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A Rush of Waters, by Roslyn Weaver

A Rush of Waters 

by Roslyn Weaver

On my way there I stop, mid street, to have a word with the cat. Shady, the neighbourhood shadow, has had the temerity to peer up a tree out front of the terrace houses in a way that can only be described as sinister. Worse yet, Shady has now brazenly ignored my raised eyebrows and jumped up onto a branch. I pause to issue a firm-but-fair reminder that Shady’s role in life is as killer of rats, and protector of birds, and that getting out of the tree at once is the only sensible thing to do. I reassure myself I cannot see any nests in the tree anyway. Perhaps Shady is just exploring, like me.

I continue on. As I reach the river, Caversham side, I make the mistake of pausing for a moment to admire the sight of birds and boats and bridges on this part of the Thames. Sensing opportunity, a fleet of fifteen or so young Egyptian geese sprint eagerly towards me the moment I stop, mistaking me for one of the countless portable bakeries operating under the guise of tourists and families. I hastily move on. Resigned, they settle back into the sunshine, until I pause again, when they attempt another siege of my bread-less person. This time I leave and do not stop again. The swan’s nest at the base of the pedestrian bridge on the town side is newly empty, bar a lone egg baking in the summer sun. Beyond, I see mother and four cygnets in the water. They return, spending much time shaking feathers and preening before the babies collapse into heaps of grey feathers and the mother settles back over the remaining egg. Then they return to water, the egg alone again. I wonder what will happen to it.

The waters speak of it before I am there. The slow ripples of the Thames are turning into the violent pull, pull, pull of the canal boat as it slows down on its approach to the lock. It sends water skittling to the concrete edges of the canal and under the pier, creating a deep jarring, echoing thunder as if a sea monster is emerging from ancient depths. Over Caversham lock, I cross the weir bridge, its roar of water spilling down until I reach the other side. Now is the deep thud, thud, thud of the turbines turning, and I stop to listen. I have walked this path a hundred times and never paused to look, or to wonder at their rhythmic drumming. This is the turbine house for hydroelectricity, built by volunteers. Unlike other renewable energy sources – the sun, wind – water from the Thames is ever present, and it is used locally.

But this is not why I am here. I turn to the right, and enter a path I have never travelled until now: View Island. Just at the start of the path, signboards speak of life within. They tell of birds and the houses volunteers have built to encourage them to thrive. This I can hear; I have enjoyed their ceaseless chatter all the way from house to here, from wren to robin and warbler to wagtail. They tell of curious creatures that inhabit the island for three seasons of the year: frog, hedgehog, and muntjac. I have only ever seen the first, and longed to see the second, but the third creature is a surprise; people have told me they’ve seen a deer – a deer! – in the concrete landscapes of our neighbourhood and I now have my answer about that riddle. The signs tell of the insects that call this island their home: centipedes, woodlice, and beetles. The close-up picture of the stag beetle – with the male growing to almost 8cm long – is fearsome and fascinating. They tell of the fish – chub and pike, and eel – that might be making their way along the river here. And this is why I am here.

Fish Pass image for blog post Oct 2023As I walk through the sunlit green haze of tangled bush and tree, alternately stung by nettle and serenaded by birds, choosing this path and that path, I eventually find the fish pass. Here the waters are rushing, a fast and eager sound of opportunity. This pass is also volunteer-built, and helps fish swim upstream without being stopped or confused by the weir or turbines. It looks different to the fish ladders I have seen in Canada, where I used to live. This one has a slope rather than steps, with a concrete-based section to make it easier for fish to swim up the pass. Recycled plastic reeds slow the flow; slope variations create fast and slow flows appealing to different fish; pools give them somewhere to rest. Fast, slow, still. Pebbled ‘eel tiles’ near the turbines help eels to slip into the pass. The young eels, elvers, have travelled thousands of kilometres from the Sargasso Sea to spend a quarter of a century in the Thames growing, before returning to the Sea for spawning. Eels once thrived in the Thames. Now they are critically endangered. Climate, pollution, parasites, hydropower, weirs, dams – whatever the culprit, fish passes such as this are now crucial to aid their survival.

