Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d end up writing: last Friday I joined a Webex with my other half Zoë, her family and friends, aimed at trying to work out who killed Jill Dando. There was even a Powerpoint presentation, called: Jill Dando: let’s investigate. Just another perfectly normal Friday in lockdown, then.
I should probably give the context. A couple of years ago, just after Zoë and I had first got together, I was invited to an event at her sister’s house, one of the new builds near Bel and the Dragon. It was being hosted by Zoë’s friend Jo, a keen conspiracy theory aficionado, and it involved her presenting her eight thousand word dossier, entitled The McCann Conspiracy, about the events of that fateful night in Praia da Luz. Printouts of said dossier were handed to us all on arrival, minutes after the first beer had been cracked open.
Eight thousand words is a lot of words, and I speak as someone who inflicts a couple of thousand on you all every week at the moment. What became apparent later on was that the whole lot had been written in one sitting, and that as Jo had warmed to her theme the tone got more and more indignant. There were a lot of block capitals, exclamations and expletives in the latter sections, and very interesting – and graphic – descriptions of some of the protagonists.
“What are all your sources for this, Jo?” somebody asked, while leafing through all twenty-eight incendiary pages.
“There’s this little thing called the World Wide Web” said Jo, as she warmed up for the masterclass that lay ahead.
Well! I learned things I had honestly never considered about Madeleine McCann’s case in the hours that followed. We heard all about the “Tapas 7” (which sounds a bit like a sequel to the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six) and shadowy figures “Tannerman” and “Smithman” who were, at various stages, implicated in what happened.
At one point, Jo had us staging a reenactment of the events of the evening, bit like in Twelve Angry Men where Henry Fonda gets the jurors to reenact one of the witnesses hearing a noise and walking to the window. Except instead of twelve angry men, we had one angry Jo, and a dossier which started at “indignant” and progressed from there. “It’s estimated that 13 per cent of the fund has gone towards finding Madeleine” it said at one stage. “No stone unturned my arse.” In the same section, it pointed out that the McCanns were “having a nice big extension put on at the moment”.
This was one of my first introductions to Zoë’s family and friends, and all I could think was More please! My previous girlfriend had the kind of friends who would put on theatrical skits or, as I discovered one New Year’s Eve, throw a Crystal Maze party without warning you first. This was far more up my street.
And there was so much more. Over four riveting hours Jo took us through the events of the evening, the calls made (and not made), the delays in notifying the police, the map of the complex, pictures of the bedroom and an account of the two police dogs, Eddie and Keela, who found seventeen different alerts, all linked somehow to the parents. “These dogs were at the top of their game” said Jo. “They’d never been wrong in over 200 cases.” Eddie, the ‘cadaver dog’ had even worked with the FBI: somehow we had gone from Twelve Angry Men to Catch Me If You Can. And that’s before we got on to the last ever picture of Madeleine McCann, allegedly taken on a Thursday but with bright sunshine which placed the photo nearly a week earlier. “Why lie?”, said Jo.
By the time we got to the section entitled “The 48 Questions Kate Refused To Answer” – a section which had a distinct air of cross-examination about it – I had absolutely no idea what I thought, except that Jo should be doing this at the Edinburgh Fringe and charging admission. The final triumphant romp through the possible theories, was a tour de force, and she even managed to throw in an allusion to Scooby Doo. And that’s before we get to the links to other conspiracy theories: was it connected to “Pizzagate”? Why were the McCanns using a spin doctor who also broke the Jill Dando story the day it happened?
At the end of the event, there was a consensus that we should delve into another conspiracy theory soon. 9/11 was suggested, and soon ruled out (“that’s a big job” said Jo sagely, with the air of someone who already knew a fair amount about it). Jill Dando was selected as the next choice but it was almost a couple of years before Zoë’s sister decided that enough was enough and spent some productive time at home going down a fresh rabbit hole.
So on Friday, we went through Jill Dando’s final movements, driving from her fiancé’s house to her own, seemingly going back on herself to do so. We heard how she had stopped on the way at a fishmonger and bought some lemon sole (“she was obviously planning a fish supper”, deduced Zoë’s sister). And we heard about the untraceable calls to her mobile, one of them not answered, moments before she was killed.
