Corona diaries: Week 2

Taking my government-sanctioned hour of exercise involves a certain degree of planning. I used to walk down to the canal, out past the Fisherman’s Cottage (the sign on the door says “Gone Fishing” – a nice little touch, I thought), past the striking Dreadnought Inn, abandoned long ago, and out towards the Thames Path, before cutting right and wandering through Thames Valley Park.

There’s something weirdly beautiful about walking through an abandoned industrial estate, something especially 28 Days Later about it. The thing is, when you walk down a quiet road you know all the residents are behind closed doors, but all these gleaming offices are another matter. All the whiteboards probably have abandoned brainstorms on them, the vending machines still hum, filled with unclaimed snacks.

The problem with this walk, I’m afraid, was the people. The path by the canal is pretty narrow and too many of the people shambling down it like to do so right in the middle, on their mobiles, oblivious to everyone and everything coming in the opposite direction. Once you got to the green space just past the rowing club, there were lots of groups, sitting around and chatting. Did they all live in the same household? In some cases it felt unlikely. The whole thing made me feel a little too jittery, and I wore out my hard stare to no avail, so I was forced to rethink.

Walking round campus would be more straightforward, I thought, until I tried it one day and found the path round the lake blocked by a pair of young chaps, standing around near their parked bicycles, drinking a can of Fosters apiece and chatting as if they didn’t have a care in the world. That, combined with some kamikaze joggers, completely disrupted my equanimity and I’m sorry to say that I had a rant on Twitter.

Not all cyclists, replied a number of good-humoured cyclists. Not all joggers, pointed out the many reasonable joggers who follow me (figuratively, I’m glad to say, not literally). So generally now I stick to the roads of East Reading – nice wide roads, with nice wide pavements. You can walk up them towards Christchurch Green and look back at the way you came, to a vanishing point with the Blade or the gas tower near the horizon.

Late on Saturday afternoon, in my quest to find somewhere free of people, Zoë and I strolled down the Kings Road and through the gates of Reading Old Cemetery. It was the first of many glorious sunny days, and the cemetery was more stunning than I’d ever seen it – peaceful, still and serene with the headstones bathed in sunlight, the trees verdant. We made out a couple of silhouettes in the distance, but that was the closest we came to anybody at all.

We strolled around the perimeter, to the War Memorial, and took a moment enjoying the sunlight, the silence and the isolation, chatting and reflecting on what a strange time this was to live through. As I said to someone recently, if it wasn’t for the constant anxiety that you or someone you love would get very ill, and the fear of running out of food, it would be a fascinating time to be alive.

But none of that mattered that Saturday afternoon – we were still alive, our loved once were safe, I finally had the fridge, freezer and cupboards of a responsible adult (even if it had taken a global pandemic to bring this about) and the sun was out. In that blissful moment the world outside faded away: it felt like we were the only people in the whole graveyard, like it existed just for us.

There was a reason for that. On the walk back out, it soon became apparent that the gate had been shut and padlocked, a couple of hours before the cemetery was due to close.

Once we got close enough to realise that that was indeed the case, I took decisive action: if you class pacing and palpitations as decisive, that is. Zoë, far more unfazed, found a telephone number on a sign near the noticeboard and rang it to explain our predicament.

“He says that he looked round the whole place – he can’t have looked very hard – and couldn’t see us. He’ll be back in five to ten minutes to let us out.”

My pacing slowed slightly, although the palpitations had no interest in following suit. As we waited, I looked again at the sweep of the cemetery, one huge, majestic tree off in the middle distance, and wished I felt more fortunate to have ten minutes with this place all to ourselves.

A pillar-box red Mini pulled up outside the gates, but it wasn’t our rescuer. A cheery-looking short, balding man came out to check if we were okay.

“They’ve done it again! The guy who locks the cemetery is a bastard for this, he does it all the time. I come here to walk the dog, and I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve had words with him.” His accent was warm and Scottish, not from round here.

“It’s okay, he’s on his way” said Zoë.

