourite smell? Fig trees, possibly with the smell of the sea thrown in.
Who would play you in the film of your life? Andy Garcia.
If you could only shoot in colour or black and white for the rest of your life, which would you choose and why? Colour, even though I have used – and still use – black and white for a lot of my personal work. I’ve been shooting in colour more during the past years and I enjoy the challenge of seeing things differently. If necessary I can always convert into monochrome: is that cheating?
What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)? Tyrrell’s sea salt and black pepper.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you? To have good people around you.
Tell us something people might not know about you. I can make a very tasty caponata (a Sicilian dish made with aubergines).
Where is your happy place? With my people and out shooting, although not necessarily together.
Which photographers, living or dead, do you most admire? It can be a very long list! It’s also a changeable one, as it reflects my thinking and mood through certain phases and moments. To put a few known names here: Todd Hido; Luigi Ghirri; Daidō Moriyama; Alec Soth; Rania Matar; Rinko Kawauchi; William Eggleston; Suda Issei; Koudelka; Stephen Shore; Letizia Battaglia; Nobuyoshi Araki; Paolo Roversi; Irving Penn; Robert Adams; Diane Arbus; Sally Mann and Nan Goldin. There are many more whose work I love, who inspire me and grace my Instagram feed.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food? Granita gelsi con panna e brioche – mulberry granita with whipped cream and brioche – as breakfast when in Sicily.
Describe yourself in three words. Obsessive, introvert, liberal elite.
Dan Hearn started as a local newspaper journalist at the Henley Standard and Oxford Mail before, in his words, “selling my soul and working in PR in London”. He was the PR for a power company during the London Olympics (“I was erroneously given an access all areas pass so I could wander into all the venues and watch the action”, he says). Four years ago he joined Loddon Brewery, the family business, where he is responsible for PR, brand and marketing. Dan lives in Caversham and is a Reading FC season ticket holder.
Loddon’s “Tap Yard” has now reopened and can be visited Tuesday to Sunday.
What have you missed most in lockdown? Spontaneity. The chance to make decisions on a whim – go to the pub, go to the beach, go anywhere at all – seems like an enormous luxury when you don’t have it.
What’s your favourite thing about Reading? I love that it’s developing a confidence in itself. We all used to laugh at the postcards with grey buildings called ‘The Views of Reading’ and our perennial listing in that Shit Towns book, but we now feel confident enough to embrace what makes it great – it’s a hugely welcoming and diverse town, and in recent years a really vibrant food/arts/festival culture has emerged which makes it a lovely place to live.
Loddon has a reputation for “traditional” beers. How do you balance respecting that, and your core customers, with staying abreast of the trends in beer nationally and locally? It’s been a blessing and curse. Our traditional beers are well loved and still sell very well – we’re very proud of them. But equally we needed to adapt and overhaul what we’re about. We did this by hiring a really good young brewer who is as adept at producing a brown bitter as he is a New England IPA, and it’s been hugely gratifying that so many people have got on board with this.
What’s your earliest memory of food? My great-grandmother was Egyptian and I remember family gatherings, packed full of Egyptian aunts and uncles and full of noise and laugher, with the table sagging with the most extraordinary food. Falafel, baba ganoush, tahini – gloriously exotic stuff for a kid from South Oxfordshire and I loved them all immediately. Also school dinners, which were probably awful but I was a greedy child and enjoyed them immensely.
What is the worst job you’ve done? I worked in a banana factory in Queensland as a 19-year-old backpacker. The bananas would come in on hooks covered in plastic and my job was to cut them open with a Stanley knife and watch, aghast, as spiders, rats and snakes poured out while a colleague ran around with a broom smashing them all to death. I lasted one day before I was moved to the more suitable ‘banana-washing’ area.
Where will you go for your first meal out after all this? Clay’s or Vegivores. Clay’s because it’s just so, so good – the food, the people, the place. An absolute joy. And Vegivores because I recently stopped eating meat, and they show that plant-based food can be glorious, and unvirtuous.
