Q&A: Dr Quaff, Quaffable Reading

Dr Quaff, the anonymous author behind the Quaffable Reading blog, has lived in Reading for over twenty years. His pub review blog was conceived as a group effort over too many pints of beer one night, but none of his friends has ever done much more than spell check, fact check and offer unconstructive criticism. That suits him fine, as he quite likes writing and now doesn’t want them to muscle in. He jealously guards his anonymity because he doesn’t want to get harangued by disgruntled landlords, and doesn’t want his employer to know how he wastes his time. The Dr in his name is real though. He lives with his wife and children in Caversham.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
It’s a cliché, but going to the pub. I can work from home, I can get good restaurant food to take away, and I’ve got a fridge full of beer. I’m going to miss some great holidays, but I probably travel too much anyway. For me, what I really miss is meeting friends down the pub, and having a good chat. It’s good for your mental health to socialise and to unburden with people who you aren’t locked in a house with.

George Orwell famously wrote about the perfect pub in his essay The Moon Under Water. What characteristics, for you, define the perfect boozer?
I used to occasionally meet people in the Moon Under Water in Leicester Square – one of the earlier Wetherspoons. And that is the exact opposite of my ideal pub. You need to have space to sit down and relax. Stand at a gig, sit at a pub. Music should be loud enough to fill gaps in conversation, but quiet enough for you to be able to hear everyone. And ideally that music should have nothing earlier than The Queen Is Dead by the Smiths, and nothing later than AM by Arctic Monkeys.

And the beer should be fresh. In general I don’t mind which beer. There are so many different beers, and almost all of them are lovely if fresh and well kept. KeyKeg (beer served in a collapsing plastic bag type barrel where it never mixes with air, instead of a traditional steel barrel) does a great job of keeping beer fresh for a month or more, and I don’t understand why more smaller pubs don’t embrace it. Lastly, you need a friendly atmosphere where people are comfortable talking, perhaps even with people they don’t know. Good pubs are more about people than booze – that means a good landlord, good staff, and customers who enjoy being there. 

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The location. You could not pick a better spot in the whole country to put a town. There are green rolling hills literally just minutes away. The Thames and the Kennet flowing through the middle give us an amazing backdrop that we don’t make enough of. The journey to central London is faster than from many London suburbs. And coming from Scotland, I really appreciate the little microclimate that we get here. Reading seems to be ideally situated for warm, dry weather – we’re warmer than Devon and Cornwall for example and have 10% fewer rainy days than London.

What is your most treasured possession?
Do dogs count? If not, it’s my Fender Thinline Telecaster. I play the guitar (not very well), and this guitar is such a joy to play – lovely and light, with a really rich sound. I’ve got a few guitars, but this is the one I always go back to.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
I was lucky enough to go to the Fat Duck once. The food was stunning, but the playfulness of it all was what really made it – cooking bacon and egg ice cream in a dry-ice frying pan at your table, for example. The most memorable part for me was the first course, which was a meringue cooked in liquid nitrogen, dusted in green tea. It just exploded in your mouth, leaving you with a mouth full of flavour, the meringue somehow gone before you could even bite down on it.

What is your most unappealing habit?
I’m a grammar pedant. If you use the wrong “there” or “to”, get an apostrophe wrong, or use “less” instead of “fewer”, I will judge you. I try to resist commenting on people’s mistakes on Twitter, but rest assured I notice and am internally keeping a list of who’s going to be first against the wall when the revolution comes.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
When I was about three, my parents had a dinner party. While they were distracted by guests, I went to the fridge and ate the entire block of Danish Blue that they had planned for desert. Danish Blue was a fancy cheese in those days. I don’t think it was a popular move.

What is the worst job you’ve done?
I did a summer job once at GEC Alstom. It was just at the time of an economic downturn, and they had no work for my department. They wouldn’t let us read or anything like that to fill the time though, so I spent about 75% of my time gazing into thin air but looking potentially busy in case the boss came in. It wasn’t much better out of work either. There weren’t many rooms to rent in the area at short notice, and I accidentally moved in with a couple of bank robbers. I only realised when the police raided our house one morning.