Beyond that? Who knows. We reviewed poor Barry George, wrongly imprisoned with next to no evidence, eventually released after his second appeal and never compensated by the government. And then we went through the competing theories. Surely there had been a silencer on the gun, if nobody had heard it? We Googled pictures of her front door, all speculating about how she might have approached it and been forced down to the ground by an assailant. Was she left or right handed? Nobody knew. It had the feel of an execution, everybody concluded. But was it the IRA? Had it been the Serbian mafia, retaliating for her participation in a TV appeal three weeks previously about the crisis in Kosovo? After all, there had been death threats.
It was a huge investigation, over eight months, interrogating thousands of suspects, and yet they came up with nothing. Jo’s favourite theory was that Dando knew too much about a paedophile ring, and possibly about Jimmy Savile. She mentioned a number of other public figures, but I’m too chicken to name them here. Again, I left the session more entertained than informed, but with a clear understanding of how people could lose weeks of their lives to investigating this sort of thing. My other main feeling of disappointment was that nobody had called the victim Jan Dildo, either accidentally, on purpose or accidentally-on-purpose. Well, nobody except me, but I suspect that was a given.
Apparently the next one is going to be about what really happened at Deepcut Barracks – originally someone suggested Jeffrey Epstein, but Jo again chipped in to warn people against biting off more than they could chew. I for one can’t wait: I’ll report back in 2022.
* * * * *
Like, I imagine, a lot of people, I spent a fair amount of last weekend watching Normal People on the iPlayer and, as a result, feeling decidedly peculiar. If you haven’t seen it, BBC Three’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel perfectly sums up what it’s like to be young and in love. Not unrequited love, mind you, but the only kind more painful: the requited, intense but unable-to-quite-make-it-work kind.
It’s had plenty of criticism, and rationally I can see exactly what it’s driving at. There are plenty of long, lingering shots (often, bizarrely, of the back of the main characters’ heads), or close-ups on unnaturally blue eyes, or weird shallow depth of field shots where only one eye is in focus, the rest just a dreamlike blur. And yes, the characters need a good talking to as they scupper their relationship time and time again by leaving so many things unsaid. But they’re twenty, and didn’t we all do that when we were twenty?
My friend Helen ruled herself out of watching it pretty much straight away. “I can’t be arsed with all the wan pining”, she said. And that, too, is true: both leads are pale and interesting, and given that one of them develops an interest in sado-masochism the whole thing has more pine and cane than a nineties furniture shop.
After I’ve read a book I often enjoy reading three star reviews of it on Amazon: I know that’s a weird thing to do, but sometimes hearing the views of people firmly on the fence helps me to decide which side of it I am on. And the criticism of Normal People crystallised that for me, too. Even if it was hokum, even if it’s easy to say – many years past your early twenties – that these people don’t know they’re born there’s still something powerful about being catapulted back twenty-five years by a piece of art.
And it definitely did that to me. I spent much of my time at university going. out with and breaking up with one girlfriend, seeing someone else, getting back together, being angsty and sad when we were apart and euphoric and insecure when we were together. We could break up several times in one night, let alone in one term, and of course when you’re nineteen everything you read and listen to tells you that unless you feel things that intensely you don’t really feel anything.
And this was back in the days before texts and emails and FaceTime, so I remember the university holidays, sitting at home wondering if today was the morning that a letter would drop on the doormat. I think I still have our correspondence somewhere in a box in the basement: I should probably ceremonially burn it in the garden, or just re-read it and die of embarrassment. And yet watching two attractive, bright, intellectual, emotionally illiterate Irish teenagers fail to make each other quite happy enough consumed six hours of my weekend, and made me feel lots of it all over again. I don’t feel the way about life that I did when I was nineteen, but I do still believe this: it’s always better to feel something than nothing at all.
I remember when my then girlfriend would come and stay over the summer. I lived in Woodley at the time, and the weather was often glorious and we would have long walks round Woodford Park, or out towards Southlake, talking about what would become of us. I couldn’t know that twenty-five years later I would still live in Reading, or that back then, in the early Nineties, Zoë was growing up just around the corner. We compared notes – she’s a sucker for a timeline – and it’s highly likely that, that summer, she was on a bike delivering leaflets for her dad’s business. She probably stuck a flyer through our front door, the first of many times over a quarter of a century that our paths almost crossed, but not quite. Still, it’s not where you start that counts, it’s where you finish.