You moved to Reading comparatively recently. What’s surprised you most about it? Firstly, that Caversham (where I live) and Reading are seen as two distinct places and people from both sides of the river can be very insistent on this. Secondly it has a fantastic beer scene that would be the envy of many big cities.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten? The Fat Duck. Clichéd, but it really does blow your mind. Also because I took my dad for his 50th birthday but he ended up paying because I was poor, so it was free.
Who would play you in the film of your life? Probably that fella off the BT adverts and My Family given just how many times people have said I look like him.
Aside from Loddon’s beers, what would your three desert island beers be? Jarl by Fyne Ales, La Chouffe and Harvey’s Sussex Best.
What was your most embarrassing moment? Going for an ill-advised overhead kick during an inter-form football match at school and ripping my trousers from front to back. The school shirt and PE shorts combo is an unforgiving look.
What one film can you watch over and over again? Hungover? The Bourne films. Any other time it would be Se7en – gloriously dark.
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? Bowie, because he’s Bowie, Natasha Khan, Heston Blumenthal, Mary Beard and David Fincher.
What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)? Pickled Onion Monster Munch are unimprovable.
What’s your favourite citybreak destination? I love Tallinn – such a beautiful old town, incredible food and great beer.
You spent three months writing freelance for “Magnificent Man Magazine”: was that as ridiculous as the title makes it sound? Yeah, absolutely. It was a short-lived magazine for a local watch company that meant to highlight, well, magnificent men and their achievements but was all a bit odd. It lasted three editions, which probably says everything.
Where is your happy place? Branscombe, in Devon, where my grandparents had a cottage and I’ve spent many, many wonderful times.
What’s your superpower? A surprisingly good recall for faces and where I know the person from. Not enormously useful, but it’s all I’ve got.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food? I don’t really believe any food pleasure should bring about a sense of guilt. That said, I will just eat cheddar cheese covered in salad cream which is clearly a bit grim.
Describe yourself in three words. Could try harder.
Sometimes, on my almost-daily walk through the streets of east Reading, I still have to stop and remind myself of where we are now and how we got there. I make myself remember that the people on the opposite side of the road to me, or the couples who dutifully change formation into single file as I approach, have also been going home to houses that they generally don’t otherwise leave. Their social circles have been limited the way mine has, and they too have made do with Zoom calls and, more recently, chats in gardens, constantly mentally calibrating and re-calibrating whether they are two metres, or the fuzzier, less useful “one metre plus” apart from loved ones.
It’s the stuff of science fiction, even now. And not even good, ray guns and rocket ships science fiction, more the chilling, low budget John Wyndham stuff. Imagine if a virus had come along that forced you to keep your distance from everybody you know and everybody you meet. If someone had said that to me a year ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. But now it’s how we’ve lived for some time and, increasingly, it gets foggier when you try to remember how it all used to be.
Six months ago, when we all thought our biggest problems would be cutting down on our drinking and surviving the hundred days until the January pay cheque, the world was completely unlike this one and we lived so very differently. It was a world of, in no particular order: seeing friends and family; “pub tonight?” “yeah, why not”; being inside a building that wasn’t your home; getting on trains and buses and going elsewhere; hugging people; not scrubbing your hands like Lady Macbeth when you take delivery of a parcel; saying no to a social engagement because the sofa was just too alluring; going out for dinner whenever you couldn’t be arsed to cook. The latter, for me at least, happened frequently.
It was a world of holidays and flights and hotels and conspicuous consumption, a world where we could more easily kid ourselves that our decisions didn’t really have consequences. It was a world of blasé complacency too, where we could take our safety and security, relatively speaking, for granted. And we could be equally confident about the security of our loved ones, our families and friends and our favourite institutions.
Remember how older people used to talk about the past as some halcyon bygone era, even though deep down we all suspected it was every inch as grim and dodgy in its way as the present day? We may be the first generations to be able to talk about the good old days with any degree of authority. Of course, it’s still too soon to say.
But, at the same time, there’s a prevailing view that we can’t go back to exactly how things were before all this began, a lifetime ago in 2019. And that’s also true: the challenge for everybody, in the years ahead, will be to knit together a new life that contains all of the advantages of pre-Covid life and all the valuable lessons we’ve learned in the intervening months. It sounds laudable. I’d love to do that, I imagine we all would. But the thing is, self-improvement is exhausting. I should know: I saw a counsellor for years (if you can’t see much evidence of that, thank your lucky stars you didn’t know me before).
