I’m now well into my sixth week of isolation at home, and we’ve definitely gone well past the “what day is it?” twilight zone we’re all used to between Christmas and New Year. We’re now in some new realm, where time is elastic and meaningless. Things that happened the day before feel like they took place ages ago and events from the recent past have something of ancient history about them. Was I on holiday in Copenhagen only a couple of months back? The pictures on my laptop tell me I was, but it’s almost impossible to recall. Earlier in the week I had no idea whether it was Monday or Tuesday, April or September; as we go deeper into this, that eerie, disconnected feeling is only going to get worse.
It’s an odd feeling, being captive but not uncomfortable. Because of course, I am one of the lucky ones – living in a house that I love, with my favourite person in the world, with a garden and a comfy sofa and Netflix and Apple Music. I still have the food I need, and more booze in the basement than I could safely drink in the months ahead. I like to imagine a lot of people are struggling with this: it feels like a first world problem to be dissatisfied right now, compared to people with much greater struggles. Really, what is there to complain about?
None the less, some days are easier than others. I think nearly everyone I know has had days where they hit a wall, and we all handle it in different ways. Personally, I’ve always been a moper, but on Tuesday, a particularly glum day, I took myself out of the house and went for a walk in Reading Old Cemetery, which thankfully reopened this week after residents lobbied the council. The sun was out, I had something uplifting playing in my headphones and I had the whole cemetery to myself. The headstones cast their long shadows, the war graves were serene and bathed in sunshine. The huge tree looked as if it had been there forever and would be there forever, and that permanence was strangely calming. It was truly beautiful, and it sort of helped.
In the meantime, I try to focus on the upsides. I’ve never been one for breakfasts, but in lockdown I try and eat something every morning. My favourite thing right now is fruit, Greek yoghurt and honey which I’ve been having most mornings. The grapes I use are sweet, plump and dark-skinned, the yoghurt properly sharp and fresh. And the honey, simultaneously sweet and medicinal, drizzles across it so beautifully and so languidly. There’s something mindful about fixing it up, even if it takes a fraction of that time to eat. Isn’t that always the way with food, though? Minutes to prepare and moments to eat. Someone ought to invent a concept where someone else cooks the food for you: I’d definitely go for that.
There are other upsides too. My other half, so used to working shifts and weekends, is suddenly at home on calls working nine to five Monday to Friday. Our evenings begin the same time as everybody else’s, we get lie-ins at weekends like many people do, we get to have lunch together. I feel for her: she’s always wanted weekends off and now she has her wish at a time when you can’t go out for long boozy lunches or book hotels and take trains to somewhere new. But it’s still something novel and welcome. We have already started to plan, in our heads, all the places we’ll go when this is over: not new places, but cities we’ve already visited, because we want to make sure they survive. But what do any of us know, at this stage, about what life will be like after all this?
I mentioned the consolations of lockdown on Facebook and a lot of people chimed in with plenty of positives. Eating better, doing more cooking, taking more walks, all of which I can appreciate. Despite the fraught encounters with people to whom social distancing is just an abstract concept, it’s good to stretch your legs and to see Reading differently. And finally, free of the temptations of restaurants and the pub, my alcohol intake is within the government’s recommended limits and I’m actually – slowly and modestly – losing some weight.
Knowing your neighbours better has been another lovely side of this, as has been watching my local WhatsApp group which is always buzzing with offers of help, jokes, memes or recordings of musical performances on the doorstep. Every Saturday loads of them head out their front doors and take part in a sing-song (last weekend it was All You Need Is Love, although I’m holding out on joining in until they go for Psycho Killer). I read all the messages and smile, although I don’t take part much except to recommend takeaways or veg box delivery schemes. Besides, I don’t think the lockdown memes I tend to be sent would be appropriate for that setting: some of them shock even me.
Also, lockdown does make you do some lovely things you probably wouldn’t otherwise do: on Monday I played Settlers Of Catan online with some friends, and had a thoroughly enjoyable time. Pete won, although I suspect Pete doesn’t offer to play games he doesn’t have a good chance of winning, and Martin showed off his gigantic Kilner jar full of pork scratchings and made me hungry, but it was good to see their faces and do something different. I haven’t played boardgames much in the last few years, even though I love them, and before everything changed I would never have suggested playing one down the pub. So there are silver linings everywhere, you just need to be on the lookout for them.
And special mention has to go to Siobhan, who commented on a previous Facebook post of mine saying how much she was enjoying porridge during lockdown, and popped up this week to report that since saying that she had fallen over in her garden and broken her jaw and both arms, putting her pretty exclusively on a porridge diet. There’s always someone worse off than you, it turns out: I couldn’t read her comment without wincing. I guess we should all be careful what we wish for.
