Q&A: Adam Wells, drinks writer

Adam Wells writes about wine from nine to five, then goes home and writes about whisky and cider for an increasingly large gaggle of magazines, both printed and online. You can find most of his scribblings about drinks on Twitter, where he started out as The Whisky Pilgrim but now goes by the handle @Drinkscribbler. When not writing about alcohol he’s often to be found falling over on one of Reading’s amateur stages. He is the careful owner of one spittoon, and shares his West Reading home with several hundred bottles and one geophysicist.

What have you missed most in lockdown?
Probably the ability to just go somewhere. To just walk out of the door. Doesn’t matter what it’s to do or who it’s to see. Just the fundamental, liberating act of leaving the house for a non-essential purpose.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The independent scene, especially restaurants, but specifically the way that the people in Reading who know and care about these places gather around them so tightly and champion them so fiercely. It’s something I see a lot on your Twitter and at your lunches and I think it stems from the sneers that occasionally float this way from people who don’t know Reading, who think it’s just grey and bland and a place that’s on the way to other places. There’s such a depth of pride in the independents that are here. They’re not taken for granted, and I think that’s special. If I’m allowed a least favourite thing, glass not being collected with recycling is a runaway winner.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
It was very recent, in San Sebastián. Part of their “txotx” season, when the new ciders are tasted from barrel – every cider house does it and the menu’s the same at each place. Chorizo in cider and honey, salt cod omelette, cod loin with peppers and onions, t-bone steak (half a cow, really). The food was incredible – perfect – but the occasion and the theatre of it was what lifted it to my top spot.

You write about wine professionally, you then started blogging about whisky and now you write a lot about cider, and are working on a book. If you could only drink wine, whisky or cider for the rest of your life which would it be?
Wine. It isn’t a substitute for cider or whisky, but as a whole category wine scratches more itches in more ways than the others do.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Primary school dinners, aged about four. They were cartoonishly horrid – they defied exaggeration. The memories are all the more vivid for a vicious bully of a teacher among whose many dictatorial pleasures was not letting children get up until plates were clean. I don’t think she cared much about allergies or real, deeply-held hatreds of certain food. I remember classmates being properly, bawlingly upset, sat by these plates of utter filth for an hour a few times a week, occasionally being sick, this teacher snapping and scolding and shouting the whole way through. I think parents thought she was some wonderful, characterful old battleaxe, but she was a Trunchbull, and every kid in the class loathed her. It was an early insight into absolute power, and it put me off certain foods for life.

What is the worst job you’ve done?
Packing envelopes. It was only for two days, but I felt every second.

From your pictures on Twitter your drinks collection frequently puts most pubs to shame, but what’s your favourite Reading boozer?
The Nag’s Head. I think there’s a lot of room for their ciders to improve but I still think they do more things right than any other pub in Reading from an interesting booze point of view. They’re also my local these days, which often sways affection. If I lived the other side of town the Weather Station or the Retreat could easily be my number one.

Where will you go for your first meal out after all this?
Sapana Home. It’s our in-town staple, especially when we’ve not planned anywhere specific beforehand.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
David Mitchell’s probably a bit too old. Is there a younger equivalent?

Which writers, living or dead, do you most admire?
Shakespeare (clichéd, I know) and Martin McDonagh for plays. Terry Pratchett and Harper Lee for novels. A.A. Gill for non-fiction, although I’d put an asterisk next to “admire” in that instance, as I know you wouldn’t approve.

What is your favourite smell?
Really good, mature claret. Doubly so if someone else is paying.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I’m not sure, although I daresay my readers could give you dozens. It’s a bit niche and pretentious, but I feel I write and say “caveat” a lot. Probably precisely because it’s a bit niche and pretentious. It’s also a cheap get-out, a bit don’t-blame-me. It’s quite a cowardly word, I suppose, especially for a reviewer.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
Just one? Alright, In Bruges then.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Salt and vinegar crisps – the Co-Op’s in particular. I resent sharing 150 gram bags, and mistrust people who take more than one sitting to see them off.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
My closest friends. There’d be no conversation otherwise; I’m appalling at talking to people I don’t know, and I can’t imagine the embarrassment of meeting all of my heroes at once and stammering awkwardly through a meal. I bumped into David Mitchell in the street once and literally ran away. I wouldn’t make it through the aperitif if there were four or five of them. In any case, if we’re talking dream dinner parties I’m more interested in the food and drink than the guest list.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Nothing and nobody lasts forever. You can’t reclaim lost time. Use it properly.