I stand here some time, head bent to watch the dappled blades of light searching out the dim green waters of the pass, accompanied by the sound of constant movement from the rushing river: fast and slow, slow and fast. At last, vague shadows appear, several moving together, dim long outlines wandering along the fish pass. I cannot tell if they are chub, pike, elvers, or something else, but I can tell it is life.

I return home. Shady has now taken up residence on the hot roof of our neighbour’s old bomb shelter and I nod my approval. I empty the dirty water from flower vases into garden pots, calves still burning from nettle, and listen to the soft spill of the water trickling into its new home. Thames to tap and back to earth.


Roslyn Weaver is a writer living in Berkshire, whose publications include academic books and journal articles on literature and popular culture. Her website is here:

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An urban swim beneath the streets of Reading

Over Water, Under Ground

Fahad Sperinck goes for an urban swim beneath the streets of Reading

It’s cold in the Holy Brook. Water crowfoot and pondweed wave under the surface like a siren’s tresses, and seem flecked with gold in the sun. I began my swim near Brook Street West, the stream’s last gasp of freedom before Reading proper. The wildlife is surprisingly varied here – there are moorhens screeching, herons hunting, cormorants diving out of sight.  There is also wildlife of other sorts: as I was floating under the footbridge, I was assured in the strongest terms that there were rats in the brook, “right where you are now”.

The water wasn’t deep, and what began as a swim quickly turned into a wade. By the time I hit the A33, it was up to my shins. The tunnel under the main road seemed lifeless at first – none of those pesky rats – then I suddenly noticed rows of pigeons tucked into their roosts left and right, like quiet sentinels judging my ill-advised expedition.


I had decided to swim the Holy Brook under town after reading Adam Sowan’s fascinating history, The Holy Brook or The Granator’s Tale. The brook’s elusive past stretches back to antiquity. Parts near the town centre were extended by Reading Abbey monks for the use of their mill; it is mostly natural further upstream. It was open to the sky in the town centre in 1610, according to John Speed’s map; by 1835, it was culverted.

Wedged between two famous rivers, the Holy Brook has a modest beauty, and several long walks from its source to the romantic crumbling walls of the Abbey had left me enchanted. For six miles, the stream accompanies you through lush green meadows, but then – sadly, unexpectedly – disappears into a gloomy hole, and a pleasurable waterside walk becomes a frantic search for your missing companion. There are only hints of its once proud flow: the glimmer of running water under a grate, the pleasant stretch under the north Oracle entrance, and a glint in King’s Walk beneath a frosted glass window.

These glimpses inspired two canoers, Pip Hall and Jonathan Coleclough, to row the brook upstream from the Abbey ruins, right under the town centre; they told their tale in Catalyst, September 1991. Their article was the nearest thing I had to a field guide. Much has changed in thirty years – the Oracle didn’t exist at that time, and the Ship Hotel still did – but the brook has largely wandered along the same centuries-old path.

I wanted to see those last few enigmatic tunnels for myself. Swimming was an easy choice – I’d had a traumatic episode with a kayak, so canoeing was out of the question. I had toyed with the idea of a skin swim, but there are harsh materials and sharp angles in urban waters, so I prepared a wetsuit, dry bag, and head torch. On the tenth of August, I set out.


Coming to the Salvation Army hostel, my leg sank up to the thigh in a sludgy riverbed that latched on with otherworldly strength. It didn’t take long to conjure up all sorts of scenarios from quicksand to demonic mud creatures, all ending in my certain death. I felt strangely thrilled. Fear and fascination often go together.

The detritus gets more treacherous the nearer you get to town. There were shopping trolleys, wheelie bins, bicycle frames, and apparently endless tents in the water. Through a filter of adrenaline, everything seemed animated with life. A tent draped over a large branch came into view like a ghoulish swamp creature dancing in the current.

