Saturday, March 10, 2007

Kate Winslet and Reading

Kate Winslet is a proper Reading girl: unpretentious, zero bullshit, down-to-Earth, funny and friendly.

And this set me thinking about Reading. It seems to me that Reading is the new, er, Seattle. In the 1970s, Reading was known only for the three Bs: Beer (Simonds' Brewery), Bulbs (Suttons Seeds) and Biscuits (Huntley and Palmers). Suttons left Reading in 1976; biscuit-making ceased at the fabulous Huntley and Palmers building (below) in the same year; and Simonds' Brewery left their central Reading site in 1978. Like the Huntley and Palmers building, the brewery site remained derelict for some years, close to the Eastern end of the Inner Distribution Road (IDR). The IDR was a dual carriageway in the centre of town, which had only been half completed. It ended like a ski-jump in mid-air, the road blocked off, motorists forced to peel off down a slip-road to a roundabout. In the centre of town was the dreary Butts centre, the stairs and lifts girdling an artifical fountain, set against a plastic orange-tiled backdrop.

No-one on TV ever seemed to come from Reading, and it was rarely mentioned. Swap-Shop's Keith Chegwin went everywhere around the country for his Swaporama, but he never came to Reading.

And then something odd happened. First, a hideous, sprawling, anonymous timber-frame housing estate called Lower Earley was built. Then, from the late 1980s onwards, service-sector and IT companies started re-locating to Reading. Modern offices were built on the site of the old Huntley and Palmers factory. By the late 1990s, even Microsoft and Oracle had established sites in Reading. A new shopping centre called The Oracle was built on the site of the old Simonds' Brewery. John Madejski invested in the football team and built a new stadium. Even the IDR was completed, and a new link, the A33, was built between it and the M4. Reading was at the epicentre of England's silicon valley.

Suddenly, there were people in the news from Reading. Kate Winslet was from Reading. Then the late Richard Burns, who became the first ever Englishman to win the World Rally Championship, was from Reading. Then Ricky Gervais was from Reading. And now, the football team has scaled vertiginous heights in the Premiership at its first attempt.

So, whither Reading now? Should Reading University, perhaps, set their sights on destroying Oxford's intellectual hegemony in the Thames Valley? Hmmmmm, perhaps that one will take a bit longer.


Anonymous said...

"The Ballad of Huntley and Palmers" - doesn't have the same ring to it, does it? It took another Reading institution to inspire Wilde. Poor Oscar. I wonder did the sweet aroma from the factory reach his lonely cell, and remind him of happier, carefree days. I hope so. At least the conditions in Reading were somewhat less appalling than those in Pentonville and Wandsworth.

Gordon McCabe said...

You see that photo of the Huntley and Palmers factory (in 1937) Neil? Reading Gaol is the building in the middle background on the left!

Anonymous said...

Well, that is wonderful. Unfortunately, it is the gaol that most Irish people associate with Reading, if they associate it with anything at all. But a quick glance at Wikipedia suggests it is a very ancient town in a very beautiful part of England. And I'm sure if I ever visit Reading, apart from throwing my eye over the old gaol, and shedding a tear for Oscar, I will find a great deal more of interest there.

Brit said...

My only real experience of Reading occurred years ago, when I was on the verge of leaving school and was sussing out prospective universities.

Reading was on the list, but on alighting from the train at Reading station the first thing to catch my eye was an enormous piece of graffiti saying "F*** Off Students".

I duly f***ed off, pronto.

Gordon McCabe said...

Well, you know, I was young, I had a spray can and some time to kill.