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It’s been instructive to look at how writers and food writers have adjusted to not having restaurants to review any more. In the broadsheets Jay Rayner is writing more general pieces about restaurants and gastropubs, Marina O’Loughlin is writing about learning to cook and Giles Coren is being the same dreary old wanker as usual. Only Grace Dent is writing a weekly column about life in lockdown, so it’s nice to know I’m not alone in my journey to the centre of the navel.
Some restaurant bloggers have fallen silent, some have written up the rest of their backlog of places they have visited that won’t reopen for some time. Those reviews are weird historical artefacts, and reading them makes me feel wistful, envious, fearful for the future, a whole pick n’ mix of emotions. Worst of all, they make me hungry.
Of course, the obvious route for the restaurant blogger who wants to keep going is to review takeaways, and I’ve read a number of reviews carrying on with that. I know a lot of people have suggested I follow suit, and after plenty of reflection I’ve decided against it. For a number of reasons, really. I think inevitably takeaway food compares badly against food in restaurants, because something is always lost in transit.
It’s no coincidence that when I order a delivery from Kungfu Kitchen I always ask for the deep fried fish and Xinjiang shredded chicken – not just because I love them both with a deep, abiding passion but also because in the restaurant, one comes to the table hotter than the sun and the other arrives chilled. Both survive the car ride from Christchurch Green to my house better than, say, the lamb with cumin, which is wonderful served just-cooked at the table but which continues to cook slightly in transit. That difference can be the difference between an amazing dish and one that is just really good.
I don’t mean to single out Kungfu Kitchen – their takeaway is always superb – but this leads in to a second reason not to review takeaways. In this climate, I am amazed by anybody who is still running a business, hustling to survive, putting their safety at risk and keeping us fed. Somehow, giving a negative review in the old, pre-COVID world, felt like something it was safe to do. Restaurants could expect it, and learn from it, and there were plenty of customers out there to fight for.
But now, it would just feel like the wrong time to dole out criticism, however well-intentioned or constructive. If I reviewed a takeaway and it wasn’t very good, I just wouldn’t know what to say or how to say it. Combine that with the fact that they sit in an awkward sweet spot where they usually aren’t as good as eating the same dish in a restaurant but still far better than anything you might cook at home, and it just becomes too difficult a proposition for me.
And then we come to our local websites, the Reading Chronicle and the artist formerly known as Get Reading (and, for that matter, In Your Area), now going by the name of Berkshire Live. They appear to be in some kind of special furlough scheme where they only have to put in 20% of the effort they used to.
Things were bad enough before the days of lockdown, but Berkshire Live has reached new depths, dusting off and updating an old article about rites of passage in Reading. Many of the things on the list couldn’t be done back when the article was first written, let alone now, but the whole thing has an impressively cobbled together feel about it, like something made out of words mechanically recovered from a better piece of writing, like Fifty Shades Of Gray.
It’s not helped by the fact that every paragraph is a single sentence.
A bit like this.
It gives an overall impression that is more Janet and John than local newspaper.
Did you ever try to get into the Monk’s Retreat when you were underage?
You had to get past the bouncers.
It was difficult, but it could be done.
Run, Spot, run!
And so forth. Another article, entitled 9 things we miss about life in Reading, written in the same idiosyncratic style, manages to include Reading’s traffic (Berkshire Live likes to talk about the traffic the way most people talk about the weather) and nights out. The latter is illustrated with a stock picture of Lemoni, a restaurant I doubt many people would pick as their first soirée in a post-lockdown Reading. One thing I miss about life in Reading is having a decent local paper: there is so much you could cover in town at a like this, vital work you could do connecting the community, even remotely, but the overall impression is still “oh, this will do”. Maybe they’re too busy watching Homes Under The Hammer.
Even better (or worse, depending on your point of view) was the Reading Chronicle. Last week they published an article called Reading restaurants using Uber Eats amid the coronavirus lockdown which contained, you might be amazed to hear, five restaurants which are on Uber Eats.
What about the other delivery platforms, you might ask? Nope, just Uber Eats. But presumably some level of curation was applied? No again, it’s just five random restaurants which happen to be on Uber Eats. Two peri-peri chicken takeaways (somebody must really love peri-peri chicken at the Chronicle), Miah’s Garden Of Gulab, Crumbs and Kobeda Palace. Of those, only Kobeda Palace would make the takeaway list of anybody who actually eats out or orders takeaway, but never mind. If you hadn’t ever been to Kobeda Palace I’m sure you’d be won over by the writeup it got in the Reading Chronicle, which billed it as “Serving large portions of various dishes”, a USP if ever there was one. Somebody got paid for writing that article. Quite possibly by Uber Eats.
