Corona diaries: Week 9

It’s been a tough week. I know I shouldn’t watch the news, but I do, and I get angry. I know I should put down my phone and read a book, or watch one of the dozens of films in my list on Netflix or Prime – something I’ve not seen before, to stretch me, or something I know well, to comfort me. But I don’t; instead I go online, to get my inevitable dose of outrage and despair.

You know all this already, but here it is: we currently have one of the worst death rates in the world, and a government which is both so inept and so callous that you could easily spend a long time wondering if the euthanasia is accidental or deliberate. They didn’t lock down quickly enough, they didn’t lock down strictly enough, they stopped testing and tracing cases, they filled stadia and racecourses when the rest of Europe was closing its doors and they told us that it was safe.

They also said that they were following the science and then, even though the science didn’t change, they mysteriously changed course. And the lies! So many lies. They lied about how many people they had tested, they lied about how many people had died. They lied about how much protective equipment people in the NHS were given. They released people who might well have had the virus into care homes, like some postmodern take on Deathrace 2000. Tens of thousands of vulnerable people died alone, with nobody by their bedsides, almost nobody at their funerals. A schoolfriend of mine died, albeit not of the virus, and I watched some of the webcast of his funeral. One of the only things more tragic than a funeral is a funeral with only ten people at it.

And, of course, there’s the news from the bank holiday weekend. The creepy man pulling the strings, who is always described as if he’s Rasputin but in reality is essentially Gollum in a gilet, broke all the rules he put in place, the rules we’ve all been keeping for an eternity. He had to leave work and go home, because his wife had the coronavirus. But then he went back to his workplace, because she magically didn’t.

Then – and by this stage I wasn’t sure who did or didn’t have the virus – the two of them got in a car with their four year old child, who they were seemingly trying to protect and infect at the same time, and drove for four hours on a single tank of petrol without anybody needing the toilet. All to recuperate at the cottage on a family member’s estate: well, we’ve all been there.

That’s before we get on to the sixty-mile round trip to a noted beauty spot either to get exercise or to test his eyesight, depending which of those two lies you find more convincing. It happened to be his wife’s birthday.

When accused of doing all this, he lied about it. When caught, he lied some more. Long, detailed, fiddly lies. The plan, of course, is to make it so boring and so involved that you get tired, you just say “oh, whatever”, and that’s the plan because the plan works. It worked on Brexit: it worked on people I know. “Oh, whatever” they said. “We just need to get on with it and move on.” We’re always moving on, it seems. Backwards.

I know people in Australia, New Zealand and Spain enjoying their freedom slowly beginning to return. I talk to a schoolfriend in New Zealand every few weeks – he feels sorry for us, stuck here, governed by these charlatans. I see photos and Facebook statuses and Tweets of people I know living some kind of normal life elsewhere, while all of us have been sitting at home for twenty-three hours a day watching all hell break loose outside. When it happened in Italy, it was apocalyptic. Here, where things are even worse, it’s just the way it is.

So I go online, but Twitter is simultaneously a group hug for everybody who is watching what’s going on in this country with a mounting sense of horror and unease, and an echo chamber amplifying a primal scream until it drowns out everything else. Or at least it is as long as you follow the “right” people: there are plenty of bots, bigots and useful idiots out there complaining about our biased media, or telling us to stop being so negative.

But even if the people in my echo chamber are in the right, does that make it the right stuff to read? Is it good for the soul? Because heaven knows, it’s boring, being angry all the time. Boring and exhausting. Sometimes I look back at my own Twitter feed, all that indignation and those Retweets of other people, incandescent with rage but far more articulate than me, and I think I’m not sure I would follow me on here. But what happens if you stop being angry? You get resigned, and then everything is lost. This stuff is so important that I don’t know whether I’ll ever be ready to move on to bargaining or acceptance. It’s a puzzler.

If all this doesn’t make you angry, you’ll have to let me know how you manage that. Or maybe I need to take whatever it is you’re taking. Drop some round: I’ll give you some of my stockpile of blue Toblerone in return. I had some Tramadol, but I gave it away to a friend with toothache. It felt like the right thing to do, and we’re all about following our instincts now.

