One of the strangest things lockdown has done is to literally shrink my world. Like everyone, I imagine, I’ve got heartily sick of doing the same walks every week, tracing the same routes time and again with only minor variations. For the last three months, the perimeter of my world has changed completely, and Reading has become a tiny place. It’s bounded to the west by Watlington Street, and I’ve only crossed the river to the north a couple of times for walks.
Like so much of what we’re living through, the effect is downright weird. I know rationally that the scruffy charm of Katesgrove, the grandeur of the Bath Road and the Stepford roads of Kennet Island still exist, but to me they might as well be Oxford, Bristol or even Prague. They’re now just places I don’t visit, places where other people live. It’s a sad consequence of four months of isolation, to feel disconnected from much of your home town, especially during a time when it has felt under attack, literally and figuratively.
Most of my strolls have been around east Reading, around the Old Cemetery and the university during the day, or doing circuits of Palmer Park closer to sundown. I’m lucky to have so much green space near me, so many options to choose from – I imagine it’s a very different matter in west Reading, where you mostly have Prospect Park – but even so the monotony and the constant house envy get a bit much after a while. It’s always nice to accidentally run into someone you know on walks like that. You aren’t allowed to visit them, or go for a walk with them, but if you chance upon them it’s okay to stand awkwardly, two metres apart, and catch up for a while, leaving joggers to circumnavigate your impromptu bubble.
Last week Zoë had a week’s holiday, so we finally stretched the northern and eastern edges of the map, crossing the Thames and wandering up Prospect Street, across to Balmore Rise to look out over a Reading full of landmarks I haven’t visited in such a long time.
Then we skirted the edge of Emmer Green, with its almost-fancy Budgens. We passed the whitewashed Grace Church, an oddity which looks like it has been picked up from Andalusia and plonked on the Peppard Road. We cut through the beautiful private roads of Caversham, gorgeous houses with just the faintest whiff of smugness, before wandering home through Sonning and down the Thames Path. Twenty-thousand steps later I was exhausted, happy to be home and craving a beer, although I didn’t have one because I didn’t want to undo all my good work.
On another day we did the Thames Path in the other direction before crossing the A4 and making our way into Woodley, over the bridge impossibly high over the railway tracks, Brunel’s handiwork visible in both directions.
Was this really where my brother, my grandfather and I clambered down to the side of the tracks, the best part of forty years ago, and my grandfather threw a two pence piece onto the tracks just before a train hurtled over it? I remember it when he picked it off the rails minutes later, all flattened and warped, a Dali creation, or at least I tell myself I do, but it feels like it happened to somebody else. Nowadays, there’s no easy way down and signs everywhere, with the Samaritans’ number on them, discourage people from taking the difficult route.
This week, on a warm evening, we finally headed west for the first time. We made our way down South Street, crossing on to London Street where I lived for many years. The blinds my ex-wife and I had so much trouble getting fitted all that time ago still hovered close to the bottom of the big sash windows, like tired eyelids. Outside Bakery House, Mohamad was talking to a customer and I could see, walking past it, that there were customers inside. It was strange, though, and I didn’t know whether to be happy they had so many customers, or uncomfortable that they had so many customers, or sad that there weren’t more. In truth, I was probably all three at the same time – but that’s nobody’s fault, and just the way things are.
It still seemed too strange to walk down Broad Street and the heart of town, so instead we cut down Church Street, past the Quaker Meeting House and the Church of St Giles. Jesus looked downcast, gazing down from his wooden cross, but he was bathed in evening sunlight all the same, as if he was giving Katesgrove his blessing. On another, happier evening we would have turned left and gone up the hill for a pint or two sitting on the tables outside the Hop Leaf, but now it’s by no means certain that the Hop Leaf will reopen at all. We may have done quite a few things for the last time, without even knowing it.
We walked up Bridge Street and I saw the Oracle for the first time, still almost as deserted as it had been the week before lockdown. Further up, just past the council offices, an enterprising food van was selling Madeiran food, all bolo de caco and chouriço. I wasn’t prepared for the sight of every table outside Zero Degrees being occupied, and I found it jarring. That’s not me judging people who are going to pubs at the moment – everyone has to make their own choices about the risks they’re happy to take – but it was strange to see a scene I hadn’t witnessed in a long time, people out and enjoying themselves. Not normality, but something that could pass for it, from a distance.
It was a similar situation in The Horn, Brewdog and The Sun, and then we cut right, looking at the Hexagon and the bizarre allotments where the Civic used to be. That end of town has always looked a little bit post-apocalyptic, which maybe means it’s less incongruous right now than, say, the Oracle. The new open-air Union Square street food market was boarded up that evening, and looked like something out of Mad Max.
There were a fair amount of diners in Sushimania, the waiting staff all masked up, and the signs were up announcing Pepe Sale’s opening on Thursday. The tables in the front window had bottles of Birra Moretti stacked on them, and I thought how nice it would be to be at a window seat with a crisp bottle of beer, trying to work out which of Pepe Sale’s specials was the most tempting. You can easily get through a whole beer doing that, without quite making up your mind. I miss evenings like that.
