Corona diaries: Week 15

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.

Corona diaries: Week 14

We made it, everybody! Clap yourself on the back, congratulate yourself on your pluck and guts and book that table in the Allied for tomorrow, because lockdown is over. The pubs are starting to reopen – with the exception of killjoys like the Retreat with no gardens and selfish buzzkill merchants like the Purple Turtle – and although quite a lot of restaurants are yet to announce their plans, the good times are clearly just around the corner. I may not have got my holiday to Greece this year (I should have done a Stanley Johnson and just flown to Bulgaria before smuggling myself in: another trick missed) but who cares? The summer is fun is just about to begin.

Except. Except. Except I think we all know it isn’t really like that, and this stage of proceedings feels especially febrile. Hundreds of people are still dying every day – only in England, mind you, not in our more sensible regional cousins – my friends in Leicester (hi Adele, hi Mark!) are right back at square one and I don’t know about you, but the triumphalism coming out of some sections of the national press feels jarringly at odds with how I feel. I’ve spent nearly four months at home and I don’t remotely feel like the end is in sight; instead I have a growing, nagging suspicion that we’ll look back on lockdown, comparatively speaking, as the golden age.

Personally I’ll be at home tomorrow night, drinking some fantastic beers (I recently finally joined Untappd, which makes me a late adopter in much the same way as Mark Zuckerberg has lately adopted scruples about hate speech) and eating a takeaway from Namaste Momo. They do open for customers tomorrow as it happens, and I wish Kamal the best of luck, but I’d still rather get my fix delivered to my front door.

I’ve been thinking about the road ahead a lot this week, and some of this feels especially difficult for me to say. I love restaurants, I miss restaurants and I want nothing more than for restaurants to do well – especially the ones to which I’ve become rather attached. I wish I could be excitedly announcing all the reopenings, saying “see you there!” and racing you for that early table. I wish this was a diary post about that – it takes me back to nearly three months ago when I was writing about where we’d all go for our first post-lockdown meals. With hindsight, we all knew so little about how painful this would be: perhaps that’s for the best.

I can’t be that jingoistic cheerleader, because I think our restaurants are being hung out to dry. The decision to let them reopen is like the decision in March to tell people not to visit them (without actually closing them, of course). It is all about the government withdrawing support and leaving them to fail on their own two feet, and creating the illusion that life is going back to normal rather than the reality that it will. No more grants to fend off those greedy landlords, no more furlough payments for staff: restaurants are on their own now. It’s even worse – if that’s possible – in the arts: but that’s another story, albeit one closely linked to hospitality.

When I asked about this on social media, at least half of my followers said they didn’t plan to go into a restaurant for the time being. Couple that with the huge limitations that social distancing will impose on seating, and the admin involved in managing your customers, not to mention the risk that you will have to shut down when one of your customers or members of staff – probably from weeks ago – tests positive for Covid and the picture looks fraught with difficulty. Restaurants might feel they can’t say this publicly, so all the rhetoric is about how they can’t wait to have you back and see your faces (which I’m sure, by the way, is true) but could you blame them if, privately, they were shitting themselves?

This raises questions for all of us. Restaurants may have plenty of head scratching ahead about how they change their practices, but I think we also have to do some thinking about how we plan to support restaurants. Shrinking violet Jay Rayner started a debate about it this week when he grandly announced on Twitter that he was no longer going to publish negative restaurant reviews. He wasn’t prepared to kick anyone in hospitality at a difficult time like this, so if he didn’t have anything nice to say he wouldn’t say anything at all: if he went somewhere and didn’t like it he just wouldn’t write about it.

Would I do likewise? It’s a moot point right now, but an interesting one nonetheless. It’s different for Jay Rayner – he writes reviews that can genuinely boost or close restaurants (and has the ego to match) and I can see he might feel that with great power comes responsibility. But if you don’t tell people to avoid somewhere bad, isn’t there a risk that they’ll go there instead of all the lovely places you know about? And is thinking that literally everybody in hospitality is wonderful and doing their best to give you a fantastic evening a dewy-eyed act of self-deception? I’m sure, post-Covid, there will still be shysters and chancers, people ripping off trends or exploiting diners.

A lively debate on the subject on the ER Facebook page was fascinating but left me little clearer about my own views. Some people thought that a positive outlook like Rayner’s was just what was needed for the times ahead, others reckoned that there was a world of difference between an honest, constructive opinion and a hatchet job. One person very nicely said that my negative reviews tended to be nuanced (thanks Lucy, cheque’s in the post) – I wish that was true, but even I know that I can sometimes put the boot in. Would that be acceptable, post lockdown? Or would I just get told off because, ultimately, those restaurants pay wages and contribute to the economy, even if the food is bobbins?

Whether the state of affairs changes my habits as a reviewer, there’s no question that it can, will and (arguably) must change all of our habits as eaters. I’ve read a lot about how the age of the influencer is over, with bloggers (including local bloggers) rethinking their position on PR opportunities and gifted meals. And that’s right, I think, because it comes with a growing awareness that the restaurants that can still afford to do that are the chains. If you read my blog, you probably at least slightly share my values around independent businesses. If you do, I think there’s a lot to be said for thinking hard about your attitude to chains – especially big chains – from now on.