Tell us a joke.
Two cats are swimming the English channel. One’s called “One-two-three”, the other is called “Un-deux-trois”. Which won? One-two-three. Because Un-deux-troix cat sank.

It only really works aloud.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
See my answer above, but it absolutely bears repetition.

Where is your happy place?
The Great Glen. I’d say the highlands generally, but that’s far too broad. I used to live in Inverness and getting out into the hills around Loch Ness was how I spent most of my free time. The Isle of Arran would be a close second. Our family holiday go-to, growing up.

Describe yourself in three words.
Worrier. Overthinker. Writer. 

Q&A: Salvo Toscano, photographer

Originally from Sicily, Salvo Toscano moved to the UK in 1994 “just for a couple of years.” After some time in Bristol and a couple of other places, he ended up in Reading in 2001 and been here ever since. Having spent time working in IT and telecoms and a spell as a stay at home dad, he is now a photographer who has worked alongside Jelly and regularly exhibits at the Whiteknights Studio Trail. He lives in the university area with his wife and daughter.

What have you missed most in lockdown? 
Aside from the impact on photography of course? Not being able to hop on a train to London to enjoy a nice exhibition and not being able to sit in a café for some people watching.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading? 
People who, on a variety of fronts, endeavour to provide alternative and interesting ways to live and experience life in Reading, making it a more engaging place than just another dull clone town.There are many challenges and, to a certain extent, what feels like resistance, but I feel one of the learnings from the lockdown will have to be that we look at different ways of experiencing urban life. The focus on what constitutes and contributes to a better quality of life will have to be adjusted.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
My grandmother in the country house frying arancini on a summer evening… and me eating them.

When did you discover a passion for photography, and what triggered it?
As a little kid I wanted to use my dad’s shiny camera but I was not allowed, so I made do with a little plastic toy one. Later on I got a proper one as a present. This was in the pre-internet days, so help and information was pretty limited. You had to rely on hints and tips from friends and the occasional magazine; lots of experimenting, trial and error, keeping an eye on not wasting film frames and saving money for supplies and lab costs. Not to mention people wondering what the heck I was taking photos of (this carries on to these days, albeit to a lesser extent!). In my adult years, bored with just the technical aspects, I started spending more time researching bodies of work and learning more about photography as a creative and expressive tool.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
A recent best must be at Les Apothicaires, an excellent small restaurant in Lyon. It was a superb combination of service, food, wine, atmosphere and people. For me a great meal more than just food and many different elements have to click: the whole atmosphere plays an important role. I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy many great meals, be it a Georgian feast in somebody’s home in Tbilisi or in some randomly found izakaya in Tokyo. But all of them have that same thing in common: the combination of a great convivial atmosphere and good food.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? 
The cast of Lost In Translation.

Do you think the proliferation of cameraphones, and social media, has made people better or worse photographers? 
Probably neither. We see more great photos and more bad photos: we are exposed to a flood of images everyday and arguably we have become desensitised. Also, social media’s pressure and need for instant gratification has resulted in an abundance of the same kind of images and “looks” (see for example Insta Repeat). Cameraphones are ubiquitous, convenient. They do the job. They are tools and we will use them badly or well. Ultimately, “better” and “worse” are relative concepts. Photographically speaking, there was lot of tosh well before the advent of smartphones: it was just less visible.

Where will you go for your first meal out after all this?
I’ll be lacking in originality here but it has to be Clay’s! (Nandana, if you’re reading this, can I book a table now please?)