If I allowed you three desert island beers, what would they be?
Top of the list has to be just about anything from Siren Craft. They are the best brewery in the UK at the moment, and we’re lucky to have them on our doorstep. I really enjoy their “Suspended in…” series, where they make a new hazy IPA with a different hop combination every few weeks. It’s just arrived in cans, and I’d take that to any desert island.

Given that this is a fantasy list, my second beer would be the Mango APA from Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen. It’s an absolutely perfect accompaniment to a good curry, and I was gutted when the brewery, Home 2.0 Craft Beer, went out of business. So on my fantasy desert island, they are magically back in business, and air drop barrels to me every week.

Lastly, I think I’d have to go for a cider. A couple of years ago, local professional drinks writer Adam Wells gave me a much needed lecture on cider. To be called cider in the UK, a drink only needs to be 35% apples. The rest can be water, sweeteners, artificial flavourings and so on. And the bottled ciders I was drinking, generally over ice, don’t say how much apple they use, which is a bit of a giveaway that it’s most likely not that high. Adam persuaded me to try some Dunkertons Organic Black Fox Cider, and it was a revelation. So much flavour in there that was missing from the “heavy on the advertising, low on the apples” cousins that are found in every pub. So I’d take that Black Fox Cider with me too.

Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
Clay’s. I don’t even have to think for a second about that one. My two favourite restaurants are Clay’s and Kung Fu Kitchen. Thankfully Kung Fu Kitchen is doing takeaway during the lockdown, but I’m really missing Clay’s. I can place my order now without looking at the menu – Kodi Chips, babycorn pepper fry, and chicken biryani. Nowhere else does food anything like it, and I can’t wait to go back. Even if there is no mango beer.

What was your most embarrassing moment?
I saw a tweet the other day that said something like When parents say “Go to your room and think about what you’ve done,” it’s really good practice for what you do every night as an adult. Like most adults I all too often lie in bed and think of embarrassing things I did decades ago, and if I could change one thing in life it would be that my brain didn’t waste cycles on doing that. I can remember more about peeing my pants at the age of five than I can about my own wedding day. I never lie in bed and think about an amazing holiday or fantastic achievement, but can lie awake all night going over some inconsequential act I wish I’d done slightly differently. It’s the worst thing about being an adult, and the sooner someone invents a memory wipe like in Men In Black, the better.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
This is really hard. I’m a massive movie fan. Pre-lockdown we typically went to Showcase at least once a month, and I’ve got a big projector at home where we watch multiple movies every weekend. But I’ve also got a short attention span, and a film can go from being the best to completely tedious if I watch it too often. As a semi-educational project, I helped the kids write some software to track what we watch to avoid the frequent arguments about “but we just watched that one two weeks ago”. It hasn’t worked – we forget to enter the movie and still have the arguments. When Jeff Bezos reads this, my plea to him is to release an API to make our watch history available so that we can automate it. 

But I dodged the previous question, so I guess I’ll have to pin my colours to the mast on this one. Casablanca. It’s got such a well written script, and the lack of special effects make it timeless. I could watch it far more often than our database tells me we have watched X-Men: Days of Future Past.

What is your favourite smell?
I love the smell of the sea. I’ve spent a lot of time diving off the south coast of England. A great weekend for me was driving to a slipway at 6am to catch the slack tide, dive a World War 2 wreck, and be back on dry land in time for a bacon sandwich for breakfast. That would be followed by a trip to the local dive shop to fill our tanks before doing the same again in the afternoon and then heading to the pub all evening to tell tall tales about what had happened. The smell of the sea reminds me of those days, and if you pair that with the smell of fish and chips, I’m in heaven.