There are many things I will want to keep from this strange, upside-down time. I will want to have a more structured life, of weekly shops and meal plans. I’ll probably want to drink better booze at home rather than go to the pub for the sake of it. I’ll want to spend money with the right businesses, instead of frittering it away on things I don’t care for or meals I largely won’t remember.
I’ll continue to make coffee at home – a huge, unforeseen boon of lockdown, breaking a latte habit that was probably more born of boredom than addiction. And, having spent four months finding out who my friends are in a way eerily reminiscent of going through a divorce, I want to spend more of my time and energy on them and less on all the distraction and noise.
More mundane, but every bit as important, I will want to keep going to the Harris Garden. It might be my favourite discovery of lockdown. I think I had only visited it once, a couple of years ago, before lockdown began, but since everything changed I tend to go there most weeks. It’s tucked away in a distant corner of Whiteknights Campus, and to reach the only entrance you have to walk past a bleak, forbidding Brutalist building, a sort of Trellick Tower mini-me. But once you get there, it’s the most fantastic oasis of peace and calm.
I’m no horticulturalist – the overgrown foliage of my back garden is ample evidence of that – and I couldn’t tell you almost anything about the plants, flowers and trees in the Harris Garden. I was going to research it to sound like I knew what I was talking about, but when I Googled and found out that one of the first trees you come across is called the “Caucasian Wingnut” I found that so entertaining that I abandoned my efforts. “The dogwoods and willows are coppiced regularly” the website goes on: who knew that “coppice” could be a verb?
Even a cursory read, though, reveals just how much thought has been put into making the Harris Garden beautiful all year round. And it truly is beautiful, whether you wander among the trees, gaze at the flowers or just grab a bench overlooking the meadows that have only recently burst into life. On the hot days which feel like they happened months ago, I would slope off there with a paperback. After an amble, I’d find somewhere to sit while doing exactly what I would have done in a previous life when I sat at a table outside Workhouse Coffee, namely leaving my book unread while I wasted time (and my battery) trying to read the whole of the internet on my phone.
I blame my reading material: at the moment I’m reading a book by the author of my favourite novel but it’s nowhere near as good as that. It’s such a slog, with so much unnecessary detail, that every time I pick it up I have to go back about ten pages to remind myself of what happened before I lost interest. At this rate, by the end of August I’ll be on page minus ten (the irony of me saying all this in today’s diary is not lost on me: I’m sure you’d all rather I was telling you whether the new souvlaki joint on Market Place is any cop).
More recently, I’ve been going to the Harris Garden for socially distanced meetings with friends. Last week I wandered round it with Reggie (last seen reviewing the Lyndhurst with me). In lockdown Reggie and I would chat over the phone once every couple of weeks, and then we progressed to Facetime, both banished to the other room while our other halves were working and being important in the living room while we took part in a twenty-first century reboot of The Likely Lads. During lockdown our hair got more and more unkempt, we compared notes on good days and bad days, we chatted about all sorts and, I suppose, we became more like friends and less like pub buddies.
Seeing him in the flesh for the first time, one of the first friends I’d seen in four long months, was surprisingly emotional. It’s not as if there was anything that different about it, really, but there we were on opposite ends of a long bench shooting the breeze as if everything was as it was. No pints of cider in front of us, no bag of snacks opened out on a table, but it turns out it didn’t matter.
Reggie has had a mixed lockdown, like most of us, but he moved in with his girlfriend at the start of the year and it sounds like, by and large, they’ve had a very harmonious time. “Even though it hasn’t been that long, because we’ve spent so much time together it feels like we’re at the two year mark” he told me, and as someone not far from the two year mark myself I knew exactly how that felt. When you’re happy with somebody, getting to spend this long with them in lockdown – despite the occasional niggle – feels like stealing time from the universe. Stolen time, I’ve always thought, is the best time of all, like when you wake up an hour before the alarm goes off feeling completely refreshed.