“I think I’ll wait. I wanted to go round the cemetery today, I’ll give him a piece of my mind. And if this ever happens again, there’s a bit of wall up there on the right with a less shallow drop, I’ve used that to break out of the cemetery many times.”

It’s amazing the things you learn in a time of lockdown. I thought it would be all making banana bread and discovering podcasts, but this was an entirely new frontier.

When the man from the security company pulled up, our new Scottish friend was crestfallen (“it’s not the usual bloke”, he said). Our liberator apologised profusely, said he’d received instructions from management to close a couple of hours early. We nodded and said yes, even though I’m sure all three of us believed that he just fancied clocking off early and relaxing in his garden. We threaded our way through the gate, trying to stay six feet away from our rescuer and his heckler, and wandered off into the distance while their frank exchange of views became less and less audible.

“Look at you, you got into such a state” chuckled Zoë as we made our way up Hamilton Road, less leafy, more handsome but – crucially – far less like a prison.

“That’s more than enough excitement for me for the rest of the week, that’s all.”

“I don’t know,” she replied with a mischievous glint just about visible behind her Ray-Bans. “There’s a lot of potential in trespassing.”

Hamilton Road really is a fine-looking street, lined with gorgeous, handsome Victorian villas, big bay windows, 4x4s parked in expansive driveways and – always a clear sign that you’re somewhere prosperous – plantation blinds everywhere you looked. There were hand-drawn rainbows in every window, but approaching one particularly enviable house we caught sight of some teddy bears, sitting on a ledge, with speech bubbles saying “HELP!” and “GET US OUT OF HERE”. I know exactly how you feel, I thought, all the way home.

A couple of days later, another walk through Cemetery Junction found the gates closed and a sign up saying that the council had decided to close the cemetery for the foreseeable future with some specious guff about social distancing. I guess it was just too much bother for them to keep this gorgeous space open. I wish I’d fully appreciated my final wander round there: even so, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it still gets the occasional visit – from a little Scottish chap, shimmying over the wall.

* * * * *

Weeks into lockdown, my cooking is slowly but surely improving, albeit from a low starting point. Earlier in the week I cooked spaghetti with crab and ‘nduja, a carby bowl of comfort with plenty of clean, fresh crab completely led astray by the deep red fiery flecks of ‘nduja. In the pan the ‘nduja completely dissipated, shading everything slightly crimson, detonating like a grenade of punchy heat. One of my favourite restaurants, Arbequina in Oxford, does a dish of sourdough toast covered in ‘nduja, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with thyme: I may well have to try and recreate it in the weeks ahead.

The highlight, though, was lunch last weekend: a toastie made with beautiful sliced sourdough from Geo Café, Barkham Blue (thank heavens for that Grumpy Goat delivery) and truffle honey – another Geo Café discovery. Assemble, butter the top and bottom, pop it in a hot frying pan and wait for the magic to happen: little could be simpler.

By the time it was ready to eat the bread was golden, caramelised by a mixture of melted butter and blue cheese bubbling up through the gaps. In the middle, the cheese was a salty molten delight and the truffle honey had worked its magic, knocking the edges off the whole thing. The best dishes are more than the sum of their parts, and this was no exception, but it helps when the parts are such terrific quality. That I could get them from two of our best local businesses, both still trading in these uncertain times, made it even better.

* * * * *

Lockdown also gives me the opportunity to properly attack the huge pile of unread books in the spare room. It’s a very long time since I had a one in, one out approach to paperbacks and as a result I probably have enough reading material to last me the rest of the year.

There are also some books I’d really like to re-read, like the beautiful, clever I Remember by Joe Brainard or the sweet, deceptively complicated Don Camillo stories by Giovanni Guareschi. There’s something about reading a book you’ve read before: it can be like going back on holiday to a city you think you know and discovering different sidestreets, restaurants and shops. Since we can’t go on holiday anyway, books might be one of the best travel agents right now.