Which of your reviews has been the most controversial, and why?
It’s probably The Bugle. I went there with professional reviewer’s assistant Zoë, and we had the most bizarre evening. We got dragged in to conversation with some people who are actually in need of Alcoholics Anonymous intervention. They were very nice to us in the way that people are only as long as you are agreeing with them and promising to keep drinking with them. I actually wrote a review that really pulled the punches to avoid being to unkind to those people, who clearly have a genuine problem. I got attacked on Twitter afterwards though by one individual who felt that I was unfair in my description, and also that I was too rude about the punters in there. He’s deleted the tweet now, but he said something along the lines that if I ever spoke about him the way I spoke about the people in that pub, he’d do me over.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
This is a tricky one, because if I had my fantasy list of Richard Feynman, Kurt Cobain, Douglas Adams and John Cleese, I’d be the boring one by comparison, and how would I impress Hannah Fry, J K Rowling and Nigella Lawson who’d be there too. 

I’d love to spend an evening chatting with Tony Blair – I think he’s one of the most effective thinkers of our time. By effective, I mean he actually got good things done. And to all the people who are shouting “but Iraq!” at the screen, Iraq was a political mistake, and our media ensured it was concluded badly. But I don’t think it was a moral mistake – Saddam Hussein was committing genocide against his own people, and it was the right thing to stop the persecution and slaughter of a huge group of people. 

I’m also a massive fan of the economist Tim Harford. His More Or Less podcast is always top of my listening list, and I think he would be the perfect person in a discussion to keep it honest and interesting. So my perfect dinner party is me, Tony and Tim down the pub with some packets of pork scratchings, putting the world to rights.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
Pipers chorizo crisps. Immensely salty and spicy at the same time. They are easy to get these days, but in the past I could only get them at Reading Beer Festival, and I would leave the tent with my glass and four big packs of crisps each evening. Often one of them would get eaten on the way home, and the others would rarely last until the next weekend.

Where is your happy place?
Sitting on a balcony overlooking a beach, with a gin and tonic, some olives and a book. I only do that on holiday, and it says “I had nothing stressful to do today, and there’s no to-do list waiting for me”. That feeling of no obligations is the most relaxing part.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Whenever my wife is out for the evening, I’ll make myself a Chinese chicken curry. I have a stock of Chinese curry sauce from Tesco that only I’m allowed to eat, and if there’s no chicken in the house, I’ll happily eat it on its own. I get a bit antsy if she isn’t out for a long time and I have to just eat healthy food with her. Fingers crossed that that’ll be my biggest hardship of the lockdown.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I have four Twitter feeds and three blogs. They don’t follow each other, and the topics are all completely different, so you’ll almost certainly never find them.

Describe yourself in three words.
Geeky and proud.

Corona diaries: Week 6

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.

Q&A: Nandana Syamala, Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

Nandana Syamala moved to the U.K. from India on Christmas Day 2004, and after living in London for over ten years she and her husband Sharat relocated to Reading to pursue their dream of opening a restaurant together. Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen opened on London Street in June 2018, and since then has firmly established itself as one of the jewels of Reading’s independent restaurant scene, winning awards and converting the town to now iconic dishes like kodi chips, squid pakora, crab fry, bhuna venison and its trademark clay pot biryanis.

Clay’s has spent some of the time since lockdown began cooking 100 meals a day for the Whitley Community Development Organisation. In the next couple of weeks they will launch a new service selling a brand new, regularly-changing menu of vacuum-packed, chilled meals for delivery, initially in Reading only but with plans to expand nationwide. A hot food delivery service in Reading is due to follow further down the line.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
Eating out at our favourite restaurants in our free time, and I also dearly miss all the happy hugs I get from our diners. 

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Chicken legs. My mom used to cook pan-fried chicken legs. We were three siblings and we got one each. My dad still tells stories to anyone who will listen (or even just pretend to listen) about how we used to hold our chicken leg, move into a corner of the room and eat it with so much concentration it was almost funny, like a cartoon. We were all under five years old.