Make no mistake, the battle for market share in the months ahead will resemble a war zone, and the chains are going to do their best to kill independent businesses right out of the blocks. When Prêt announces that you can prepay £20 for 20 coffees, it wants to survive by clambering over the corpses of all the CUPs and Workhouses in towns across the country. When Camden Town Brewery – owned by giant multinational brewery AB InBev – gallantly offers to give free beer to pubs, they are trying to establish a stranglehold that forces smaller breweries out of business. We’re going to see this trend over and over again for the rest of this year.

In “peacetime”, I’m as partial to a Pizza Express or sitting at the belt at Yo! Sushi or drinking a Prêt mocha as the next person (unless, of course, the next person’s Prince Andrew). But we’re not in peacetime any more, and the luxury of having this plethora of choices is one we no longer have. In honesty, it was never one we really needed.

Everybody has to make their own choices, but I look at it this way: only so many businesses will survive all this, so you have to spend every pound with the businesses you want to survive. That was always true, even before Covid – especially with margins in hospitality as slender as they are – but it’s quadruply so now.

I had a conversation on Twitter a few weeks ago with someone about the mighty Kungfu Kitchen. “I like the look of their menu, but I’ll wait until I can eat in” she said. I had to point out, with the best will in the world, that if everybody takes that attitude your opportunity to eat in might be – to put it euphemistically – limited. I felt a bit like Bob Geldof at LiveAid, banging the table, saying “give us your fucking money”. But it’s true, and it’s important.

I think people’s mindsets are maybe slow to catch up. You see that in the recent news that Reading might well get a branch of Wendy’s at some point next year, news which caused an entirely disproportionate amount of buzz. “It will be nice to have another option”, said someone I follow on Twitter.

With respect, no. We have enough options already, more options than we need. We are going to lose a lot of those options as things stand, without a big faceless American chain coming in and selling everybody square donkey burgers. “But the jobs”, people say. Well, there is that. But those twenty or so jobs are a drop in the ocean when you think of all the companies and retailers making thousands of redundancies, and I bet you our independent restaurants and cafés treat – and pay – their staff miles better.

Of course, as sure as night follows day, Berkshire Live published an excitable article about Wendy’s (and promoted it five times in one day on Twitter) in the same week that they pretended to care about independent businesses with their bare minimum Twitter campaign. “Tweet to us about your business and we’ll share it with our 93,000 followers” said an organisation that has spent over twelve weeks publishing practically nothing about the independent businesses we already have.

It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. But of course, a proper outfit with links to the community would have followed people and businesses, engaged and would know this stuff already. They wouldn’t have to launch a desperate campaign which involves you doing all the legwork so they can just Retweet it.

What have they been doing in lockdown, exactly? Not their podcast, that’s for sure: they recorded an episode about “our pivoting independents” at the start of April which they couldn’t even be bothered to promote on social media. And since then? Complete radio silence. Perhaps Berkshire Live, part of what used to be Trinity Mirror but is now the disingenuously named “Reach Plc”, is another organisation that people don’t really need any more, like those other big chains with genuinely no interest in the communities they serve.

The response to their Twitter appeal, incidentally, was exactly what you’d expect from a company with zero interest in its audience: a wedding video company in Essex and an organisation called “The Dick Incider” (I suspect the latter isn’t real, but I’m surprised they didn’t just Retweet it anyway).

Speaking personally, I plan to pick the businesses I want to survive and relentlessly support them where I can. I hope everybody does the same. If you split your spend between, say, fifteen different restaurants the grim reality is that some or all of them may fail. There are no guarantees in what lies ahead, but if you zero in on a smaller number you give them the best possible chance of making it through all this.

That doesn’t mean you want the rest to go under, merely that there are limits to what anybody can do. I would be sad if, say, the Prêt outside the Oracle closed: it’s a favourite of my family’s, so I’ve been there far more often than I might from entirely personal choice. But I would be devastated if we lost Anonymous, or Tamp, or Nibsy’s.

Every town will be faced with these choices, and it will be a real opportunity for Reading to show what many of us have always said, that it’s more than a chain town. Imagine if everyone had the tacos at the Lyndhurst instead of Taco Bell, ate at Pepe Sale instead of Prezzo, went to Bakery House instead of Comptoir Libanais. It’s always been important, but it won’t ever be as important as this.

I don’t know if it’s much of an exaggeration to say that it’s a battle for the soul of Reading, and you need to pick which side you’re on. You can sneer and run the town down, if that’s your thing: god knows you’ll find an audience that shares what passes for your values. Alternatively, you can play an active part in making it the place we all know it can be. Which would you rather?

