England without defect

St Petersburg, Russia, or Reading, Berkshire? It would have been a tricky choice even in the dark days of Leningrad, USSR, but I still think that Reading might not have won the day. I was in the middle of an earth-shatteringly sound performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor (Opus 30) by the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra at the Hexagon Concert Hall in Reading and I was wondering whether soloist Igor Tchetuev was considering defecting.

It seemed unlikely. Firstly, St Petersburg has any number of superb and beautiful venues for concerts and Reading can only boast two – The Hexagon which, even after a recent lick of red paint gave it the feel of the inside of a fire engine, looks (and smells) like an upturned dustbin, and Reading Concert Hall, which is inside the Town Hall and has all the charm of an oversized Victorian Public Lavatory.

The second reason, dredging his way out of the car park through pee-stained cement tunnels daubed with graffiti in Arabic and Hindi, on the way to Reading’s Pepe Sale Sardinian Restaurant, was that our would-be defector might think himself in a post-explosion Chernobyl before the rebuild.

Finally, our putative dissident might consider that the reach of the Russian government had recently become so much greater that he would fear an attack, in that very Sardinian restaurant, of the deadly Polonium 210 that wiped out Alexander Litvinenko in a London Sushi Bar. Russians are safer in Russia these days than they are when they are away from home, but our soloist, by not staying in Reading, would be missing out on some excellent Sard hospitality, even if he did not want to listen to the woman at the next table complaining that her bunions hurt from all the steps. The Melanzane e Zucchine Parmigiana is particularly recommended, as is the Vitello della Casa, washed down with a bottle of red from the family’s own vineyard. And the courtesy and professionalism are unrivalled.

I was staying near Reading, Henley-on-Thames, in fact, in the usual fog and rain and was struck again and again, as ever, by the contrasts that England throws up.

Henley is the counterpoint to Reading. Genteel, perfectly-coiffed old ladies stepping out of Georgian houses on their way to bridge afternoons and picking up their fruit and vegetables, on the way home, from polite Polish greengrocers under the green- and white-striped awnings of the market. Cobbled streets, hanging baskets and estate agents as far as the eye can see with the cheapest flat on offer at over half a million quid. The clock on the Town Hall tells the correct time.

There are churches everywhere. It’s almost St Petersburg, except that instead of the graves of a plethora of Romanovs at St Peter and Paul Cathedral, Henley’s St Mary the Virgin can only boast Dusty Springfield (but, boy, are there plenty of flowers to mark the spot).

It was autumn in the Chilterns. The woods were turning orange and the gardens were battling to hold onto the last vestiges of their summer blooms. One forgets how colourful England can be. Even when it’s raining and the faces of passing walkers are chalk-white from the cold, there is an all-surrounding vivid green that Africa can never achieve and the occasional flash of blue sky is as bright as a kingfisher’s back.

Gone, happily, are the days when walking miles to a country pub led to a menu which only offered a ploughman’s lunch or scampi, and gone too, thank goodness, are the days of lasagne and chips. Nowadays, if you keep away from the dreaded Harvesters and group-owned pubs, you’ll get a meal as good as any restaurant in the land, served by a lively Lithuanian or a bouncing Bulgarian with an understanding of basic friendly service that deserted Britain a generation ago when the piercings started. Decent South African wine by the glass and, oh joy, Real Ale.

October in England can surprise with occasional patches of really good weather, known to the British for some obscure (no doubt post-colonial) reason, as an Indian Summer. They go berserk and organise barbecues, garden parties, fetes, rallies for and against cruelty to animals and any number of horsey events. These last can take many forms but all include jodhpurs, portaloos, ice cream vans and upset mummies, each of which can be very entertaining in its own way. The Heath Farm Horse Trials, the next day, was no exception.

The farm, in the Surrey Hills, was awash with tents-full of country gear, tweeds, plus-fours, flat hats, Barbours and green wellies, and dog and horse accoutrements including most of the above but not the wellies. There were more Discoveries than in the entire Tutenkhamen collection. Horse-boxes that would house several families hove in and out with scared-looking mothers at the helm and presumably even more scared-looking horses up aft.

Hundreds of enthusiasts in multicoloured bibs and caps hurtled around on their lethal mounts in a desperate attempt to ‘go clear’ regardless of the risks associated with jumbling geldings and mares, fetlocks and martingales. I didn’t understand a word of it, but it was great amusement and only in England could you have a truck selling a full English breakfast in a bun, and not a hot dog in sight (but plenty of chilly Labradors on leads)..

It was rosettes all round. Nobody cried. Not even the youngster who toppled from his mount and was carted off to the hospital, although his mother looked a bit teary when the ambulance appeared. It was all just good old English fun. England is fun, no doubt about it. There should be a bumper sticker at the back end of England (somewhere in Central Reading would be my guess) saying ‘England does it, whatever the weather’.

The next evening we went to London like Christopher Robin. Not to see the Queen, though, but to see The Lion King. I know it’s coming to Monte Casino but I didn’t know it then and it is utterly brilliant, so even if you didn’t think it was cool enough that it was the first film ever to be translated into Zulu, the stage-show will blow you away and make you oh-so-proud to be South African (and living in South Africa, not living in London).

This was London so, obviously, most of the audience was Danish which in no way detracted from the show. The Scandinavians are not known for their loud amazement (except possibly for home-grown stuff like Thumbelina and the Pied Piper of Hamlyn), so I suppose a more representative audience might have gasped louder, because it was certainly gasping material. We were stunned by the colour, the size, the volume, the imaginativeness and the general joy of it all. Go and see it. Fly to London straight away. Don’t wait. All the best actors will stay in the London cast. Believe me. And more than half of them are South African, which gives the lie to the theory that the brain drain accounts only for doctors and dentists. There are plenty of dancers and divas in amongst them as well. And they are called Shabalala, not Coetzee.

It was a balmy evening. We were wandering around in shirt-sleeves, proof of global warning and El Nico, as the BBC never tired of reminding us. Dinner after the show was at The Bleeding Heart in Blackfriars. It was so warm that we had to turn the outside heaters off as we sat in a delightful walled-off yard and wolfed scallops followed by butter-soft fillet. The service was French, civilised and unobtrusive. The coffee tasted of coffee. It was a far cry from the England we all imagine. We topped it off with a souffle.

So while everyone else is out riding horses and complaining about the weather, there are other options, Russian music, Sardinian wine, South African theatre, Danish company, Bulgarian waitresses, French food, English beer. And that was all in one week within 80km of the capital city. Maybe defecting to Britain would not be such a bad idea, but only for a couple of weeks at a time and possibly not to Reading.

www.pepesale.co.uk 3, Queens Walk, Reading, Berkshire Tel. 0044 118 959 7700
www.thebleedingheart.co.uk Bleeding Heart Yd, London EC1 8SJ Tel 020 7242 2056