How have you changed as a result of running a restaurant for nearly two years?
I don’t know if this makes any sense but Clay’s is a brand new adventure for me and I’m not sure if running it has changed me, or whether I’m discovering parts of myself that were always there but had just never come to the surface. So I had to ask my friends for help with this question, as I couldn’t judge for myself. Some of them said they don’t get to see me enough to detect any changes, one said I have become modest (but he is known for his sarcasm!) The majority have said that I’ve become slightly more pragmatic and a little less idealistic, but there’s still a long way to go before they’re in balance! I’m not sure that’s where I want to end up, though.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The way it feels like a big city but also a community town at the same time. The way the people are so warm and helpful most of the time and the way all the independent businesses are so supportive of each other. I also love the fact that there are so many areas of outstanding natural beauty only ten to fifteen minutes’ drive away.

What is the worst job you’ve done?
My first job, back when I was doing my bachelor’s degree. I worked at a pre-school and I was teaching the kids the English alphabet. I was having trouble with one girl and was trying really hard to make her trace a letter and suddenly she grabbed the ruler I had in my hand and hit me with it! I laugh out loud whenever I think of it now, but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I hated it so much that I left within a month. I’ll forever have so much respect for people who do it so well. I did get to buy a birthday gift for my best friend and a watch for my younger brother though: it took me more than twenty years to buy something with my own money again for my brother, so I guess that job was also special in spite of it being the worst.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
There are quite a few that have moved me, but I’ve watched The Godfather more times than I can count, and I can always watch it again. Everyone knows that’s brilliant, but every time I watch it I find some new underlying meaning in a scene, something that I’ve previously missed. I love the book, too.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
There’s this place in France called Cap Ferret near Bordeaux . We were there a few years ago and had one of our best and happiest meals ever at one of the oyster shacks there. This was family run by the oyster farmer, his wife and his daughter. We sat there on the beach with basic seating and lots of wine while they kept on bringing the freshest of seafood – from oysters and shrimp to clams and mussels – along with some of the most beautiful bread and butter I’ve ever had. The food wasn’t showy, no modernist techniques, no gimmicks. I wish I could retire and eat that way every day.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I have the most vivid imagination ever and believe me when I say, there hasn’t been a single thing in this world that I haven’t wanted to be at some point while growing up. A cleaner, a butler, an astronaut, an engineer, a superhero, a doctor or a film personality. I even wanted to be a holy woman doing meditation in the Himalayas. I don’t just mean a flash of imagination: I actually spent a few months daydreaming about each of them before moving on to the next. The biggest irony is that even though cooking always came naturally to me I don’t remember ever wanting to be a chef.

When you moved to England, what took the most adjusting to?
I grew up reading Jane Austen, Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse, and it was a bit disappointing at first that England didn’t feel like that. But the biggest thing to adjust to was the lack of street food like in India. I was used to eating street food almost every day as an evening snack, and it’s still the one thing I really find it hard to live without. There are street food markets happening more now in the UK but it’s not even 5% of the variety and abundance you see in India or Thailand.

Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
We’ve been thinking about this a lot, and even have a list of restaurants that we are missing from London, Bristol and Oxford. But I think it will most probably either be Pepe Sale or Côte.

What is your most unappealing habit?
It could be the high-pitched nervous giggle I do when I get overexcited about something.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
It’s extremely unlikely to happen, but someone said Shilpa Shetty (who won Celebrity Big Brother a long time ago) or Frieda Pinto. But knowing the control freak that I am, I might not let anyone else do it.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
I can only eat sea salt and black pepper Kettle Chips. Please don’t judge.

What have been the highest and lowest points of your time running Clay’s?
The lowest was four days before we were due to open, when our builders left us in the lurch with lots of major things still needing fixing. We’d made the mistake of paying him 95% of his fee by then. He told us that the owner of another house he was working on had given him an ultimatum to finish their house faster, and he jumped ship because the owner was an architect and he expected more work and more money from them. We were a nobody to him.

It was a nightmare: we’d already postponed the opening date once and couldn’t do it again. I’d start crying the moment anyone so much as said hello to me. We went around all the hardware stores and electric stores, managed to find different handymen for different jobs, spent loads of extra money and finally managed to open with just £100 remaining in all our combined accounts. We had nothing left to even buy groceries for the next week. I can’t believe it’s not even two years since we went through all of that!