Of course, that leaves me with the difficult decision about what I do next. I won’t be reviewing restaurants, not for now anyway, and I’ve already ruled out takeaways. I’ve really enjoyed writing during lockdown, and I hope that alternating the diary posts with the weekly interviews has given everybody something to read (and possibly something to skip, or take exception to). I’ve been hugely encouraged by the response to the diary posts – especially the many kind comments, Tweets, messages and emails – and I know that the interview posts have had a fantastic reception.

So the interviews will continue for the foreseeable future, and I’m open to carry on writing some kind of diary for as long as people want to read it. But blogs are no different to all the restaurants, pubs, breweries, cafés and bars out there: if you want them to be around in the months ahead you have to use them and promote them. Otherwise you’ll end up in a town of Wetherspoons and Caffe Neros, of Taco Bells and Berkshire Lives. I lived in a town like that, once. It was Reading in 2013, before we got some self-belief and a lot of brave, risk-taking entrepreneurs. I don’t personally want to go back there. Do you?

Corona diaries: Intermission

A short intermission this week, partly because doing twelve weeks of these diaries in a row is quite enough to put you all through and partly because I’m superstitious and this would be week thirteen. I once had a city break in Helsinki where I stayed in a converted prison and they put me in Room 13. It was a really lovely room – well, cell – but even so I asked if they could move me: sadly it wasn’t possible. My lovely night’s sleep – and my Facebook friends’ jokes about me being careful not to drop the soap in the shower – did nothing to fix the superstition.

I couldn’t leave you with nothing to read this week, so instead you get a blast from the past – a reprint of the interview I did with Matt Farrall from the Whitley Pump, back in 2017 when I was just starting restaurant reviews again after a post-divorce sabbatical. It was a lovely chat in The Turks, over a beautiful meal cooked by Caucasian Spice Box (as they were known back then). At times it felt more like a rambling conversation than an interview, but amid all of Matt’s brilliant anecdotes and ruminations – I wasn’t entirely sure who was interviewing who at one point – he asked plenty of interesting questions. Some of the questions were supplied by Matt’s friend Donna, who at the time I only knew from Twitter.

Three years on, everything has changed. I have spent the best part of three happy years reviewing restaurants, until the pandemic closed them all. Keti and Zezva left the Turks that summer, and have finally found a permanent home at Geo Café where, for my money, they bake the town’s finest bread. Donna has become a regular guest at my readers’ lunches and if you’re on the same table as Donna and her partner Nige you are guaranteed a brilliant, entertaining time.

Matt sadly died two years ago, but leaves behind a body of brilliant work at the Whitley Pump. And the Whitley Pump itself has announced its closure, as I covered in my diary a while ago. Since the survival of all of the writing on the Whitley Pump is by no means guaranteed, this seemed to be a good moment to rescue this piece. Normal service will resume next week – and I have a belting interview for you next Tuesday – but in the meantime I hope you enjoy this.

– photo by Adam Harrington

For the past four years or so, Edible Reading has been the fearless Keyser Söze of Reading’s food scene, the anonymous blogger and local food chronicler of our times. I not only managed to track ER down to the great Katesgrove boozer The Turks for an 80s-Smash-Hits-style interview, but I also managed to eat an incredible, table-creaking five course Georgian meal from former in-residence food sensation Caucasian Spice Box just before they left the pub for pastures new.

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well” said Virginia Woolf and, good lord, we had five courses of glory that night. I would recommend you try their food at the Blue Collar street food market on a Wednesday or wherever they set up in future: it doesn’t taste like anything I have eaten before. The meatballs alone are a work of spicy, meaty, dense joy, served with sauce divine and made with love and national pride.

All I can say about ER’s appearance without giving anything away, is that prison tattoos along with bleached permed hair, dark dreadlocked eyebrows and a tank top with tartan Lycra strides have never been so beautifully arrayed. I swore an oath over a picture of Robin Friday and a lardy cake that I would never ever breathe a word of their identity.

What do you think of food photos?
Well, I do it, so I can hardly complain. But I probably wouldn’t if I wasn’t reviewing meals.

Can you cook?
No! I can cook about three dishes. I’ve never understood this idea that restaurant reviewers must also be cooks: just because you love music doesn’t mean you can play the guitar.

What would be your death row meal?
Do I get three courses? I’d start with sashimi. I love Japanese food and it’s very light, so it leaves room for the rest. Shamefully, I’d have really good, perfectly crispy southern fried chicken – like KFC used to be before it got grubby. And I’d skip dessert and go for a cheeseboard.

How do you attract a waiter’s attention?
Like everyone else: I meerkat up from my menu hoping that they spot me, and generally they do. I do have a bad habit of sitting with my back to the room and so delegating that job to someone else.

What’s your best wrong food?
I love pork scratchings, but they’re a bit middle class now. For all-time wrong, it has to be a Fray Bentos. It’s the soggy underpastry.

Favourite bar snacks?
The range in the Allied is about right, I think. Bacon and Scampi Fries, peanuts, flamin’ hot Monster Munch. All the food groups.

How many fridge magnets do you own?
I do not own a single fridge magnet.