* * * * *

How are your dreams, lately? I keep having the oddest dreams. Or rather I seem to be remembering my dreams more at the moment, because I recall reading somewhere that we always dream but we don’t always remember them.

At the start of the week, I had the most wonderful dream. I was spending the afternoon wandering round Oxford – a dream Oxford that bore no resemblance to the real place, but which I still knew was Oxford – when I realised that I hadn’t made a restaurant reservation. So I hastily made a list of places that would be worth a speculative phone call, to see if they could fit me in at 6 o’clock, the early bird special before taking the train home. It was a slim chance, but worth a try: if you don’t ask, after all, you don’t get.

It’s odd, the elaborate worlds your brain cooks up for your entertainment when you are asleep. There I was wandering round an imaginary city, one I apparently knew well, running through a mental list of imaginary restaurants (which I apparently also knew well). None of it really existed. Of all the things to dream about.

There’s always that point, usually in scary or uncomfortable dreams, the why-have-I-gone-to-work-with-no-trousers-on dreams, when you realise: Ah! It’s a dream. And that’s normally when you can wake up. I reached that point as I was weighing up the relative merits of all these restaurants I had never visited, and that should have been the point where the dream ended.

But for some reason it didn’t, and although I have no memory of picking a restaurant, or phoning it, or walking to it there was a jump cut and there I was, sitting at a big, square, pale wood table, a window seat looking back into a lovely, neutral room. I had a large glass of deep red wine in front of me and I was looking at a handwritten menu, the sort some places do when they have a different menu every day. Pretty soon the room would be buzzing, and speaking as someone who hasn’t been in a buzzing room for eleven weeks I couldn’t wait.

The starters included fritto misto, and I remembered one of the many reasons why restaurants are so special, that they cook things you simply could or would never prepare at home. And I could picture it in front of me already in my mind’s eye – the prawns, the squid, the mussels, all in that golden, light, almost translucent batter. I could imagine squeezing the lemon over it, the aroma, the crunch of that first bite. It would have been perfect with a beer or a crisp white wine. Why did I have a glass of red wine in front of me? It didn’t make sense, I thought, I wouldn’t have ordered that. And then I remembered: of course it doesn’t make sense. It’s a dream, silly! And that’s when I woke up.

The following night I woke up partway through a dream about being on holiday – in Granada, although again it didn’t look like the Granada I visit most years. But even so I absolutely knew that was where I was, and I was already starting to mentally bullet point all the places I had to go – cafés for my first al fresco coffee in a long time, bars for wine, or cold cañas of Alhambra, or for huge places of cheese and charcuterie. And again, of course, just as that itinerary was coming together, the cord snapped and I was yanked back into the present. It was May 2020, it had been May 2020 for about five years, I was in my house and that’s the way it was going to stay for quite some time.

I wonder what purpose these dreams serve. Is my psyche trying to tell me something I already knew – that I really miss eating out and going on holiday – or is it trying to comfort me with visions of the things I miss? Is it just my subconscious, wrestling with withdrawal symptoms on a warm spring night? Or are they just mental doodlings that don’t signify anything at all?

I reached a point where I was quite excited to see what was playing in the cinema of my mind every night, to see where I was transported to next, but the following night my dream was one of those horrendous ones that involves a bereavement. Now I would quite happily have unmemorable dreams, for a couple of weeks at least. I should have known, really. We live in scary times: what on earth made me think my dreams would be non-stop fun and frolic? If I want harmless escapism, maybe I should copy my friend Laura and re-watch Dawson’s Creek.

Of course, it might not be a result of the times we live in. I’m taking medication for tension headaches, and my mother – who takes the same tablets – told me once that they give her dreams, usually unhappy or unsettling ones. Ironically, she takes the pills to help her sleep, although she says the dreams are a price worth paying. The only other effect the tablets had on me, when I first started taking them, were that for the first few hours of every morning I felt like I was behind glass, or deep under water. You’re somehow sealed off from things, like a stereotypical Fifties housewife on Valium.