The highest was when a group of our regulars planned in secret to visit us on the date of our first anniversary to celebrate with us. They booked a big table without us having a clue; the happiness and thrill I got seeing each one walking into the restaurant and then realising they all belonged on the same table is indescribable. I don’t think anything will ever beat that and I am forever grateful to all of them (you know who you are) for giving us that moment.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Hyderabadi biryani and cut mirchi, ever since childhood. My family used to tease me that they would find a husband who cooks those two dishes. They did end up finding me someone who does the best biryani and I managed to master the other one, so it’s a win-win.

If your house was on fire, what’s the one thing you would save from it?
Honestly, nothing, as long as Sharat and I are out and safe. Is it sad that I don’t possess anything I think is worth saving?

Clay’s has one of the best wine lists, beer lists and gin lists in Reading. What’s your drink of choice?
Thank you so much for saying so: we really put so much effort into that. But coming to your question, it mostly depends on the mood, weather and the food but otherwise it would be a good full-bodied red.

Where is your happy place?
Wherever all my family is, with all my nieces and nephews playing around.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I’m an introvert.

Describe yourself in three words.
Honest. Content. Defective. That last one is Sharat’s word, and I’ve trained my mind to believe that he means it in a cute way!

Corona diaries: Week 5

At the weekend, during one of my regular walks, I was struck by how many cars were on the roads. Cemetery Junction seemed far busier than usual, and crossing the road and playing Frogger, avoiding cars and pedestrians in equal measure, was a considerably more difficult task. Among families and friends I was hearing more stories of people bending the rules just a little further without breaking them, increasing signs of frustration with lockdown. On Sunday a picture of the queues outside one of Reading’s branches of B&Q did the rounds on Twitter: the camera angle probably made the scene look more crowded than it really was, and it’s quite possible that everyone was maintaining social distancing but honestly, how essential can a trip to B&Q really be?

I’m particularly struck by this because my household is more locked down than some. Zoë’s asthma is so bad that she is often compared to Tiny Tim, and as a result both of us have been avoiding shopping during the lockdown, relying instead on occasional (very occasional) delivery slots online and the kindness of very supportive friends. I hate feeling dependent on others, and have often worried that I should be less protective, take my chances, get out there and play Covid roulette along with everybody else. But then I talked to a Twitter friend who had actually contracted the virus, and that reassured me. “Just before I was diagnosed I had four days when I was struggling for breath,” he told me. “Even the mild version I had would be serious for someone like your partner.”

Last week I received a text letting me know that my numerous prescriptions had arrived at the chemist in town and I was faced with the prospect of going in to collect them. The last time I went anywhere near a shop was over six weeks ago, when I made small talk with the lady behind the counter at Workhouse before grabbing my latte and scarpering for the tables outside. I had a pretty good idea even then that it would be the last time for a long time, but even saying that I wish I’d properly appreciated the latte; it’s one of the things I really miss now we’re all locked down. The thought of going and queuing at the pharmacy genuinely made me anxious, but I didn’t feel I could ask any of my friends. What to do?

It was on an impulse that I picked up the green and white card that had been dropped through the door with details of the volunteers’ service running in Reading. It said that they could help with shopping, prescriptions or even just a friendly phone call. I sent an email outlining my predicament, and a reply came within ten minutes asking for some details. I sent them back as requested, more than half expecting them to tell me to get my prescription myself, but within a few hours I received a friendly reply telling me it was in hand.

A couple of hours later my phone rang, and a volunteer told me that the prescriptions were on my doorstep. I opened it to find them in some bubble wrap that had the medicinal smell of disinfectant, a friendly red-haired volunteer at the end of the path. I thanked her from a distance, picked them up – still feeling slightly ridiculous – and closed the door behind me. It was all present and correct, but I couldn’t stop smelling the bubble wrap. There was something comforting about it, and something reassuring about knowing that someone had taken care of something for you, that in a way they had taken care of you. Taken care full stop, really; she had been wearing a mask and gloves, but that didn’t stop her giving a cheery wave before leaving.