Where did you learn to write so well?
At school I guess! But I think writing is like other forms of exercise: the more you do it, the better you get.

Have you tried lardy cake?
Yes, as a child. But it’s not my bag as I just don’t like dried fruit.

Do you have any no-go desserts?
Apart from not liking dried fruit I’m not a big fan of hot desserts, all that school dinners stuff. I often wonder if a dessert’s really going to be more fun than going home and having a bar of chocolate.

Name some pretentious foods.
I don’t think there are pretentious foods, just pretentious people. It would be easy to knock foams and veloutés and serving food on slates, but I don’t like clichés. If food is good, it’s good.

What about the rise of street food?
I’ve been critical of street food on Twitter because it never feels that much cheaper than food in restaurants even though they’ve cut out a lot of overheads. But that said, Blue Collar does some great stuff, and it feels like they have the balance about right.

Has Reading’s food improved?
Unquestionably it’s improved. On the one hand, we have a proliferation of good independent restaurants (and cafés and producers) who are starting to work together to build a food culture. We’re also seeing some of the smaller, more interesting chains come here – driven, I expect, by Crossrail.

Do you ever feel guilty about relating the bad food experiences?
I’d feel guiltier if I pulled my punches about a restaurant and readers went there and had a crap meal. I always try to be kind and constructive with small independent places unless they’re really exploitative. It’s different with chains: they can take it, and they should know better.

Do you like music in restaurants?
Not especially. You should be with someone where you don’t notice the music.

Are you a generous tipper?
Yes, and I can’t stand people who aren’t.

Do you split the bill equally?
I’d prefer not to eat with people who don’t share the bill equally (unless someone isn’t drinking). It’s like the rounds system in pubs: sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind, but it balances out in the long run.

Where are you from?
Bristol. I moved here when I was eight and, apart from university, I’ve pretty much been here ever since. It’s never been better than it is now.

Where was your first ever review?
Pepe Sale, one of my favourite restaurants. The first places I went to were places people might well know, so they could see if they agreed with me.

I think your ratings list is a massive achievement; is it a labour of love?
I prefer to see it as a body of work.

Where would you go for sustenance if it’s too late for an evening meal?
King’s Grill every time! It’s open until 2am, it’s spotlessly clean, the staff are amazing and it does brilliant chicken kebabs.

What food and other writers do you admire?
I don’t like restaurant reviewers who make it all about themselves. The broadsheet reviewers are more entertaining than informative, but they’re just not my bag. Outside food, I admire Barbara Pym, Anne Tyler, Phillip Larkin and Tove Jansson (who wrote the Moomin books but also wrote beautiful books for adults). I’d give my eye teeth to write like David Sedaris.

Are you happy to be anonymous and unrecognised or would it be nice to get an award or two?
I’ve never given a shit about awards. But I do love that fact that every week someone on Twitter says they’ve eaten at a place I recommended and loved it: that feels like winning the lottery. I’m just glad I’ve done my bit to make Reading a nicer place to live and eat in.

Can average food be OK in a great setting and vice versa?
Absolutely it can. An okay meal can be elevated by great service and atmosphere. A good meal is the result of a complicated blend of factors. I have eaten technically brilliant foods in soulless rooms served by chilly people and thought that I’d rather have been at Caucasian Spice or Bakery House. And if you don’t believe me, think about meals on holiday. They’re often brilliant, even when the food is nothing special.

Have you ever had a quasi-religious feeling of ecstasy from a great dish?
Many times. I think if you love food it’s often because you’ve had an experience like that as a child – frequently abroad – and you’re chasing that dragon for the rest of your life. Counterintuitively, when I really love a dish I shake my head.

Custard, ice cream or cream?
Ice cream every time. I don’t like custard: I don’t trust liquid with a skin.

Do you eat a messy burger with your hands or use cutlery?
I’m not afraid to eat burgers with cutlery. Whatever works, basically. I know some people judge this, but burgers nowadays are so enormous that you have to unhook your jaw to eat them, so what are you supposed to do?

Why are you compelled to write?
I love writing, I love writing about food and I hoped people would enjoy it. I think all needs to have an audience in mind – if not, you may as well keep a diary. It’s not for posterity though: if I wanted to write something timeless it wouldn’t be a review of an Italian restaurant.

What’s your favourite biscuit?
I’m going through a phase of liking a milk chocolate Hob Nob but my all time favourite is Choco Leibniz: it’s basically a Rich Tea having sex with a giant slab of chocolate.

Do you have other interests other than food?
Same as everyone I guess – I like going to the pub and I have a great group of friends who I love dearly. I enjoy travel and am a keen but very amateur photographer.

I have re-discovered lovely loose leaf tea. Where should I go?
Definitely C.U.P. They do the best loose leaf tea in Reading without exception.

What is your madeleine moment; that strong memory brought on by food?
It is a personal story, but I didn’t speak to my mother for several years and when we reconciled she went through a phase of cooking me all my childhood favourites. So for me it’s her stew and dumplings and, perhaps most of all, her steak and mushroom pie.

