I don’t see myself as a very sociable person. That’s probably partly because I’ve got to that awful smug-old-person stage of my life where I can honestly say that I’ve got all the social things I could reasonably want for myself: a brilliant relationship, great kids, a few lovely longstanding close friends, and a much wider, always interesting, sometimes inspiring group of acquaintances. Also a comfortable sofa, a beautiful time-consuming garden, crochet, and Netflix. A persistent bad habit of standing in front of the speakers at gigs has left me with tinnitus, which makes it hard to have a conversation in a noisy place. I’m not a big drinker either, which probably doesn’t help. It’s ever so boring to have to repeatedly explain that I haven’t given up alcohol for charity, religion, health or medication-related purposes every time I ask for a lime soda.
So I’ve fallen into the habit of not going out socially. It’s very pleasant and comfortable to just spend most of the time I’m not at work settled in on the sofa or in the garden. But I’m not sure it’s the best long-term strategy for good mental health. I decided that this year I’d make more of an effort to see people in real life, not just on social media. Apparently that’s easier said than done. There have been four visits by old friends who were travelling to my house that have had to be cancelled so far this year and it’s only April: snow, flu (me), flu (them), more snow. Then there’s the actual terrifying ordeal of going out somewhere myself.
In this I am not exaggerating. The truth is that all the stuff I listed above is just self-justification. I’m literally paralysed into an inability to function by the idea of going somewhere I don’t know, meeting people I may not have met before, on my own.
In the light of this, going to the Reading twitterati meet-up at the Cheese Feast this week felt like a huge achievement for me. I’m a big social media user, but I do use different things for different purposes. Facebook is a private space where I can whinge about work with people I’ve known (either in person or virtually) for a long time. It’s a continuous long-term conversation where you are talking with your audience rather than at them. You’re familiar with people and can gauge their responses, and know (at least hope) you’ll be forgiven the odd misstep because you have a reservoir of goodwill and affection, sometimes even with people you’ve never met in person. I’ve always thought of Twitter as something quite different: almost a playground to show off, try out personae, say the thing that pops into your head without (too much) censorship. All this is possible because you’re mostly talking to people you don’t know and may never know. But recently that’s changed for me, and it’s also changed the way I think about where I live.
Reading’s always felt like a temporary residence for me. I’ve been here over 30 years now but until a couple of years ago I was still telling people, “I live in Reading now but I’m not staying.” I moved here with high hopes – the river! the history! the university! – but soon found that there was little going on in terms of culture or heritage or independent businesses. The town was full of chain stores who could afford the high rents; it was easy enough to get to Oxford or London if you wanted something more independent so people did. The vast majority of residents were commuters or, like me, always thinking of it as temporary. So no-one had any investment in the town. Prior to Reading I lived in Swindon where every corner you turned had a reminder of the town’s railway heritage: fabulous murals on the sides of Victorian terraces, the railway village of conserved cottages, the excellent Great Western Railway museum and the railway itself. Swindon is very much-maligned, but it had a strong common identity that people were proud of. As it turned out, the only thing people in Reading had in common was Reading Festival, and that only so they could moan about the traffic, or the noise, or the fact that the supermarket shelves were full of beer and loo roll and all the trolleys had disappeared. The Festival took place in the town but it was mostly for people from out of town. And anyway, it was all over bar the litter-picking within a few days.
So what changed? The high rents certainly didn’t: if anything they got worse with the advent of the Oracle shopping centre and the prospect of the Lizzy Line opening up even more commuting possibilities. House prices in parts of the town closest to the station are comparable with London now, ridiculously. But we do have a rise in independent businesses being able to establish themselves, and that’s been driven by the pop-up culture. A great example of this is the Nomad Bakery. It started as Pop-up Reading, built a devoted customer base for its delicious sourdough bread via small local food markets, and now has a more permanent home in Caversham, with its windows constantly steamed up through the winter by its loyal, chatting, coffee-drinking clientele. At a smaller, more individual level, the wonderful Caversham Jam Lady kept half of Reading stocked up with preserves (I still dream of her Lime Curd) before her phoenix-like transformation into the craft-tutoring Ginger Skye. The Blue Collar street food market every Wednesday is another example, establishing many new local favourites like the Georgian Feast‘s impossible-to-resist khachapuri. Blue Collar also put on Feastivals, bigger foodie events in the Forbury Gardens, a small but perfectly-formed town centre park with a proper bandstand and access to Reading’s oldest historical building, the Abbey Gateway (itself recently restored and rejuvenated). It was at the newest one of these, Cheese Feast, that I had my moment of bravery this week.