A subsequent Chronicle article lists the five restaurants to visit after lockdown, an article which has been entirely researched (by which I mean somebody knows how to use Ctrl C and Ctrl V) from Tripadvisor. So the restaurant we’ll all be clamouring to visit after lockdown is Miller & Carter in the Oracle. Well, of course: apparently it has “one reviewer describing the food as ‘delicious’ and the service as ‘amazing'”. That’s that sorted, then.
It’s just crazy. All over town restaurants are adapting their offers, moving into takeaway, setting up online stores, morphing into grocers or wine merchants. It makes you incredibly proud of the ingenuity, pluck and entrepreneurial spirit of some many of Reading’s independent businesses. We’ve seen the very best of them in this crisis: it’s a shame our local media hasn’t even tried to up its game.
Oh, and before moving on, if you do want takeaway: at the time of writing Valpy Street, Vegivores and House Of Flavours have set up online ordering on their websites. Kobeda Palace, Thirsty Bear and Kings Grill are all available through Deliveroo and Just Eat. Papa Gee and The Last Crumb are on Deliveroo only. And last but not least, Kungfu Kitchen still do takeaway and delivery although you need to contact them on their mobile number for either. See? There’s plenty of choice, and it really isn’t that hard. Not only that, but even though I don’t plan to review their takeaway offerings I happen to know that every single restaurant I’ve listed does large portions of various dishes. Happy days.
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What feels like a long time ago, when I first lived on my own after over a dozen years of marriage, I used to fall asleep to an app on my phone that played the sound of rainfall. There are an awful lot of apps offering this experience, all slightly different with a seemingly infinite number of soundscapes: city rain; forest rain; rain on a window; rain falling on decking; rain falling on a deep pan pizza, the list goes on and on. There were other options with nothing to do with rain, but once you reach a certain age you don’t want to fall asleep listening to the sound of ocean waves crashing on the shore. It just hastens the inevitable stumble to the bathroom in the dark in the middle of the night.
After that, I experimented with a record called Sleep by Max Richter, a classical album over 8 hours long. The idea was that you popped it on as you drifted off to sleep and woke up just as it finished and it’s tailored to your brainwaves or something: I didn’t really pay attention to that bit. I didn’t get on that well with Sleep. Quite aside from that fact that I never got eight hours shut eye anyway, I’d often wake up in the middle of the night – that call of nature again – and feel disorientated by the music playing in the background. It was a record in which nothing happened very, very slowly: if you woke up at the wrong time you’d hear what sounded like the longest, most ponderous crash of cymbals, going on for minutes.
My rainfall app phase didn’t last: I took up with someone who needs silence to sleep, and we moved in together and now it gathers virtual dust on the fourth screen along on my iPhone, along with the other stuff I don’t use, like Uber and Deliveroo and the Wetherspoons app. Besides, it was all a bit Berger from Sex And The City, and nobody wants to be Berger (not even, as it turned out, Berger). But I still maintain that the sound of rainfall is one of the loveliest there is, like a little vinyl crackle in the background of real life.
The other most beautiful sound in the world is another you couldn’t fall asleep to, because it would just make you ravenous. Last Sunday Zoë and I woke up at a sensible time and decided not to waste the day. We trekked up through the streets of the university area, into campus past the magnificent Foxhill House and then veered left, making for the Harris Garden. On a Sunday midmorning it was a beautiful, tranquil place to wander, and even if we didn’t have it to ourselves most of the people we passed were happy and smiley, saying hello and ever so nicely shuffling two metres away. It really is one of Reading’s most unsung gems, and I’m sorry that it took an event of this magnitude to make me appreciate it properly.
When we got home, just the right side of midday, the frying pan went on the hob and once you could feel the heat coming off it the bacon went in. Streaky bacon, for my money the best kind; within minutes the rashers were singing and sizzling in the pan, as beautiful in their way as birdsong. I turned them now and again, enjoying watching the fat get golden and crispy, the whole thing caramelising in front of my eyes. And then, when they were ready, Zoë fried a couple of Beechwood Farm eggs in the fat while I buttered thick slices of bread (because if you’re going to do something like this, you have to do it properly). It all happened in perfect harmony: we were only matching pyjamas away from a Morecambe and Wise pastiche.
The end result was nothing short of utopia on a plate. I like my bacon almost brittle, crispy salty shards of joy, although I suspect Zoë would like hers a little more supple. I have to have HP on a bacon sandwich, Zoë hates the whiff of vinegar (which means most condiments) on anything. Both of us prefer our yolks firm to runny. But sitting on the sofa, side by side, devouring a bacon sandwich after a lovely long walk in the sunshine, it felt as close to a religious experience as I’m likely to get on the Sabbath.
Having bacon sandwiches at home feels like an indulgence, in the way roast dinners do, and I only seem to have one a couple of times a year. I mentioned that on Twitter and one of my friends replied “why only twice a year?” To my shame, I didn’t have a decent answer. Maybe this is another life change I need to seriously consider.