“If you could pick any PM to lead us through this crisis, who would it be?” Reggie asked me during a conversation about one of our favourite topics, the state of the country.
“Definitely Gordon Brown.” I said. “If you hear him on the news now he still sounds completely on top of the detail of everything going on.”
“Nah mate, it has to be Tony Blair.” I’d almost forgotten what a torch Reggie carries for Blair. It’s right up there with my friend James, who bought Habit Rouge by Guerlain solely because it was the former prime minister’s signature fragrance, and still refers to it as ‘Eau de Blair’.
“But look at how he handled the financial crisis!”
“Yeah, but if you go for Blair you get Brown thrown in. Two for one. Picking Brown is a schoolboy error.”
I enjoyed the conversation so much that I couldn’t bring myself to challenge him. Besides, and he took great pleasure from me telling him this, I knew in my heart that he was probably right. Sitting there with Reggie, one of the first people I’ve seen face to face in what feels like an eternity, proved something I’d probably always known deep down but not fully understood, that the company is what matters and the venue is secondary. I told him that and he suggested, ever so nicely, that of course we’d have had an even better time if we were in the Nag’s Head. I didn’t challenge him on that either, but I’m not sure he was right twice in a row.
This week my Harris Garden stroll was with Jerry, the man who popped his sushi cherry when I took him to Oishi. Technically Jerry and I met when he had the thankless task of teaching me GCSE English, but really our friendship began thirty years later when we both found ourselves having a pre-theatre drink in the bar ahead of Reading Rep’s fantastic production of A Little History Of The World, five years ago. We caught up over drinks in the interval, then we ended up having a post-theatre pint or two in the Retreat and we’ve been beetling off for regular trips to the pub trip ever since.
Now thoroughly enjoying his retirement, Jerry has an impeccably tasteful flat in the town centre and before lockdown, I would often head over with a bottle of red only to find that the conversation flowed as fast as the wine. Usually, around midnight, we were cracking open bottle number three with no danger of running out of things to say: I always tried to make sure I was working from home the day after a chinwag with Jerry.
Jerry knows that I write this blog but doesn’t read it – smart man – and despite that he is a regular guest at my readers’ lunches, where he effortlessly charms whoever has the good fortune to sit opposite him. I am very lucky with all my friends, but Jerry is the one my other friends would all love to adopt: most of them don’t even make any secret of it.
It’s funny how friends have fallen into different categories in lockdown. I have friends who want to talk on the phone but not do FaceTime or Zoom, and friends who only think that the only purpose of WhatsApp or Messenger is to arrange face to face calls. I have friends who check in with occasional messages and, just as I think the conversation is getting started, will say “well, it was great speaking to you”. One of my oldest friends, after four months of sporadic WhatsApp, grudgingly agreed to a Zoom call for the first time a few weeks ago. “I know what you’re up to anyway” he says. “I follow you on Twitter.”
Jerry is properly old school – no pun intended – in that sense, and so I knew that we would eventually graduate from WhatsApp to meeting up properly with nothing in between. And yet when he bounds up to me it’s as if no time has passed, and I can’t tell you how lovely that is. It quite makes up for not being able to give him a hug. We compare haircuts (his) and lack thereof (mine), new sunglasses (both of us) and then we are on our way, chatting and gossiping as if it’s mid-March and not mid-July. I recommend meeting your friends in this way, because feeling as if it’s mid-March is quite the wonderful experience.
“My Fitbit told me recently that I’ve walked the equivalent of the length of Italy in lockdown.” Jerry tells me as we approach the entrance to Harris Garden. “I wish it had been the actual Italy instead.” I know exactly what he means, even if I haven’t quite managed Jerry’s regulation ten thousand steps a day. He is a man, after all, who walks from the centre of town to the Waitrose at the end of the Oxford Road to do his shopping.