What, to your mind, distinguishes a snapshot from a photograph?
Nothing, in my opinion: a snapshot is a photograph. I understand that many of us tend to see the snapshot as a rushed, low quality, often vernacular image. Probably many are, but there’s nothing wrong with that. However, I can also look at a “snapshot” as an immediate, visceral response to an emotion, a visual language or aesthetic that can be as or more expressive than a “proper” photograph”.

A photograph, if you mean a technically good, well composed and constructed image can be immensely boring if, in my eyes, it doesn’t draw me in. Or it can be beautifully made and so expressive that I feel completely captivated. We can play with semantics, but they’re both good and valid, people enjoy making either, they serve a purpose and it is a matter of context how you want to see or use them.

What one film can you watch over and over again? 
Spirited Away.

What is your favourite smell? 
Fig trees, possibly with the smell of the sea thrown in.

Who would play you in the film of your life? 
Andy Garcia.

If you could only shoot in colour or black and white for the rest of your life, which would you choose and why? 
Colour, even though I have used – and still use – black and white for a lot of my personal work. I’ve been shooting in colour more during the past years and I enjoy the challenge of seeing things differently. If necessary I can always convert into monochrome: is that cheating?

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
Tyrrell’s sea salt and black pepper.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
To have good people around you.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I can make a very tasty caponata (a Sicilian dish made with aubergines).

Where is your happy place?
With my people and out shooting, although not necessarily together.

Which photographers, living or dead, do you most admire? 
It can be a very long list! It’s also a changeable one, as it reflects my thinking and mood through certain phases and moments. To put a few known names here: Todd Hido; Luigi Ghirri; Daidō Moriyama; Alec Soth; Rania Matar; Rinko Kawauchi; William Eggleston; Suda Issei; Koudelka; Stephen Shore; Letizia Battaglia; Nobuyoshi Araki; Paolo Roversi; Irving Penn; Robert Adams; Diane Arbus; Sally Mann and Nan Goldin. There are many more whose work I love, who inspire me and grace my Instagram feed.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Granita gelsi con panna e brioche – mulberry granita with whipped cream and brioche – as breakfast when in Sicily.

Describe yourself in three words.
Obsessive, introvert, liberal elite.

Q&A: Louize Clarke, The Curious Lounge

Louize Clarke was made in Reading in 1972 and has lived here most of her life. She wasn’t a huge fan of the education system, so left college as soon as she could to start work. She’s been hanging around in the tech and digital space for the last 25 years and loves to juggle many things. Her big passion, however, is for talent and working with diverse groups who could be plugging the digital skills gap. She runs The Curious Lounge with her long-suffering husband Matt and owns a 21 year old tree surgeon called Jack, a Sproodle called Bernard, Bear or Whirly (depending on her mood at the time) and a very grumpy cat.   

The Curious Lounge has been running digital events throughout lockdown, but re-opened on 6th July after being physically shut for 12 weeks. They have just launched an adopt a plant campaign.

What have you missed most in lockdown?
A bath, because we’ve had over 70 giant plants living with us in lockdown! Don’t worry, we do have a shower.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The indie businesses in Reading: they are unbelievably hardworking and incredibly passionate about what they do. It’s been lovely to see them all supporting each other in lockdown, despite the obvious challenges thrown at them.

For the uninitiated, how would you sum up what The Curious Lounge is and what it does?
We are a bit of an eclectic mix: we have a co-working area with coffee shop run by Anonymous Coffee, a business lounge with meeting/training rooms and we are a digital and business skills hub. We’ve been described as “the secret love child of a coffee shop and a co-working space” – a place to listen, learn and meet.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Liver and bacon. I grew up in a culinary challenged house, which is why you won’t find me whipping up anything in the kitchen.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
For me a meal is about more than just the food. It’s also about the company and the setting, so it would have to be slow-cooked lamb at a beach bar in Menorca, watching the sun go down.

You’ve been very vocal on social media about being a business let down by the government during this crisis. What do you think needs to be done?
Sorry about that – ranting on social media is my speciality! I understand that these are unprecedented times, but I’ve found it really hard to watch the government help some and not others. I’d like to see a level playing field in terms of rates support and grants to give everyone the same fighting chance in the challenging times ahead.