A couple of days’ later I got a follow-up call checking everything had gone according to plan, and I gushed about how grateful I was. From getting in touch with them to getting my prescription had taken less than six hours, but the amount of stress and anxiety it had saved me from was incalculable.

All over Reading, and all over every town and city I imagine, there are people putting themselves at risk for others. The people in my neighbourhood’s WhatsApp group are always messaging to say that they’re going to the supermarket, or that they’ve managed to get a delivery slot, offering to buy their neighbours flour or yeast, or (as happened a couple of days ago) volunteering to jump start somebody’s car. We’re physically more distant than ever before, but there are still plenty of opportunities to experience closeness and community, and that strikes me as something beautiful.

If you also need help with something, the details of the volunteer scheme are here. If you want to volunteer to help, you can click on this link. And if you want to donate, as I did, to help this scheme to continue running you can do that here.

* * * * *

I feel like a fraud starting this week’s diary with that sweet little story, because in truth it hasn’t been a vintage week. One of my favourite sayings, although I had to Google it to find out who said it first, is this: happiness writes white. I’ve always thought it was true, sort of a distillation of the famous Tolstoy quote about happy families. There’s definitely something in it: when you’re happy you have nothing to say, or at least it’s harder to commit it to the page.

Contentment feels that way, anyway: you can write about euphoria or ecstasy just fine, but bland, doing-just-fine happiness is a real challenge. That’s why the easiest restaurant reviews to write – remember when I used to do those? – are hatchet jobs (they’re more fun to read, too), and the next easiest are rave reviews.

The times we live in now have challenged my belief that happiness writes white, because now I find that the thing that writes white, really, is malaise. There are good days and bad days, but without the conventional milestones of weekends and days out, holidays and nights down the pub, the whole thing smudges into a morass where it can be hard to retain perspective and keep your chin up. Eventually, there are good days and meh days, and more of the latter than the former.

A Twitter friend once told me that the problem with having a lot of time on your hands is that you never do anything, because there’s no reason to do it today. So you put it off until tomorrow, and instead you spend your time doing nothing – waking up late, because you can, or looking at the news, even though you shouldn’t, or constantly hitting refresh on a website, or on social media, waiting for life to happen to you. As a mistake I find it’s very easily made, and even more so on dreich weeks like this when the garden is beaten down with rain and the patio and the box hedges are strewn with discarded magnolia petals. Some days this week, on balance, I’ve felt like getting out of bed was probably a mistake.

And if you do refresh social media, it really doesn’t help. Instagram, once full of people’s meals and holidays, envy-inducing but reminding you that you have similar experiences just around the corner, is now full of people desperately trying to make the best of it. I can never work out whether they should be cheered on or given a good – if metaphorical – shake (I tend to plump for neither). Twitter is even worse: it oscillates between manic overcompensation and despair, always with that strong underlying current that it shouldn’t have been this bad, that it didn’t need to be this frightening. Read enough of that, and you just get angry.

And all these things chime with me – some days I have a grump on pretty much from the get-go, and my Tweets are irascible or unkind. Some days I try to count my blessings, but doing so often feels trite. I can understand, sometimes, why people just sack the whole lot off. “I keep getting invited to do Zoom quizzes”, my mum told me earlier this week during a Facetime conversation, “but they just sound so bloody zany.” I know where she’s coming from.

The news isn’t any better. I’ve long ago stopped looking at the Guardian’s live coronavirus newsfeed – that way madness lies – but I still regularly see stories that bring home how uncertain things will be, and for how long. The Caterer published an article this week saying that only 60% of restaurants are likely to survive this crisis (to my shame, when I read the headline, my first reaction was “that many?”). The Observer ran a piece explaining that the end of lockdown is only the start of the problems for the industry: without further support, continued social distancing will mean it isn’t even viable for many restaurants to reopen.

One journalist said this on Twitter this week about restaurants, bars and breweries that had shifted to delivery: It’s not a clever pivot. They won’t be “fine”. In all likelihood they’re clinging on. Everyone is clinging on, in one way or another. Everyone, as the saying goes, is fighting a hard battle.