And where do you go for breakfast in Reading?
Reading’s a bit poor for breakfast, but I do like Côte‘s French breakfast with crumbly sweet boudin noir and, to my surprise, Bluegrass which also does very nice baked eggs. Still haven’t found a decent omelette, mind you. Maybe I need to head to Rafina.

The honesty, wit and precision of the reviews, along with the dissection of evidence and an obvious love of our town, are distinctive traits of ER’s writing.

“In a time of a universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act” can be applied to personal lives, food or any other important cultural or political issue in my view. Edible Reading are a veritable catcher in the rye bread; they are like Orwell’s apocryphal rough men in the night, protecting us against the bad and the mediocre, exposing the complacent established behemoths and extolling the virtuous, without fear or favour.

It is heartening to know they shall not cease this culinary fight, nor shall their knife and fork sleep in their hands. They are doing it for us, with scant regard to their bank balance and waistline, bless them and praise them whoever they are.

Corona diaries: Week 12

I love the film Airplane!, and my favourite of its many running jokes involves Lloyd Bridges’ hapless tower supervisor Steve McCroskey. “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking”, he announces relatively early in the movie as the scale of the challenge before him becomes apparent, before popping a cigarette in his mouth and lighting it.

As the film degenerates, McCroskey also announces that he picked the wrong week to quit drinking and amphetamines, hip flask and pill jar in hand, before culminating in his decision to fall off the glue sniffing wagon. He inhales greedily through one nostril, then the other, before falling backwards, cross-eyed and catatonic. It’s a perfect cinematic moment.

The reason I’ve been thinking about Steve McCroskey is that in the run-up to lockdown I was making a conscious decision to lose weight and lower my alcohol intake and, to paraphrase the great man, it looks like I picked the wrong time to quit comfort eating and boozing. Nearly everyone I know is relying on alcohol to get them through weeks stuck at home, and lockdown presents an almost infinite number of opportunities for what I can only describe as chonkification.

It’s especially difficult for me, as someone who has always used food and drink to fill a no doubt gaping spiritual void. “He’s only truly happy when he’s eating or drinking” my mum told Zoë, shortly after we got together and, sad to say, there is probably some truth in that.

I made the decision to lose weight last winter. I was doing a clearout of my wardrobe, picking things to send to the charity shop, and it involved one of the most depressing processes known to man, where you try clothes on to work out whether they still fit. It made me realise just what a high percentage of my clothes simply sit in drawers, folded and undisturbed, because I don’t want to face the reality that I probably can’t wear them any more.

Zoë’s approach to this, pragmatic and not unkind, wasn’t like any I’d experienced with previous partners. Clothes were divided into categories: “okay, you’d need to lose a stone to fit into that”; “two stone for that one” and “forget it – by the time you fitted into that you’d want to buy something new to celebrate”. I made my decisions, black bags were filled and I decided, this time, to actually do something about it.

My first weigh-in took place, bleary-eyed, on the scales in the bathroom one Friday morning in October. “It’s best to weigh in on a Friday, so you can tear the arse out of it over the weekend and then make up ground the rest of the week” said Zoë, clearly speaking from experience.

Needing spectacles is often a nuisance – when you have your hair cut, for example, and you have no idea how it’s looking until right at the end – but when having weekly weigh-ins I was decidedly glad that I couldn’t see the number on the scales. Zoë made a note of it, and we made a deal that every week she would tell me how much I had gained or lost but not my actual weight. I reckoned that would be too demotivating.

I didn’t have any grand plan for how to lose weight. I just knew that you either exercised more, or ate less, or did a combination of the two. Looking at the amount that I ate in a week, I could see a calorie intake with plenty of opportunities to make cuts. Was having chocolate most nights really a sensible decision? Did I honestly need that second sugar in tea and coffee? Was I drinking that additional latte in Workhouse because I loved it, or because I was bored and I didn’t want to head home?

I’m very much a food lover, but in all honesty the last square of chocolate, inevitably, tastes exactly the same as the first. And when you hoover food down without even really noticing, the way I can sometimes, you could argue that there really isn’t much enjoyment in it, or much point. So I decided to be mindful, and make a note of everything I ate every day, and try to trim some of the excess. I didn’t stop eating out – those restaurant reviews weren’t going to magic themselves into existence – and I didn’t stop going to the pub, but I thought I would see how far that got me.

Between October and lockdown, my weight loss was very much two steps forward, one step back. Some weeks the weigh-in was a cause for celebration, some weeks the celebrations of the previous seven days made for grim readouts. There was the holiday in Paris – that was a setback – and of course Christmas, when nobody loses weight. That was okay, I decided, because weight loss should be a controlled descent, rather than a crash landing. People who lose a lot of weight quickly often look like the air’s been let out of them in a hurry: this would be more like having a slow puncture, I decided.