What is your most unappealing habit?
Starting a conversation in my head and then thinking that the person I am talking to joined at the start of the conversation rather than the middle.

Where will you go for your first meal out after all this?
This required no thought at all: Fidget & Bob for a full English breakfast.

What’s your superpower?
I’m often described as a whirlwind of energy, so probably juggling multiple things at once.

What’s your favourite city break destination?
Madrid. I love the food and warmth of the people, and I can while away hours in El Retiro Park just watching life. I am lucky that we know locals who have been kind enough to share their secrets, so we’ve avoided the tourist side.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
I had to ask my long-suffering husband this one – apparently Eva Green or Tilda Swinton, because both ladies are slightly bonkers.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
Love Actually. I’ve even done the London tour and I made my son sit on “that bench” when he was about eight. I also share a similar vocabulary to Bill Nighy’s character.

Do you think, post-Covid, that the traditional office is dead – and is that good or bad news for spaces like The Curious Lounge?
I don’t know if the traditional office is dead but I think they will be used in different ways. I think it will be good for us in the long run – there are definitely more conversations around working closer to home and doing less commuting into London. In addition, the novelty of working from home is clearly starting to wear off for many.

What one restaurant do you wish you could pick up and drop in Reading?
An indie tapas restaurant, one that serves little plates of Spanish warmth washed down with a decent red served at a long bar where you can chat to other people. There’s one in Soho called Pix Pintxos where I’ve spent far too long enjoying their dishes and a copa de tinto.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
Tyrrell’s Sea Salted.

Where is your happy place?
Bigbury on Sea. There’s a fantastic circular walk with a dog friendly pub in the middle and the waves are great for body boarding. I can’t wait to be back there again.

You must get asked to spell your first name a lot: is the Z a blessing or a curse?
The Z is a blessing: people can always find me. I’ll let you into a secret – it’s not officially spelled with a Z. I swapped it when I was 12, because my mum wouldn’t let me change my name.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Fish finger sandwiches with vinegar and tomato ketchup. There is always a pack in the freezer.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I’m most comfortable hiding at the back. I’d rather be the drummer keeping the rhythm: I’m not really a fan of being at the front.

Describe yourself in three words.
Kind, unforgiving, mischievous.

Q&A: Steph Weller, producer, Reading Fringe

Steph Weller is an independent theatre and festival producer. She has been involved with many of the Reading arts scene’s most high-profile recent events, including the Reading Fringe Festival, the Reading on Thames festival, Magical Reading and productions by Rabble Theatre and Reading Rep. She nurtures the development of new theatre, and last year she spent 12 months as one of the Old Vic 12, developing new musical Black Power Desk. She also creates work as Working Birthday with writer/performer Natasha Sutton Williams (responsible for, among other things, Freud The Musical, also performed at Reading Fringe). Steph lives in New Town with her partner.

The Reading Fringe has gone digital as a result of Covid-19, having received public funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England. It will host a wide range of events from 17th to 26th July.

What have you missed most in lockdown?
Spontaneity – being able to go for a rambling stroll and pop into a pub as the mood strikes. Meeting a friend for coffee. Deciding to sack off cooking and treating myself to a meal out. All these things are privileges, and I value them more than ever.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
There’s a fierce spirit of “just do it” – our independent scene is a great example of that. People just getting out there and doing it. And the town is richer for it. I so, so hope our independent scene survives this current crisis. 

I also have to quote my eloquent mate who says: “I kind of like that Reading’s gems aren’t flashy or obvious. As a town it makes you work at discovering its charm, in the form of the river and canal-side walks (which are seriously under-advertised), the indie food offerings, the creative arts etc. Reading is like the moody emo kid at secondary school – you need to invest time and effort in understanding it, but your effort is well rewarded and you’ll reap the benefits of the relationship for years.” 