From there our route took us down the Oxford Road, and I’ve never been so pleased to see the Oxford Road in my whole life. Even if I wasn’t on my way to the Nag’s, it was just nice to see something that resembled bustle and normality. But even then it was a little too normal for my liking: too much bustle, too much crossing sides, or walking in the road. Before long we cut up a sidestreet and went up Brunswick Hill, another road full of irritatingly attractive houses, before reaching the tree-lined boulevard of the Bath Road. Florida Court looked as beautiful and as deco as always, green roofs tastefully lit by the last of the evening sun.
It was surprisingly emotional – happy and sad – seeing all these parts of my hometown that had been beginning to fade in my mind. Zoë and I kept stopping and taking pictures, even though they were of things and places we knew well, because it was just nice to be taking photos at all, of something new. Zoë is the first person I’ve gone out with who takes photographs, and at the end of a walk you get to compare shots. We both usually think the other’s pictures are better. Generally hers are better.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I know it’s a bit melancholy, but I think this time is more difficult than when we were in strict lockdown. I liked lockdown, once I got past the worries about catching the virus and where my next supermarket shop was coming from. Like many people I relax better within a bit of structure, and it was good to have clear rules, clear dos and don’ts.
But this? This is something different.
I envied my friends who ventured out at the weekend, to pubs and restaurants and taprooms, but I wonder whether they felt as if life was going back to normal or whether it just clarified how far away from normal we are. Because walking round parts of my town made me realise that things aren’t back to normal, and they never will be. All that is a thing of the past. The sooner we all get used to that the better, although as a notoriously change-averse individual I fully expect to find it harder than most.
It brought home everything I was banging on about last week: that Reading, and the country, will be changed forever by what has happened this year. Some of the places you love won’t make it, some of the shops you like to visit will be shuttered, some of the cafés you drink in will close and some of the smiling faces that have served you will have to find work somewhere else.
I wonder whether all of the investment planned in the town will happen, whether we really will get a bowling alley or a decent swimming pool or lots of whizzy shit where the Broad Street Mall is now. Perhaps parts of it will become like the Bristol & West Arcade, tangible evidence that not every egg becomes a bird. I wonder if our landlords will step up, or sink even further in the town’s estimation. Only time will tell.
What I hope doesn’t change is the people. I put something mopey on Twitter on the way home from my walk and before long I realised that I wasn’t alone. It was quite all right and perfectly natural to find this period more difficult than lockdown, people told me. Now you could see other people going on holidays you didn’t want to take or drinking in pubs you didn’t want to visit – at least not yet – it was the end of furlough for FOMO. Someone else described it as “fake lockdown”: “It adds the feeling that I should be doing more”, he said.
The irony. Recently my friend Mike told me that he felt he had wasted his lockdown, not reading any of the books he wanted to read, or watching all the films you must watch before you die, or learning another language. And now we all have to worry that we’re wasting our fake lockdown, too. You have to hand it to us: as a species, we really are so good at sabotaging ourselves.
I wish I could wrap up a piece like this in a pretty bow that sends everybody away happy, but it doesn’t always work that way. Right now, it shouldn’t: life for many people is still hard and it’s going to be difficult for quite a while. Glossing over that insults everybody’s intelligence. The struggle for our independent businesses is just beginning, and the worst thing we could do is fall into a complacent groupthink that everybody is out of the woods. The best thing we all have is one another, and we need to hang on to that. Maybe life online is all about building an echo chamber or a virtual group hug, but perhaps it’s up to you to decide which one you want it to be.
“The things we enjoy and the way we enjoyed them are still out of reach” was how somebody put it to me on Twitter, and I think that’s a wise way to sum it up. I saw my mum and my stepfather on Sunday, on adjacent benches in Harris Garden. It was emotional to see them in three dimensions, not just flat images on a Facetime call, with occasional lag or jitter, but I still couldn’t hug them goodbye. That says it all: still out of reach, indeed.
When I got home from my expedition, I went to the freezer and fetched myself a Solero. I maintain that a Solero is about the best way to eat a hundred calories there is – all mango and ice cream, like a portable lassi. They’re just the right size, so sweet and so satisfying, and unlike many happy gastronomic memories – Nice ‘N’ Spicy Nik Naks, or shrinkflation-adjusted chocolate bars – they’re still every bit as lovely as they used to be.
I’d love to say that they serve as some kind of metaphor – that some things are always good, and cannot become jaded, or that you can always find a moment of sweetness amid the gloom. But that’s probably overselling it, because sometimes a Solero is just a Solero. Even if it’s not the most uplifting conclusion I’ve ever written, it’s still one of the best pieces of advice I can give you: have one next time you get the chance. Kindness, community and Soleros. You could do a lot worse, you know, if you’re looking for guiding principles in the months ahead.