Even when I was making depressingly little progress, something was changing in my mind. Just as a hangover is the bill biology hands to you at the end of a brilliant evening, weight gain is the consequence of all the fun you had. And when you look at the receipt, if you decide that the payback didn’t feel proportionate, you have to do something differently. Gradually I began to think about calories a little more: did I really want this particular treat? Was it genuinely worth it? A single chocolate HobNob, for instance, has nearly a hundred calories in it. Was it really worth demolishing a third one, or was two enough?

Zoë said that she sometimes used the acronym HALT in situations like this: was she really hungry, or just anxious, lonely or tired? Anxious made a lot of sense – I am usually battling at least one low-level anxiety or another – but, more damning than that, I think I often just do it because I’m bored. Comfort eating is, after all, one of the safer ways to go looking for trouble.

And so to (very moderate) exercise. I also started using the health app on my phone to track how many steps I was taking every day, which essentially measured how often I left the house. I’ve not developed David Sedaris levels of obsession, but on the days when I go for a walk I feel like a failure if I come in under ten thousand steps. Most of the time that involves a stroll up towards the university, round the Harris Garden, back down to Reading Old Cemetery and home, which normally gets me to the magic number: I tell myself that pacing the length of the kitchen doing the drying up does the rest.

People are still everywhere, in greater numbers than I’m comfortable with. This week Zoë and I went for a walk down the Thames from Caversham Bridge, heading in the direction of Mapledurham. It was a warm, close evening, still light at nine o’clock, and the path was thick with people. Just off the path, congregated around a bench, I saw a group of almost a dozen people clustered together, smoking and drinking and chatting. “You’re going to have to stop muttering as you go past these people,” Zoë told me. “There’s no point.”

By the time we went into lockdown, I had lost about half a stone, but I still had to reckon with the other main reason behind my calorie intake: the booze. Zoë had decided to cut down on her drinking last year, and she recommended that I download the app she was using. So I did that back in November, reasoning that I didn’t drink that much anyway and that moderation would be a doddle. How little I knew.

With the app, called DrinkAware, you log every single drink you have and the number of units in each. Often, that involves finding a way to navigate the app, as (appropriately) it contains a limited number of drinks. It definitely doesn’t cover all the weird and wonderful beers and ciders which have taken up residence in my basement.

The app helpfully tots up your units, tells you how many drink-free days you’ve had and whether you’re high risk for that week or month. There is even a functionality where you can get the app to flag hot spots where you tend to do a lot of your drinking. I didn’t enable that, because if I had the app would have ended up contradicting the official health advice from the government by telling me to get the hell out of my house, and fast.

You probably know this already, but I didn’t: the recommended maximum intake is 14 units of alcohol a week. I certainly didn’t know that the average pint of cider – my usual pub drink – uses up 2.6 of them. But that’s okay, I reasoned, because I don’t go to the pub that often and I don’t drink that much when I do. Unfortunately, the data from the app suggested otherwise. I excused November because I’d been on holiday in Paris, and I decided I’d earned a pass for December because it was Christmas. And for January – well, everyone needs cheering up in January, don’t they? But even in February and March, although I was drinking less than I used to, I was still consuming more than you’re meant to.

Getting that under control in lockdown has been one of the most surprising aspects of how the world has changed. For three months now I’ve been drinking comfortably within limits, and it hasn’t felt like privation or donning some kind of Covid hair shirt. If you add the number of units I had in April and May, it’s still fewer than I consumed in the whole of November.

I have a drink when I feel like it – on a hot day after a walk, or because some interesting beers have arrived – but I often stop at the one. I still have a virtual pub session once every few weeks, and that blows most of my allowance for the week, but when I do it’s a special event rather than me chugging through pints, as I would in a real pub, just because they are there.

It makes me realise just how much social interaction revolves around drinking, and how much drinking is driven by being sociable. If someone is going up to the bar to get a round in, you ask for another even if you don’t necessarily need it. If it’s coming up to last orders, you get a gin and tonic in as a finisher even though you’ve already had quite enough. I have a friend who will turn up to the pub, say she’s not stopping, buy her own drinks, have a couple of halves and then shoot off home: I used to find this strange, but now I admire her iron will. She is, unsurprisingly, thin.

I crossed the Rubicon in late April: I had finally lost a stone. At that point, to celebrate, I asked Zoë to tell me exactly how much I weighed (and, by implication, how much I had weighed when I began all this). If I’d known how depressing the number would be, I might not have asked, but it was still good to know how far I had come, even if it showed that I had some way to go. Things being as they are, it was a Rubicon I re-crossed – in both directions – in the weeks ahead, but for the last few weeks my gradual descent has continued.

It’s hard to visualise a whole stone. I find the easiest way is to picture those bags of sugar that I take far longer to work my way through these days. I’ve lost six big bags of sugar – a lot of weight, and yet looking at my body I can’t quite figure out where it has gone. Six bags of sugar has been spirited away, but to my eyes I still look the same. When you weigh more than you want to, you get used to trying to be photographed in certain ways that conceal it: from above, from a distance, not side on. Maybe what’s really happened is that I’m starting to look just a little more like the flattering photographs.