It had a bit of a headstart, opening on the hottest day in April in the UK since records began, but I’d say Cheese Feast is going to be a frequent feature on the new Reading calendar of Lots-of-Interesting-Stuff. With the usual Blue Collar regulars and more, all providing cheese-based offerings, plus cheesecake for afters and a well-stocked bar, there were a lot of very happy punters on the night I went, and subsequent reviews on Twitter suggest that’s been the case for all four days. I had a splendid burger from Rad Burger with double American cheese (it wasn’t elegant – guys, more napkins next time maybe?) and took home a beautiful Wigmore cheese from local cheesemakers Village Maid, who were also offering ‘cheeseboards’. Others raved over the tacos from Sear Street Kitchen. There were halloumi fries and jerk halloumi, bubbly charred pizzas, a raclette stall serving cheesy sausages and potatoes, gourmet toasties (my first choice but the queues never went below enormous), and a slightly baffled and baffling Korean/Japanese fusion stand whose interpretation of the brief seemed to be ‘business as usual but pop some cheese on top’. It was inventive and delicious and great fun. (I’m afraid I didn’t take any photos, but there are tons on Twitter under the hashtag #cheesefeast.)
And I met up with some of the people who are both the other half of the Reading regeneration story, and the reason my relationship with Twitter changed. Because one reason that the independent businesses and coincidental rise in local cultural initiatives (for example, the Abbey Gateway, Jelly art events, Readipop and Are You Listening festivals, and the Museum of English Rural Life, now best known for a fat sheep) are flourishing is because they are reaching new audiences through Twitter. This includes a bunch of hyper-local blogs with Twitter accounts (including The Whitley Pump, Alt Reading, Explore Reading, Edible Reading, Independent Reading) as well as an interwoven group of individual local tweeters that I’ve started to chat with on a regular basis. This felt strangely comforting: a bit like meeting the Remain pot people after Brexit, the comfort of knowing that there was someone with common interests and attitudes. There’ve been a couple of really nice blog posts on what’s good about Reading (Shoot from the Trip has fabulous photos of the town, while Adam Koszary who will always henceforth be known as the Absolute Unit chap made this forceful case). This intensified when a Museum Studies student at the University started the #Rdg21 project: 21 days of photo posts to share a bit of info about yourself and your place in Reading with others. I liked it. I started to see Twitter more as an alternative conversation forum. It didn’t occur to me that because the people I was happily chatting away to were local, I might end up meeting them IN THE FLESH.
It was one of these local tweeters that proposed a tweet-up at the Cheese Feast, the second one she’s organised. I lost my nerve at the last minute with the first one, so to encourage me along this time she put in place a raft of strategies: an early meet-up, phone number to text when I was on my way, general reassurances. These were added to by my wise husband’s insistence on driving me into town through the worst of Reading’s legendary rush-hour traffic so that I didn’t change my mind on the bus and turn round. When I got to the Forbury, the crowds were bigger than I’d expected and it all still seemed impossibly daunting. But by 6pm, I was hugging someone in the queue for the bar that I’d only ever chatted to online.
I’m very glad and grateful that I was encouraged, because I had a lovely evening and met some great people. I think it went okay, though I started to feel a bit overwhelmed after a couple of hours and had to beat a hasty retreat. I know I talked too much about myself (nerves), and asked others too little about themselves. There were a lot of people coming and going and a lot of things going on, and there were a few questions I felt that I only half answered because I’m very easily distracted – I wasn’t being deliberately rude or obtuse. But hopefully I’ll get a chance to put those mistakes right in the future. I do know that I met some people who I liked even more in real life than I do online, and I hope we’ll meet again soon. In short, I’m calling the going-out experiment a success. I don’t see me becoming a fixture on the Reading social scene. But I think I might do it again.
There’s a sad postscript to this story. One of the most prolific local Twitter accounts goes under the name of @declarationball. It’s the nom-de-tweet for Matthew Farrall, a big music and local sport fan, and a passionate advocate for Reading. In addition to his Twitter account, Matt was a regular contributor to the Whitley Pump, excellent pieces on local places and what might be termed neighbourhood history. We followed each other on Twitter and I’ve chatted with him on subjects as diverse as flat caps and meat pies (he wrote a poem praising local pie shop Sweeney and Todd, and I dubbed him the Pie-t Laureate) but we never met in person. I saw him at the Cheese Feast, instantly recognisable in his trademark striped top and thought, I should go up and say hello and tell him how much I’ve enjoyed his Tweets and blog posts – but I didn’t. There were always too many people, and I thought I’ll do it next time. It was a horrible shock to hear via Twitter that he had unexpectedly died the next day. So this post is, at least partly, by way of a thank you for the laughs, the heads-ups, the music links, and the fascinating stories that made me want to find out more about the town I refused to believe I’d stay in. Go and have a read of his writing on The Whitley Pump – start with this one about the Cheese Feast if you like. I’ll be raising a lardy cake to you, Mr Farrall.