That about nails it, I reckon.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
I’ve a dreadful memory for these kinds of things. I do remember being on holiday with my parents in Greece when I was very, very young. My dad had gone on a fishing trip and when he returned he was offered a delicacy: a freshly cracked-open sea urchin (I presume it was a delicacy – they might have just been taking the piss). It was scooped out onto a hunk of bread and looked, to my eyes, like a big gloopy veiny ball of snot. To my dad’s credit, he ate it. Despite the fact I didn’t even taste it, it was such a visceral sight that I remember it far better than anything I actually ate.

How do you think Reading’s cultural scene has changed since you first arrived here?
When I moved here in 2000 to take a job at the uni, I didn’t really expect to find much of anything in the way of culture: much like most people, I had a very narrow, not terribly positive (or accurate) view of Reading. But I quickly became aware of the strength of the visual arts and the craft scene. Back then, jelly still had a presence along the Oracle riverside with the Jelly Leg’d Chicken art gallery, and I thought it was so cool that there was this proper arty, independent gallery right in the centre of the town. 

But at heart I’m a theatre girl and, although I loved watching theatre at the likes of South Street, I wanted to get my hands dirty, so I started hunting out opportunities to get involved in and make theatre. So I came across Progress Theatre, where I spent many happy (and busy!) years, and which I credit with giving me a load of the skills I’ve needed in my professional career.

I think what’s changed is that now it just feels like there is more of everything – we have a thriving professional theatre scene creating exciting new work and providing opportunities for performers and other creatives. And of course we have more festivals than ever, covering a wide range of interests – as well as the Fringe (still a relative newcomer compared to some!), you have music at Are You Listening?, Readipop and Down at the Abbey (to name a few). And then there’s the Dance Reading Festival, the Children’s Festival, the Earth Living Festival, Waterfest, East Reading Festival, Here Comes the Sun – and more! AND that’s not including all the great food and drink festivals that tantalise us each year.

If you’d asked me five or six years ago if I thought I’d be able to sustain a professional producing career from Reading, I would have said absolutely not, I’d have to move to a Big City. But I’ve been freelance since 2014 and all my income now comes from the theatre and events industries, which is testament to the opportunities that exist (of course, I know that now is not a great time to have a career in those industries – but hey, let’s stay positive!)

What was your most embarrassing moment?
Ummm, I wet myself at Brownie camp when I was a kid. I was too scared to go into the outdoor toilets, cos they were full (and I mean full) of spiders. So what’s a girl to do..?

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
Oh now – I’d say it was my first Michelin experience, back in 2011. It was at 21212 in Edinburgh, and I’d booked it as a surprise for my boyfriend at the time (I’m so nice). Everything about it was perfect: it wasn’t too frou, it was welcoming and cosy, the staff were warm and attentive, and of course the food was so delicious and so surprising. I know this is what you’d expect from any decent restaurant, but it was my first time in a Michelin one, and I was a little apprehensive as to what to expect! 

I loved it so much that I emailed them afterwards for a copy of the menu (I knew I’d forget what I had otherwise) and to remind me of the blue cheese I had, as it’s the only blue cheese I’ve ever enjoyed (Bleu d’Auvergne, if you’re asking). It also introduced me to the delights of truffle honey and to Tokaji. Both of which are found in loads of places now, but back then, to a Croydon girl, they seemed the height of decadence. It also means I’m now one of those poncy wankers who orders a dessert wine when everyone else thinks they’ve finished drinking.

The Reading Gaol project: important development for the town or costly white elephant?
I think if we could get our hands on it – and we could fund it – it would be an absolute boon. There are some brilliant creative, ambitious minds in this town and I genuinely believe that in the right hands that site could be an absolute asset in terms of cultural impact and engagement, creative industries employment, and tourism. It’s big and it’s ambitious – but Reading is totally up to the challenge.

Where will you go for your first meal out?
I was going to say how I’m chomping at the bit to get back to Namaste Momo – I credit Kamal with introducing me to food with spice and warmth that I can actually eat. But I see he’s back delivering again, hooray (serves me right for not being on Twitter much!) But in all honesty I hope that my first meal out of lockdown will be at a friend’s house – I so, so miss the simple pleasure of enjoying (someone else’s!) home-cooked grub followed by a good ol’ natter on the sofa afterwards.