And maybe not. Zoë showed me a picture she had taken of me almost a year ago, on holiday in Bologna, and I can see it: my face is bigger, more rounded, the edges less distinct. Just to twist the knife, Facebook recently threw up a memory with a photograph of me from when I was 19, looking away from the camera, with a jawline I would kill for now (“all prick and ribs, as my mum puts it” said Zoë). But there is progress, even if it’s slower than I might like.

By the time this piece goes live I will have had my dreaded weigh in. On the weeks I’ve lost weight I celebrate, on the weeks I’ve gained I am glum. The weeks when it stays static can go either way: I’m either frustrated or I look at what I’ve eaten and drank and deep down, I know that I’ve dodged a bullet. It seems to be an inexact science, and the result is often one I haven’t predicted.

Either way, tomorrow I will have a takeaway and I have a virtual pub to hop on in the evening. Zoë is already going through the beer in the basement, if not physically then in her mind, working out what we’ll sample next. My DrinkAware app will flash red to tell me that you shouldn’t have ten units in a single sitting, something I already know. But however it turns out, I will properly appreciate every single sip of those drinks. And when I have my hangover the following morning, when biology hands me the bill, I will know that it was really worth it.

Corona diaries: Week 10

I don’t know about you, but when I treat myself – when I buy myself something nice – I don’t like to use it straight away. New clothes stay in the wardrobe waiting for a special occasion (not that there are any of those these days), the posh chocolate is squirrelled away in the basement so I can’t just demolish it on the spur of the moment because it’s been a crappy Wednesday and I need something to graze on while I watch another episode of the West Wing, wishing ardently that it wasn’t fiction. I bought a beautiful leather bag online a few months back, a gorgeous racing green tote: even when lockdown ends and it’s time to go out and about again, I’ll still save its debut for an appropriately fitting event.

If none of that sounds ridiculous, try this: it’s only recently that I’ve started wearing the prescription sunglasses I bought last year. Sod’s Law dictated that I got round to buying them just as the summer came to an end, but even so they stayed packed away in a drawer during the bright, sunny days of autumn and winter and finally ended up on my nose a couple of weeks ago, when the weather properly got beautiful and I began to take my afternoon walks at the height of the sunshine.

I couldn’t believe what a difference they made – I’ve never owned a pair of sunglasses before, and to see such definition in the sky, in the wisps and layers of cloud, in the splendour of every single leaf of the grand trees that tower in the cemetery or line Kendrick Road, made me feel strangely emotional. I could have had that experience so much sooner, if I wasn’t so stubborn. I wish I’d done this years ago, I thought to myself, adding “owning prescription sunglasses” to the long, long list of things that, as a frustratingly change-averse bugger, I wish I’d done years ago.

Three weeks ago, I decided to treat myself to a new fragrance from a company called Perfumer H, based in Marylebone. I’d always meant to go and visit their store, on one of my trips to London with friends, but I never got round to it and then it became impossible. I so miss those trips now, of taking the train with my friends, heading to Covent Garden to shop in the brilliant Bloom – where they have the genius idea of arranging fragrances by what they smell like rather than who made them – and then going for a long boozy lunch somewhere. I miss so many things, but I especially miss that.

Part of the appeal of buying something from Perfumer H in lockdown was just how difficult they made it. They have no online store, no other UK stockists, just an impenetrable website listing the current season’s fragrances. There’s a link you can click that takes you to a list of all their other fragrances – all for sale, although you could be forgiven for thinking they’re not. If you want one, you email them and they send you a Paypal invoice. Old school doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s funny: I am sometimes frustrated that Reading’s food businesses don’t do more online, aren’t active on social media, and here I was eagerly purchasing something from a company which, to put it lightly, was playing hard to get.

My fragrance arrived a couple of weeks ago, in a beautiful powder-blue box, swaddled in a tweed wrap. The bottle was handsome and plain, with a hint of the laboratory about it. It looked so beautiful that I couldn’t bring myself to start wearing it straight away. So I did what I often do, and saved it for later.

I’d first smelled it at an exhibition at Somerset House three years ago, where they had designed ten rooms around modern fragrances, like installation art. The aim was to show how modern perfumery had moved away from trying to smell “nice” into more complicated territory, evoking memories or atmospheres a long way from roses or lilies, the obvious choices of scent, the equivalent of rhyming “moon” and “June”.

One room, styled to look like a confessional booth, showcased a fragrance which uncannily replicated the thick clouds that billow from the censer at a Catholic mass. Another room contained a Tracey Emin-style unmade bed covered in rags soaked in a fragrance that had been designed to smell of “sex” or, more specifically, bodily fluids. Not “nice”, a million miles from what I’d choose to wear myself, but fascinating none the less.

A third aimed to recreate the feeling of going on a log flume ride at a theme park. It smelled dank, of stagnant chlorinated water, and you grabbed a tacky cuddly toy infused with the perfume, stood in a booth clutching it and posed for a tourist photograph. If you bought a bottle in the exhibition shop it came in a mocked-up VHS cassette case, for an extra whack of nostalgia.