One of the reasons the stock of books has built up so heavily is that I’ve spent much of the last nine months wading very slowly through one book, Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. It was a gift from my other half – I’m trying not to see that as a heckle – and so I’ve persevered with it far longer than I normally would. It has sat untouched on tables in cafés in Reading, bars and restaurants in Malaga, the tray tables of countless trains and aeroplanes while I idly surfed the net instead, or watched films, or played games on my phone or did literally anything else. At some points I’ve raced through it at the rate of one or two chapters a month, but picking it up always felt more like a chore than it should have.

It’s not that it’s badly written, and the insight into professional kitchens (albeit professional kitchens of a few decades ago) has been quite an eye-opener. I know Bourdain is beloved of many food writers, and I can understand why, but opening the pages has always been reminiscent of spending time in the company of a friend you can only take in small doses. The irony isn’t lost on me: I have at least a few friends who might describe me in similar terms.

Next up is a book I’ve borrowed from a friend, Slow Horses by Mick Herron. Herron is apparently the twenty-first century’s John Le Carré, his series of spy novels has won widespread acclaim and they’re being adapted for TV with Gary Oldman in the lead role. Espionage isn’t normally a genre I’d read, but I’m mostly motivated by curiosity, because I worked with Mick in my first job after university, almost twenty-five years ago.

It was a little publishing company in the basement of a law library, back in the days before computers and when everyone got a desk of their own. I was doing editing and sub-editing, and I shared an office with a chap called Naveed. Mick worked in the other room and those two rooms was the sum total of all the office space occupied by our miniature publishing empire. It’s hard to imagine, now, working for seven and a half hours a day without music to listen to or the BBC website to run to every time things got boring (they quite often got boring) but somehow we managed it. We had a huge coffee pot – cafetieres were too posh for us – and everything would stop mid-morning for a coffee break where we all piled into one of our two rooms.

I remember Mick being a quiet, wry, drily funny Geordie, slightly older than Naveed and I, and far too sensible to get drawn into our more random conversations. I had no idea what to do with my life and had jumped at the first job opportunity that came along. I don’t think anyone could have described me as conscientious and I still hadn’t discovered that if you plan to wear a shirt to work you really ought to iron it. If Mick judged me for that – and surely he must have – he was far too polite to say. Nothing about him indicated that he would go on to be a best-selling author, which just goes to show that it’s the quiet ones you have to watch.

“It’s like the opposite of finding that someone you went to school with turned out to be a serial killer” I said to a friend the other day.

“Yes. The opposite of that” he replied, presumably nodding and backing away from the conversation. It’s hard to tell via WhatsApp.

I did a bit of research on Mick and found an interview where he gave his tips on writing. A good rule of thumb is: delete all those words that you thought made it a special piece of prose, he said. I must be doing something right because I’ve reread this whole piece with his advice in mind and didn’t have to make any changes whatsoever.

* * * * *

Last week I asked on my Facebook page: where do you plan to go for your first post-lockdown meal? The answers came thick and fast, and they made me feel heartened that so many good restaurants were still in people’s thoughts. There were quite a few mentions of Kungfu Kitchen (along with gratitude that they still deliver, and delight that you got so much food that you could guarantee leftovers) and more than a few people looking forward to their first trip to Clay’s. But loads of restaurants had places in people’s affections: Pepe Sale, Papa Gee, Fidget & Bob, Bakery House and Côte were all mentioned in dispatches, along with many more.

One reader told me she had a booking at Pepe Sale “The Night The Restaurants Closed”, and I thought that was a good way of describing it, our version of the day the music died. On The Night The Restaurants Closed, I was meant to be out for dinner with my family, celebrating my birthday. By contrast, my last meal out was actually at Carluccio’s, which turned out to be The Restaurant That Won’t Reopen. The Night The Restaurants Closed coincided with the International Day Of Happiness, an especially cruel practical joke for the cosmos to play.

This week, readers have told me how having a takeaway every week has become the special event that going out for dinner used to be. Friends of mine ordered their first Kobeda Palace takeaway a couple of nights ago, I see Twitter awash with mentions of Valpy Street (fish and chips, delivered to your door!) and Vegivores. I have done my bit by booking a slot for delivery tomorrow from Kungfu Kitchen, and plan to spend the time between now and then agonising about what dishes (and how many dishes) to order. It’s a difficult enough decision at the best of times, and having several days to choose only makes matters trickier.

