I spent about thirty years of my life living in Reading, but I never really considered it my home. Originally from London, I always thought I was just passing through on the way to somewhere better. London’s got history, style, and a better class of criminal. Reading’s got... very little, despite pretensions of becoming a city and redefining itself as some kind of silicon valley in the heart of Southern England.
Reading gave us Kate Winslet, and named a block of flats ironically built on a demolished cinema in her honour. Reading banged up Oscar Wilde in the local nick for being a famous whoopsie, and got a poem in return. Reading also buried King Henry I in the Abbey, but promptly lost the body under what is now the car park for the aforementioned nick. Reading used to be famous for beer - the brewery now only does gassy lager, bulbs - Suttons Seeds moved out years ago, and biscuits - the famous Huntley and Palmer brand is long gone, departed for Liverpool. Reading’s only export these days appears to be idiocy.
Let’s set the scene. It’s the mid 1980’s, and Reading, such that it is, is a town dominated by the railway. It’s a major route from London to the west, and a junction for trains to the north and south. For years now there’s been a service from Liverpool and Manchester to Bournemouth and Poole, which has to pull an elaborate U-turn in Reading in order to be facing the right way for its onward journey. The train pulls into the station, the engine is uncoupled and changes ends, and then off it goes on its journey, after a procedure that normally takes approximately six minutes.
Into the mix let’s throw a couple of factors:
One: The habitual thief, who has probably only ever left the town to do stir in some other prison after Reading Nick’s had enough of him. He’s the guy whose only bit of local knowledge is the fact that you can walk into the station from the street, past almost non-existent security, step onto the cross-country train at one end as it pulls into platform eight, emerging minutes later at the other end with extra luggage, almost certainly not his, lifted from the unguarded luggage racks at the end of each carriage. Let us, for the sake of argument, call him Mr Terrance Fuckwit.
Two: The passenger travelling from the north of England to the south coast, on a particular errand for a very intense group of people. He has carefully packed his bag, for it contains a fragile load, and is carrying it to a seaside rendezvous with some other very intense group of people, who will receive his cargo with relief and not a little determination to deliver it to the correct address, a hotel on the seafront. Let us, for the sake of argument, call him Mr McGuinness.
So it happens. McGuinness sinks another beer, draws nervously on his cigarette and lets his attention wonder from his bag for one, maybe two minutes. It is during this lapse in concentration that Fuckwit gets onto the train, sees a likely looking bit of luggage, hoists it onto his shoulder, leaps from the train just as the Guard’s whistle is blowing and legs it home to Whitley (twinned with Wankersdorf, Germany) as fast as his idiot legs can carry him.
Mr McGuinness carried on to Bournemouth, where his friends are not best pleased to see he has arrived, ashen face and sans valise. We shall draw a discrete veil over what happens to him, needless to say, he’ll never play the piano again.
Cut back to Terry Fuckwit of this parish, with his spoils on the dining room table, zip ripped open and hands rummaging inside to see if there is anything worth selling for a small profit. Too bloody right there is. For among the clothes, the washbag and the ephemera of the seasoned traveller is an ice cream container. Inside the box is a small clock, a battery, a few wires and two pounds of high explosives. It’s at this precise moment that I expect Fuckwit shat in his pants.
Any normal person would have called the police, who would, all things being equal, have turned a blind eye to a spot of petty theft in the thwarting of a major terrorist attack. But no - the gene pool is rather shallow at this end of town - out into the garden and into a bucket of water it went. Nothing happened, except it floated around a bit like a deadly little boat. And for Terrance Fuckwit, things are about to get a lot worse. His wife has arrived home, and there’s nothing on the table except a pair of terrorist’s y-fronts.
Local historians all tend to agree that Mrs Fuckwit “did her fucking nut” and told him to get it out of her house before it made a mess of her bargain roll-end carpet and the flock wallpaper. And that bomb can go as well. Quite right too - a semi detached council house is no place for enough plastique to demolish the whole street - what would the neighbours think? You can imagine the scene - head bowed, McGuinness’s bag under his arm, he ran up the street trying and failing not to look furtive.
There’s still time to do the right thing. Put the bag somewhere safe, warn people away and call the authorities who will deal with the incident with little fuss and not a little gratitude. And not, repeat NOT leave the damned thing outside a branch of NatWest Bank on the main route out of the town. Ah.
And that, I’m afraid, is where the long arm of the law catches up with Mr F. He could have been a hero - the man who thwarted terroristic ambitions to bomb the bloody hell out of God knows who. Instead, he became the idiot who tried to bomb the Circle K in Whitley. And he’s still out there. Breeding.
This is the town I was loathe to call home for the best part of two decades. Don’t get me wrong, there’s people here who are perfectly happy with their lot and haven’t once accidentally bombed the crap out of their local convenience store, motor parts shop and small suburban bank. They are, however, a very small minority.
I now live in the town that introduced the Great Plague to Britain and has pirates’ graves in the local churchyard, complete with skull and crossbones on the headstones. Sounds a fair swap.