What is your most unappealing habit?
Apparently I have a bad habit of going full Andrex puppy with the bog roll – not sure how I manage it, but it often just… unravels after a visit.    

The Reading Fringe Festival receives hundreds of applications every year. What’s the most weird and wonderful one you’ve seen?
I’d use the term eclectic, rather than weird! One of the roles of the Fringe – of art and culture in general I guess – is to challenge perception and encourage people to experience things they might not have had the opportunity to experience before, or have shied away from because, well, they might think it’s “weird” or not for them. 

A great example of this was a couple of years back – we were hosting the fantastic ice musician Terje Isungset from Norway. Terje creates his own instruments from blocks of ice that have been carved from icebergs, and then plays them. When you tell people about it, well, people think the whole concept sounds if not weird, then a little, umm, unusual. And when you tell them you’re hosting it at the height of summer, well, they then start to think you’re crazy. Fortunately loads of people took a punt on the weirdness, and the concert was a magical experience – ethereal, atmospheric and moving. And that’s what the Fringe is about: embrace the weird and you may discover something wonderful! 

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Oooooh – Sandi Toksvig (my hero), Mary Anning (dinosaurs!), Michaela Coel (hilarious and outrageously talented), Hollie McNish (what a way with words), Sam Neill (he’d bring the wine), and my mum. She’d have a riot.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
Anything prawn cocktail flavoured: and although I love the flavour of Skips, I prefer the crunch of the McCoys Sizzling King Prawn.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
Gross Pointe Blank! It’s effortless – performances, writing, direction – just an absolute joy.

What are you proudest of in your professional career to date?
I’d say last year, getting to spend a year with the Old Vic developing a new musical about the history of the British Black Power movement – we shared an hour of material back in December, and watching (and feeling) the audience respond to it was fantastic. I really miss the electric energy that comes from watching live performance in a room with other people.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
It’d have to be that Reading-born girl with the killer eyebrows – Kate Winslet!

What is your favourite smell?
That cool, fresh smell you get when you’re on the water, particularly on a river. A mix of the water, a breeze and the smell of trees and plants along the riverside. Love it. As an aside, I have a friend whose favourite smell is fish food flakes, which so boggles my mind I feel the need to tell everyone.

Tell us something people might not know about you. 
I finally passed my driving test in 2018 at the grand old age of *ahem* – so you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Where is your happy place?
Right now it’s walking along the Kennet and Thames to Sonning. It’s keeping me sane at the moment! But in general it’s nowhere specific: so long as I’m with someone who’s making me laugh – proper, belly-aching guffaws – I’m happy.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
I can’t resist a meat pie or a scotch egg. If I could buy shares in the Caversham Butcher I would – and those shares would be in scotch eggs.

Describe yourself in three words.
Optimistic; over-eager; daft.

Q&A: Rachel Eden, councillor and Deputy Mayor

Rachel Eden moved to Reading in 2007 and in 2010 was elected as a Labour councillor for Whitley, a position she has held ever since. She is an award-winning founder of local accountancy firm Holy Brook Associates which works with small businesses, charities and social enterprises, and is also Chair of community group West Reading Together and a (voluntary) Director of Reading Community Energy Society. She stood as the Labour and Cooperative Parties’ candidate in Reading West in the 2019 general election, and in May was confirmed as Reading’s Deputy Mayor. She lives in West Reading.

What have you missed most in lockdown?
Getting out and about meeting people – whether at festivals and events, or just random catch ups. I have friends and colleagues from all sorts of life experiences and backgrounds and from all around the world and I really miss them. Reading is a very special place with a special spirit.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
Definitely our sense of community. Reading is a wonderful, diverse place with an incredibly strong sense of community. I truly love that we celebrate together and right now we are mourning together, but whatever the circumstances we love our town and we support each other. In Reading we haven’t always talked about special sense of friendships across our communities – because we are so used to it – but we do now need to really emphasise and value it, and our spirit of solidarity.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
‘Pancake Night’: every Friday for several years growing up my mum would make pancakes, after we went swimming or to the library. We saw it as a massive treat.  