My final pub session before lockdown was a couple of Saturdays before The Night The Restaurants Closed. In the run-up to last year’s general election, a group of us on Twitter became especially taken with the output of Craig Morley, the Tory candidate for Reading East, who looked like a haunted ventriloquist’s dummy and opined about climate change and Brexit as if he had Boris Johnson’s hand up his arse.

He blocked all of us, one after the another, and we all rejoiced as he made PR blunder after PR blunder. First there was the image of a random abbey in Scotland on his website, because, despite being a local boy, he didn’t know what Reading Abbey looked like. Then there was the time he decided to attack the Guardian for the crime of quoting huge sections of his website verbatim (he never quite explained how his own website didn’t correctly reflect his own views, but I suppose he was busy). Or his hapless turn on local radio when he managed to make Andrew Peach look like Andrew Neil.

And let’s not forget his “meet the candidate” event, which charged for admission and was only attended by Conservative party members: even in the photos posted on social media the audience looked like it was actively contemplating jumping out of the nearest window. It was like going back to the glory days of Rob Wilson Tweeting porn links and claiming 9p for a non-existent taxi ride: I started to wonder whether Morley had recruited Mr Blobby as his campaign manager. Pictures cropped up of Morley, accompanied by Sajid Javid, at the Caversham Butcher and behind the bar at the Moderation, and I made a mental note to shop and drink elsewhere.

The Craig Morley Appreciation Society enjoyed gaffe after gaffe; one of us even donated a pound to his election fund (mostly out of pity: there were no other donations, and the fund was quietly put out of its misery). And when Craig lost, we all celebrated virtually and then, a little while later, we all met up for the first time in the Nag’s Head. Plenty of booze flowed, we shared stories and eventually wandered out into the night promising to do it again. And on a Saturday in March we all assembled at the Last Crumb to do exactly that.

A couple of days ago, founding member Jane was reminiscing about the fact that it had been a month since that final trip. And one by one we all chipped in, saying that we couldn’t wait to do it again. The extroverts among us, me included, said that we were going stir crazy without the buzz of socialising. And you could tell that the introverts, although much happier with the current situation, were still looking forward to joining us, even if it meant rolling their eyes at our stories and jokes.

“The hangover’s going to last 48 hours” said Jane. “I’ll be hugging people, over-emotional, by 8.35 and retired hurt by 10.05 at the latest” was Helen’s assessment. Nick, who during the day is responsible for keeping the Whitley Whiff under control, started reminiscing about having a post pub kebab and being asked the time-honoured question “Chilli sauce, boss?” Strange, really: you’d think, given his job, that he’d already dealt with enough mechanically recovered slurry to last him a lifetime.

These memories, and the chance to recreate them in our imagination, are what we use to get by, right now. Jane reminisced about the smell of onions frying on the grill, a scruffy Proustian reboot, and I thought that the best thing about this situation is that it enables us to reboot so many other things in our life.

They say it takes twenty-eight days to form a new habit, so perhaps by the time we come out of lockdown we’ll be a blank slate again. Everything will be alien, like there’s fresh snow over everything, and we’ll have an experience most people never get to enjoy: the chance to do something for the first time, a second time. The first meal out, the first pint, the first evening with friends, the first hug. That feels like something well worth holding on to.


Corona diaries: Week 1

I’ve always stayed away from Deliveroo, partly because I like restaurants – not just the food, but the experience, the welcome, the people-watching and the spectacle. But also, I’ve always distrusted their model. The dishes are usually more expensive than they would be if you dined in, they take a significant cut from the restaurant and your food arrives some time after it was cooked, often lukewarm and sometimes a bit crumpled from transit (I ordered a Franco Manca pizza on Deliveroo once: it was one of the most forlorn things I’ve ever seen). The customer pays more for worse food, the restaurants make less, the riders are hardly handsomely rewarded for thankless work: the only winner seems to be Deliveroo.