It’s not an unpleasant sensation, actually, and nicely anaesthetic: maybe I should stop taking them so I can re-start and experience it all over again. On the other hand, when I was prescribed some medication for anxiety during a particularly dark period a few years back, the doctor told me I would have strange dreams, and I did. The worst one involved being stuck in the seat next to my ex-wife in a crowded rail replacement bus for five hours (in the interests of balance, I’m sure she would describe that as a nightmare). Still, that’s another thing to add to the list of lockdown silver linings: however bad the dreams may get, at least none of us has to take a rail replacement right now.

* * * * *

I have been reviewing restaurants for the best part of seven years and I thought I’d heard pretty much everything by now, but this week a story in the local news introduced me to a brand new term.

It came up in a piece in the Reading Chronicle by (the always excellent) Tevye Markson about a disagreement between Mexican chain Tortilla and Reading Smiles, the fancy dentist a couple of doors down from Sainsburys on Broad Street. The dentist had complained about the prospect of Tortilla being granted a licence when they opened their restaurant, saying it would damage their reputation and increase the security issues at the site.

That’s as maybe – perhaps some people like to celebrate being given a clean bill of health or a scale and polish by grabbing a frozen margarita, who knows – but the best bit of the story was the dental practice’s claim that the smell of food from Tortilla would “penetrate the building” and put patients off visiting the practice.

That made more sense to me. The last thing you want, I imagine, as you’re having your molars checked is to get a whiff of refried beans. I can identify with that: it’s uncomfortably reminiscent of the time I was having a pampering massage in the basement of John Lewis, eyes closed, tuning in to the whale music when the masseuse leaned forward and belched into my face (I’m pretty sure she’d had a Scotch egg for lunch, too).

Anyway, the planning consultant representing Tortilla had a killer response to this argument. There was no risk of food smells getting in to the dental practice, he said, because no “primary cooking” took place onsite. What a wonderfully euphemistic way of putting it. He meant that all the work is done in a central kitchen and everything turns up at Tortilla ready and waiting to be heated up, I assume, which essentially means that you’d be sitting there eating a slightly more fancy ready meal.

That said, many chain restaurants do this. The reason Côte has been able to start offering “Côte at home” in lockdown is because they also prepare food in a central kitchen, so effectively you’re paying to heat up their food at home instead of someone heating it up in the restaurant.

But what marks this out from, say, the new offering from Clay’s is the transparency: when you ate in at Clay’s you knew everything was made from scratch, and that means that if they cook it, vacuum pack it and drop it to your house you feel lucky to get to warm it up at home, rather than deceived or taken for a ride.

When Tortilla finally opens, assuming it still will, will you particularly fancy going there, knowing that they’re not doing any “primary cooking”? I suspect not, especially knowing that you could go to Mission Burrito instead. The impression is that Tortilla’s “secondary cooking” is second class, or just plain old number two.

I do think, though, that this terminology could catch on. On weekends when I just can’t face dusting and hoovering I’ll just claim that no primary housework has taken place, as I invert the reeds in my (many) room diffusers, or put the recycling in the bin outside. Some days this week it’s not that I haven’t caught up with any of my friends, it’s just that I didn’t take part in any primary conversations. And I think you can be virtually certain this week that, as any week, there’s absolutely no primary journalism happening at Berkshire Live.

Anyway, in happier news the Lyndhurst announced this week that it was reopening Thursday to Sunday for takeaways. The menu they published was full of old favourites and new options – including their legendary chilli nachos, curried chickpea nachos (a dish premiered at my readers’ lunch back in March), pulled pork tacos and jackfruit tacos. Who needs Tortilla when you can get beautiful food from the Lyndhurst? They even make their own tortilla chips, for crying out loud: it’s proper, delicious, primary food.

3 thoughts on “Corona diaries: Week 9

  1. Sue

    A blue Toblerone? Was this a special I somehow managed to miss?
    Step away from the news, at least a bit more, that way happiness lies, regroup and come out refreshed.

    1. Well, Sue, the blue Toblerone is the best of all the fruits of the Tobler tree: with salted caramelised almonds. They’re an airport exclusive, so even rarer now than they used to be.

  2. darren Williams

    Now I want to travel even more than I did before. Blue Toberone 😍
    One of my less weird fever dreams during lockdown is in my beloved Valencia.
    One day, this too will pass.

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