The fragrance I bought a few weeks ago, gladly, didn’t smell of bodily fluids or chlorine. It’s called Charcoal, and it was created by the perfumer as a way of capturing a client’s childhood memories, and influenced by the perfumer’s memories of her Scottish grandfather. It smells of woodsmoke and leather, and greenery after rainfall, of dark wintry holidays in this country. To my nose at least it’s stunning, simultaneously lush and austere. I finally took the bottle out of the box and placed it on the mantelpiece in the bedroom this week, finally put it on and all day it followed me around like a fuzzy, deep green hug. I may never get out of my comfies all day, some days, if it’s too miserable to go outside for a walk, but that’s no reason not to make an effort.

I have adored fragrance for the best part of fifteen years, and the collection of boxes and bottles under my bed shows no signs of diminishing: at last count I think I had just shy of thirty. It’s sobering to think that I could stop buying them now, and the ones I own might even see me out. But I can’t see myself stopping. Wearing a scent is one of the simplest, most beautiful ways of dropping a filter in front of the lens through which you see the world, and making everything slightly different. I really don’t understand why more people don’t do it, when it’s such an easy way to spark such joy.

And they can spark so many different flavours and colours of joy. On any given day I could smell of rich orange blossom, and be transported to Andalusia, or pick something with the honey and vanilla tones of Turkish pipe tobacco (tobacco, sad to say, smells beautiful right up to the point where you foolishly take a match to it). I have a fragrance which is a recreation of vintage suntan lotion – Coppertone, to be precise – and when I wear it, even though I am miles from a beach, I feel as if I’ve just got back from one. Another smells of tomato leaf, putting you in a sultry, summery virtual greenhouse. I had one fragrance which smelled of – and this is no word of an exaggeration – Smartie shells. It had that unmistakeable blend of sugar and cocoa, and I admired the trickery more than I liked the scent. I gave it to an ex: I wonder if she still wears it.

Another fragrance I own smells of honey, spice and amber, a proper, smouldering, wouldn’t-wear-it-to-the-office smell. Back when I was married, my ex-wife forbade me from buying it – she really couldn’t stand it – and last December, on a holiday to Paris, I finally bought myself a bottle. It’s part fragrance, part emblem of emancipation. And I also have a fragrance which smells of rose, because people who believe that men can’t smell of roses are every bit as wrong as people who think that men shouldn’t wear pink.

Most fragrances aren’t really such things as men’s fragrances and women’s fragrances: in summer I’ll wear my fragrance that smells of mimosa, a pure, fresh uncomplicated thing, how laundry might smell in heaven, and I won’t give a monkey’s if anybody thinks it’s effeminate.

Scent is the most incredible form of time travel, too: sometimes I go back and buy a fragrance I’ve owned in the past, and whenever I put it on a cascade of memories comes tumbling back. Eau Sauvage, for example, will always remind me of waking up in Granada on Christmas Day, over ten years ago, having bought the bottle in Duty Free on my flight out. They played Feliz Navidad through the speakers on the connecting flight to Federico Garcia Lorca Airport. I remember, I remember: smelling Eau Sauvage is somehow more effective than looking at any photograph.

I have one fragrance, although I wouldn’t call it a signature scent, that I have worn consistently for the best part of twenty years. It’s a single dogged olfactory thread that runs through every house and flat I’ve lived in, every friend I have made and lost, every person I’ve shared my life with, however momentarily. It’s dirt cheap and probably, objectively, nothing special: nevertheless, I live in constant fear that it will be discontinued.

Really, my new fragrance isn’t seasonal at all, although it’s better this week, now that the weather has turned to shit and there’s rain in the air (petrichor, the smell of the ground after rain – also known as geosmin – is one of the most gorgeous smells there is: I have a fragrance that smells of that too). In the months ahead my sweeter, sunnier fragrances will get more of a look-in, whether that’s bright, green scents, fresher everyday colognes or the one with notes of blood orange. And then, when the sun sets earlier and the air is chillier, it will be time for different smells: of incense, leather, smoke and oud. I have one fragrance that has the sharpness of bitter orange muffled with a smudge of clove: much as I love it, it feels rightest to wear it in December.

All this might feel like a far cry from everything I usually write about, but I’m not sure it should come as a surprise. Smell and taste are so closely linked, after all, and the smell of food is one of the most beautiful things about it, given how it always acts as a trailer for what is to come. Imagine the smell that only comes from onions and garlic sizzling away on the hob, or the aroma of a slow-cooked ragu taking its time to become delicious. When I open my cupboard in the morning, ready to make that first Aeropress of the day, I smell the richness of the coffee long before I finish all the jiggery-pokery involved in making a cup of the stuff. And that, too, brings me joy.

The scent of food or drink is a promise, hanging in the air, waiting to be kept. Good food sometimes takes its time to fulfil that promise, but one of the wonderful things about other scents – like fragrance – is that they offer a more instant gratification. Or they do, at least, provided you don’t spend two weeks getting round to getting them out of the box.