Nonetheless I placed an order this week, because Bakery House announced on Twitter that they were about to close their doors until we reach what everyone is calling “the other side”. They’ve soldiered on doing delivery and takeaway ever since this crisis began, offering discounts to NHS workers, plugging away and trying to make the best of it. The response when they made their announcement was the best of Twitter: dozens of people coming out of the woodwork to say how much they loved Bakery House’s food, how keen they were to eat there again once all of this passes. And Bakery House said something which got me, as they say, in the feels: Please don’t forget us.

I’ve been in lockdown for over a fortnight, now, and I think I’m beginning to understand that fight against forgetting. At the moment I can still remember what it’s like to meet friends in the pub, go for a coffee and sit in the Workhouse courtyard with it, to eat in restaurants or go for a walk without having to cross the road every few minutes to keep people that magical two metres away. I can remember what hugs from friends feel like. But we’re all taking part in a behavioural experiment which has never been tried before, and it will change us – and the world – in ways we can’t even begin to imagine yet. What will we have forgotten in four weeks’ time? In eight? In twelve?

And I can see so many restaurants wondering if they will be able to come back, and whether customers will still be there for them if and when they do. Clay’s, for instance, Tweeted recently that they “Woke up from a nightmare that everyone learned to cook and no one came after we opened again”: it sums it up neatly. I hope we all remember how lucky we were before all this started, and that we find ways to help the people and the businesses we love when everybody emerges from this bizarre hibernation.

My Deliveroo rider managed to get lost, and I could tell from the app that he was round the corner trying (unsuccessfully, thank goodness) to give my food to somebody else. But it didn’t matter – who would get cross with a Deliveroo rider at a time like this? – and my boneless baby chicken, freed from the foil container, was every bit as beautiful as I remembered. Tender meat, not-quite-charred skin, a separate dish with their superb golden rice and a well-dressed salad which retained its bite and crunch despite the bicycle ride from London Street.

I guess people write because they want to capture a moment, or because they want to remember. I’m glad I have this recent memory of Bakery House to hold on to. I won’t forget them. I doubt any of their other customers will, either.

* * * * *

In the same Tweet, Clay’s said that the landlord of their house had sent them a message telling them not to worry about the rent until this crisis was over. You really do see the best and the worst of people, which brings us to Sykes Capital, the owners of The Village, the artist formerly known as Kings Walk. There was a story in the Financial Times about commercial landlords threatening their tenants with legal action for unpaid rent, which included Sykes Capital and their tenants Pho and Escape Hunt. It always amazes me how landlords would sooner force out a tenant and get no return on their property than reach some kind of accommodation, let alone to do it when there’s a global pandemic and they are completely unable to trade.

I remember when Sykes gave an interview to Alt Reading in 2016, saying that he aimed to establish Atlantis Village as “the home of fine dining in Reading”. He planned to open a French restaurant there called Baroque, and said he hoped it could be the first restaurant in Reading to get a Michelin star. Four years on, Baroque never materialised, La Courbe, Mix and Dolce Vita closed and now instead of articles in local websites it’s a mention in the Financial Times. Oh well. Maybe the businesses which have been impacted can apply to Sykes’ charitable foundation which provides “support when no other charities or organisations can”. Charity begins at home, after all.

* * * * *

I’m not the best cook in the world, not by a long chalk. I do the cooking in my house, and I have a few recipes that never fail, but otherwise I’ve always relied on a mixture of eating out (why do you think I write a restaurant blog?) and ready meals. I always planned to expand my repertoire one day but I wouldn’t have chosen to do it in these circumstances, especially when access to ingredients can make every day like a particularly crappy episode of Ready, Steady, Cook.