A bit of me thinks that the future is so uncertain, and so alarming, that we can’t focus on that or admit that we are anxious or depressed. So instead we put one foot in front of another, as I have at various difficult points in my life, and just muddle through one day at a time.

The way it affects me, I’ve discovered, is that I get disproportionately anxious or unhappy about tiny things: I’ve lost something of almost no consequence, or my computer won’t do exactly what I want it to at the exact moment I want it to, or the salad in the fridge has gone off. And then it’s all ruined, even though the bigger picture is far more serious. But after all, you can’t justify being sad about everything happening at the moment, because we’re all in the same boat. Or rather we’re all in the same fleet, and some people’s boats are shittier than others.

When it’s like that all the positive events of the week somehow hide on the horizon, difficult to grasp, even though they happened and they definitely brought joy, however fleeting. I should try harder to remember them. Last Friday there was a ring on my doorbell and Phil, from Anonymous Coffee, was standing at the end of the path. I hadn’t ordered from him that week, so I wasn’t sure what he was doing there, but he had placed three little bags of coffee on my doorstep.

“It’s the same coffee, ground three different ways. Have a play around with it and see if you can notice the difference.” He smiled, and then he was off. I’d been given some coffee and set some homework, a really lovely random piece of thoughtfulness.

Also last week, I got a delivery from a company called Cherry Tree Preserves which makes simply the best jam, chutney, marmalade and curd I’ve ever tasted. I do most of the cooking in my house, although that used to be a lot less cooking than it is now, but one effect of the pandemic is that Zoë has taken up baking. So now we can have banana bread, topped with a sugary demerera crust, spread thickly with lime curd and demolished with a fork, followed by the only thing better, another slice.

Last Sunday she made cheese straws with plenty of garlic and industrial quantities of Parmesan, bought from the market in Bologna a lifetime ago, and we inhaled half a batch greedily before our afternoon walk. There was so much cheese in them that in places they were part pastry, part chewy, crystalline nuggets of 40-month-old wonder.

“Shall I wrap the rest in foil and put them in the fridge?” she asked me, and there was a brief moment where we made eye contact and both knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that they wouldn’t last long enough for that to be worth doing.

At the weekend I saw that Two Hoots, makers of the legendary Barkham Blue, had started doing delivery, so I hopped online and ordered a whole wheel to be sent to my friend Wendy. Wendy is a woman who worships Barkham Blue like no other, and every time I visit her in the frozen North I’m under strict instructions to pick some up from the Grumpy Goat before getting on the train. “I HAD A DELIVERY OF CHEESEEEEEEEEE” said the breathless message I received shortly after the surprise package arrived. “I actually screamed when I opened it. Lockdown cheese delivery, what a time to be alive! I’m gonna sit in my pants and eat Barkham Blue.”

On balance I thought that last sentence was probably unnecessary detail, but I also knew for a fact that it would probably happen. If I lived on my own, was in possession of a wheel of Barkham Blue and had no need to leave the house, I would probably do the same.

One of my favourite bloggers, from over ten years ago, wrote a blog called Three Beautiful Things where every day she would record three things that brought her pleasure. They’re like little word Polaroids, beautiful clean concise snapshots lifted out of a life, shining on the page. She stopped writing a long time ago – life got in the way, the cause of death you most often see on blogs’ death certificates – but then I was idly browsing down memory lane one day and I saw that the coronavirus had prompted her to begin again. Reading it was a reminder, a badly needed one, that there’s always something good to be said, even if you have to look a little harder than you used to.

I think that’s all we can do: to focus on the here and now, to get through one day at a time and to count our blessings. To make the most of all those moments where, even if from a distance, we can touch each other and make some difference. I don’t know, by this stage, whether I’m writing this for you or for my own benefit, but I can’t rule out reading back over it in the weeks ahead and having words with myself. I also fully expect to have it quoted back to me by somebody when (and I know it’s a when, not an if) I fall short. Or perhaps I’ll just picture my friend Wendy, in her pants, giant wedge of Barkham Blue in hand, as happy as Larry. If that doesn’t cheer me up, nothing will.