It always feels to me like politicians in other countries are so much better at speaking human than their British counterparts. Do you agree, and if so what do you think is behind that?
I do feel our political culture is quite unforgiving – I think we have a tendency to want to catch people out. Having said that, I also kind of think the politicians we hear about from other countries are the interesting or personable ones – I bet not every New Zealand politician is a Jacinda Ardern. Ultimately, if we want politicians who show a bit more of a human side we need to vote for them.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
I’d want Amy Poehler, I love Parks and Recreation… although that might be a bit aspirational.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
For a political one I’d invite the Obamas, Mo Mowlam, Gordon Brown, Jess Phillips and a bunch of my Reading Labour Councillor colleagues. I’d cook them all a Sunday roast and hope that I’d get a word in edgeways… I love entertaining, although I always end up inviting too many people for a sit-down dinner.

Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
I think it’s quite likely to be Fidget & Bob: I have missed hanging out there, although I have managed to visit their ‘deli’. Shuet and Breege are just lovely people and I always know I’ll have a great meal and a special time.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I have a feeling the Conservative Councillors got a bit fed up of me saying ‘I’m disappointed’ in response to them in council meetings. I also have to edit most things I write to reduce the uses of the word ‘lovely’

What more do you think the council can do to support our independent businesses in this climate?
This is a massive topic. It’s my day job to work with indies in Reading and I never cease to be amazed at the range of businesses our town is home to. To take just one example of what the council could do more of: for a lot of start-ups, office space and meeting room costs in our town can be prohibitive. I think that it is something the council should look at.  

The first step though, to really understand what the council should do is to really spend some time listening to our independent businesses. It’s going to be vital for Reading post-Covid and the Brexit transition to make sure our home-grown independents survive and – hopefully – thrive.  

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
The meal I’ve enjoyed the most was my partner’s birthday last year – I arranged a surprise for him at Thames Lido with a group of friends and family. The food was really good, of course, but it was the feeling of togetherness which was so special.

I imagine running for Parliament must be a very surreal thing to do. What was the strangest experience you had on the campaign trail?
The most obviously surreal moment was getting a call while visiting the Gurdwara asking me if I wanted Hugh Grant to come and campaign for me.  It led to a very surreal Monday afternoon: and of course the social media on that went viral.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
My kids have a habit of re-watching films a lot, but as a children’s film I think Paddington is worth multiple watches. It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve is pretty hard to beat: I defy anyone to watch the journey of George Bailey from suicidal and on the verge of bankruptcy to receiving the love and acceptance of everyone around him without being moved.  

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
Coop Irresistible Chilli Crisps, but as long as it’s not salt and vinegar, I’m happy.

What was your most embarrassing moment?
I have so many, but telling my university boyfriend that he was disgusting for drinking pig milk when he offered me UHT in my tea has to stand out as a cringeworthy food-related embarrassment. In my defence, my mum had told me that UHT milk came from pigs when I was small and I’d never realised it was a joke.

What prompted you to get into politics?
I joined the Labour Party because I wanted to be part of making change happen – not just campaigning for change – and one thing led to another.

Who is the best leader the Labour Party has ever had, and who’s the best leader they never had?
I’m never sure about what criteria to use for these questions, but I believe Harold Wilson could be said to be our best or most successful leader. Looking at track record and experience, Barbara Castle would have made a great leader and Prime Minister, but Jo Cox was being talked about as a future leader. It’s one of the biggest tragedies of the last few years that her assassination means we’ll never know if she would have been.

Where is your happy place?
My garden – I can spend all day with my kids, my partner or on my own pottering around.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Buttered toast with Nutella.  

Tell us something people might not know about you.
My great-grandfather was a gardener at Beale Park back when it was the Childe Beale Estate. My dad spent a lot of his childhood staying with them in a cottage on the estate.

Describe yourself in three words.
Honest, messy, kind.