I looked up my university girlfriend: she does something at Credit Suisse. I don’t know what it is, but it sounds exceptionally dull. I wonder if she watched Normal People.
I recommended Normal People to my friend Mikey, one of the few people on the planet who seemed not to have heard of it. “Will it make me sad that I’m past it?” he said. I told him it might well, or it might well make him glad that he’s reached the age where you’ve learned how to love without suffering. I said it would probably do both at once: it certainly did for me. And of course, you can have that sort of painful, disastrous love in your forties too, when you think you’ve outgrown all that and know better than to get tangled up in it again. But that’s another story.
* * * * *
We go into this weekend with everybody talking about whether the lockdown is going to be relaxed. I approach that with a certain sense of horror: we have the highest death toll in Europe, the situation in care homes is a horror show, nobody has PPE and the four hundred thousand pieces we ordered from Turkey aren’t usable. The figures on deaths are fiddled, the figures on testing have been fiddled and the figures on PPE have been fiddled too – so however bad it looks, it’s almost certainly worse. Personally, when Monday comes I won’t be leaving the house unless I have to, because I don’t feel any safer yet.
But I can understand why everyone dearly wishes things were different. It blows my mind sometimes to think that for seven weeks now my world has been tiny – I haven’t seen my friends, or been close to a single person apart from Zoë, haven’t hugged my family. When my friend Keti drops shopping to me, she is there on the road next to her massive van chatting to me, the only other three-dimensional person I know that I’ve seen in a very long time, and even that brief conversation is nicer than I can say. With every week I miss our old life a little more; give it another month and I might even yearn to be accosted by chuggers.
I’ve been especially reminded of that this week, too. Nandana from Clay’s was interviewed on the blog on Tuesday, and the outpouring of warmth was something special to witness. All over social media the comments came thick and fast about how much she was missed, how much her restaurant was missed and how strongly everybody was behind her plans to keep afloat. Even people who wouldn’t normally read my blog wanted to know about Nandana. There are some restaurants, I like to hope, that Reading simply will not allow to fail: Clay’s is definitely one of those.
This is another thing to focus on – especially today of all days – that, as the Queen put it, we will meet again. We’ve all said plenty of goodbyes in recent months, and often without knowing that we were doing it. That’s what often hurts, that we couldn’t appreciate our last evening in a certain pub, or in a particular restaurant, or with a certain friend. I wish I had said a better goodbye to my brother. I wish the last time I was in the Retreat I had really paid attention to what a special place it is. I messaged a friend of mine this week: her mother died last week, back home in Australia. She couldn’t be there, and she can’t get home for the funeral. I cannot imagine how awful that must be.
But these things won’t last forever, even if it sometimes feels like they will. And, strange as it might seem, it was food of all things that reminded me of that this week. On Monday, Namaste Momo reopened for takeaway and delivery after weeks of closure, and I got in touch with Kamal to arrange a delivery for Wednesday night. I got his bank details, placed my order and a couple of days later I got back from a long walk around Palmer Park and ten minutes later, as I was taking my first sip of cider, the bags were on my doorstep. And everything was as beautiful as I had remembered.
The momo – always Kamal’s calling card – were superb, caramelised and ever so slightly charred, the minced lamb on the inside coarse and delicious. A little bit gyoza, a little bit slider, an awful lot of delicious. The chilli chicken was phenomenal – eye-wateringly punchy with lots of crunchy pepper, red onion and a sauce I wished would go on forever. The chicken sekuwa was absurdly tender, subtly spiced and perfect with the surprisingly hot coriander chutney. Kamal’s chow mein is always a high point, but truth be told I was far too full to even try to tackle it: the following day, reheated in the pan until sizzling, it was one of the best lunches I’ve had in a long time.
It’s so good to have Kamal and Namaste Momo back. His restaurant has always been a little bit of a trek for those of us living in the centre of town for eating in, but if you’re close enough for him to deliver (and you’re especially lucky if you live in Woodley or Earley, where good takeaways are harder to find) I highly recommend giving him a go. It’s fantastic value, too.
I’ve missed Kamal’s food. But I’m particularly glad that he jogged my memory about something even more important than what we’re all having for dinner; for many of the goodbyes we said, there will be an equal and opposite “hello again”. We need to hang in there because, slowly but surely, those hellos are coming. When they do, it will truly be a beautiful thing.