Jerry has had a good lockdown, although like me he happily owns up to having had the occasional blue day. When it all started a neighbour offered to do his shopping for him – he has diabetes and blood pressure – and it amuses me how horrified he was at the suggestion, given that I am twenty years younger and have had no such qualms. Instead he shops for a friend of his who lives with her elderly parents, and uncomplainingly buys her six packs of Emmental or two dozen bottles of wine from Lidl (“because they’re on offer”, he tells me). Jerry is that kind of man: if you need two dozen bottles of vino in a hurry, he is the chap for you.
When they announced that you could form a bubble with another household, Jerry was the subject of a keen bidding war. He accepted an offer from a couple he is friends with, and ten minutes later the phone rang with another friend keen to make the arrangement. This makes him the social equivalent of the kid who is always picked first in games and I, as a man in a more self-contained bubble, can’t help but feel a bit envious.
“So who did you choose to be in a bubble with?” I ask him.
“Oh, it’s an ex-pupil of mine! He stayed in touch after he left, and now I go and see him and his wife once a week. They live in those flats by the big Tesco, the ones with the blue roofs.”
“Oh really? Didn’t he fancy going through the conventional route of waiting twenty years and bumping into you at the theatre?”
“No, not at all. He’s directed me in the theatre, actually.” Jerry laughs. Jerry does a lot of amateur dramatics: he’s such a lovely man that when he played Gloucester in King Lear last year my friends were visibly upset when Cornwall gouged his eyes out.
“Do you stay over there?”
“Heavens no!” That makes sense. Jerry has far too attractive a flat to spend the night at somebody else’s, a short walk out of town.
I have such a marvellous time sitting at the other end of a bench from Jerry, chattering away, that I quite lose track of time and I’m genuinely sad when I have to draw things to a close and rush home before my online supermarket shop arrives. As we head for the exit, we can see people sitting on the grass talking and gesturing, enjoying the sunshine. It’s funny: a few weeks ago I would have been judging them, silently auditing their living arrangements and social distancing, but on an afternoon like this I can only say good for them.
“Do you know, I nearly brought a bottle of wine?” said Jerry. “But then I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t want to spring it on you.”
“That would have been terrific.” I say. “Let’s do that next time.”
We make our way back into town, keeping our regulation distance apart, and as we say goodbye outside my house I realise how much I have needed my afternoon with him, and my afternoon with Reggie. A couple of days later I go for a stroll in Christchurch Meadows with my mother, and again I am reminded how, after a couple of difficult weeks, seeing people feels ever so slightly like coming out of hibernation. It isn’t quite normal but rather than depressing me with that fact, it encourages me that it’s still miles better than what strict lockdown felt like.
When I knit together my pre and post-Covid lives, when I try to construct the best of both worlds, I hope that this is something I can keep: I hope I’m always as pleased to see the people in my life as I have been over the past week.
My mother and I end our walk by strolling round View Island, passing the fantastic wooden sculpture carved with a chainsaw. We thread our way across Caversham Lock and out onto Kings Meadow, cutting past the blue-roofed flats where Jerry’s bubble-mates (is that what they’re called?) live. I tell her the story about the twenty-four bottles of wine and my mother, who probably drinks a handful of bottles of wine a year, is suitably shocked. From there we head through the tunnel under the railway bridge and I walk her back to her apartment, near Bel and the Dragon.
It really is strange, after this hiatus, that things are nearly as they always were. I didn’t see her for months, and this is my fourth walk with her in just over a fortnight. Truth be told, I worried about her getting Covid – far more than she did, as she carried on going to Waitrose, going to Marks, frustrated that so little was open. “If I get it I get it” she said, clearly more relaxed about that eventuality than I was. I realise that, more than anything, she reminds me of Jerry – it’s no surprise that she kept bumping into him on her travels in lockdown, while I was cooped up at home. I wonder whether she has walked the length of Italy, too.
“Shall we do next week?” I ask her.
“Yes, please. Wednesday works for me – I see your Aunty Mary on Thursdays.”
There’s a pause, and then she says “It will be nice when we can hug again”. I wish she wouldn’t say things like that, because they always set me off. But instead I wave goodbye – a wave always feels so inadequate – and make my way home, thinking that an awful lot of hugs and hellos, a lot of conversations on benches and drinks on picnic blankets are very long overdue. I really, really can’t wait for them to happen.