Having been given a whole cauliflower and not wanting it to go to waste, I did a bit of research and decided to make a curry this week. I had all the stuff I needed in my cupboard and decided it was worth using a tin of chopped tomatoes to make it instead of doing the sensible thing and flogging said tin on eBay. A cursory Google suggested a recipe from the Guardian, one of “Angela Hartnett’s midweek suppers”. Two and a half hours later, having spent what felt like a lifetime chopping, grinding spices and using every pan in the house, I sat down to a sort of flavourless mulch with pasty albino triffids bobbing in it as if they were desperate to be rescued. Midweek supper my arse: Angela Hartnett obviously chops faster than me, has bigger pans and a fiercer hob, or alternatively I might just be pants at cooking. I know what my money’s on.

We slogged through it (“at least it’s good for you” said my other half) and half an hour later I began inhaling a packet of cookies. The next day I derived great satisfaction from slowly, lovingly spooning the remainder into the bin: it was far more enjoyable than either cooking it or eating it had been.

By contrast, during lockdown Clay’s has been putting a recipe on Instagram every day. A couple of days ago I made their simplest: a mixture of tinned tuna, diced peppers and onions, smoked paprika, salt, olive oil and lemon juice. What emerged, magically, was a little day trip to the Mediterranean – perfect to be lobbed onto a slice of toast and drizzled with another glug of extra virgin olive oil. Perhaps I just need to pick my culinary gurus more carefully.

* * * * *

There’s a weird back to the future feeling about life in lockdown. It takes me back almost thirty years, to a time when I was at university, technology hadn’t really got much further than the Sony Discman and we made the best of the limited options we had. Going for long walks with music in your headphones was something I used to do back then, and now I’ve embraced it again, albeit constantly looking around me to avoid people and giving hard stares to the offenders who act as if they don’t care whether they catch the virus, or give it to me. My walk generally heads out past Eldon Square and up Alexandra Road towards the university campus, past beautiful houses which are so near and yet so far, the tantalising width of a winning lottery ticket away from me.

Another throwback is the lengthy phone conversation. This week I called an old friend of mine – not a video call where I’m constantly looking for the angle that halves my number of chins, but a good old-fashioned voice call. On my phone, wearing my headphones rather than getting tangled up in the corkscrew cord of the landline, but still a memory of how things were in simpler times. It might catch on. “I’ve never been so in demand” said my friend. “All my friends with jobs and social lives suddenly have loads of time on their hands.” I know this situation is far harder for some people than others, and I know I’m relatively lucky, but in other ways it’s a proper leveller.

A couple of days ago I spoke to my oldest friend Mike, who is holed up in his studio flat in the French Alps. Normally he spends the winter there skiing and then in the summer he runs coach tours across Europe. That work won’t happen now and like some game of musical chairs, he is stuck where he was when the music stopped. He showed me the view out of his window, of pristine slopes begging to be skiied on, except that nobody is allowed to now. The lockdown is more stringent in France, and you have to carry a permit with you saying when you left the house. You’re allowed an hour for walking (“I always put the time as 20 minutes later” he told me, “the police don’t check.”)

Otherwise the monastic experience seems to suit Mike – he says he’s looking forward to having some time to reflect. He gave up drinking before Christmas, and even this crisis hasn’t shaken his resolve. I congratulated him, while simultaneously thinking of all the bounty from Siren Craft, Double-Barrelled, West Berkshire and Pang Valley in the fridge, the kitchen and the basement. I tell myself it’s little and often, and I mostly believe it.

On the call we agree to revive another tradition of days gone by, the mix tape. He follows me on Apple Music, and we agree to put together twenty songs for each other by the end of the week. He gets his done with the kind of brutal efficiency only teetotallers can manage, and the next morning I can see it there waiting to be discovered.

I listen to it while pottering round the kitchen, making myself a coffee with my new Aeropress. I’ve had it a week or so and I think I’ve got the hang of it – I’ve even, in truth, become the kind of coffee wanker who weighs his coffee with scales. I like the mindful, almost meditative process of making coffee, and Mike’s playlist is the perfect accompaniment (my favourite track on it, so far, is Get Out Of Town by Caetano Veloso: Mike has always loved a bit of Latin American music). I spend a happy couple of hours putting together a playlist in return, and wondering if anybody else I know would like one. Maybe I’ll start sending postcards next.