An ominous cave loomed ahead here, and the current became frothy. I turned my head torch on full whack. I still couldn’t see anything, so held out a hand at arm’s length – there it was, spotlit in white; beyond it, utter darkness, a stygian murk that would have put off a vampire.

It was here I began to doubt my own sanity and the whole stupid enterprise. Aside from the lack of visibility, the water was eighteen inches deep, the bed rocky and slippery, the arching culvert roof only two and half feet above the water. There was no sign of the end. I later drew a map of this culvert to lodge the journey in memory, and pencilled ‘Mordor’ in the margins.

It was too shallow to swim, so I developed a kind of upside-down crab motion with my feet floating in front of me, dry bag bobbing and weaving at my side like an anxious familiar, my hands pushing at nameless horrors in the depths. All I could feel was texture: slime, rock, and slippery moss. Looking up made matters worse; I was keen to see the Abbey stonework that the intrepid canoers spotted on their adventure, but first came the ‘huge black-bodied spiders’. The arched roof is one vast web, a translucent film suffocating the bricks above. This is a real-life Cirith Ungol.

Eventually, some light appeared ahead. There was a laddered shaft, and six feet above it a grate.  It was the shaft by Reading Civic Offices, one of my first checkpoints on the route – hard to believe that the tunnel behind had been barely two hundred yards. Limestone began to replace brick. The 12th and 13th century Abbey stonework was all in this section: it wasn’t far to Reading Minster, which reused Abbey stone after the dissolution in 1539. Flat limestone blocks were decorated with spirals and chevrons. One had a broken protruding centre, possibly a carved head. There was a long section of attractive arches, vaulted and ribbed.

There were once seven waterways here, forgotten now except by those wise in Reading-lore. They gave Bridge Street its old name, Seven Bridges; five of them are shown on Speed’s map. The Holy Brook survived the longest and was used for washing and laundry, and as a source of clean water to ‘brew, bake and dress meat’, until mains water arrived in 1820. Our brook then suffered a similar fate to the underground rivers of London – it was slowly culverted over decades. The River Tyburn flows in conduits for its entire length, notably under Buckingham Palace. Indeed it seems the lot of all British rivers deemed unnecessary for transport to be sacrificed at the altar of progress, and concreted over without reverence.

Looking up, it appeared odd that arches were used for part of the roof, and flat keystones for the rest. The stone is not quite the same colour, so perhaps the arches were exposed to air and grime for a while before the culvert was built. Could it be one of the extinct Seven Bridges? Alas, ancient maps being what they are, it is difficult to know for certain. A 1985 survey states that the whole was likely a 16th-century construction, the ribs used to support a road.

After the arches, another obstacle: shopping trolley, branch, and estate agents’ placard – Winkworths. Here Mordor ended at last, and blinking in full sun I found myself behind Zero Degrees. I saw the footbridge in the Purple Turtle garden, and heard voices. It was nigh-on impossible to wade here. There were pint glasses, beer bottles and all manner of drinking vessels underfoot, and it was not only slippery but fragile – a cracked glass in my foot now and the fun would have ended pretty sharpish. I pulled out a beer bottle, hoping to find something older than the Turtle, some sleeping relic of the nearby Simonds brewery.

Gordon Spring, an engineer for the council, used to inspect these lengths. He found he could identify where he was by the litter: bottles below Simonds, crockery under the Ship Hotel, tools under the ironmongers. We too are living through history. The Purple Turtle is leaving its mark on the land (or water, anyway).

Under the Oracle walkway, I got a few sideways glances. Two staff members outside Buenasado called as I entered the next tunnel: they wanted me to see if a customer’s phone and wallet were still down there. They weren’t, but I didn’t stop to investigate for long.

The next tunnel began low but soon opened out very tall, like an underground cathedral. The entire ecosystem seems built on pigeons and spiders. Soon the brick turned into a huge circular corrugated steel pipe – I could feel the ridges underfoot. The change must have happened under the old Telephone Exchange. The hum from the Oracle came at me from all sides, like Dolby surround – it was pleasant to hear the hubbub of human activity in such a lonesome, forbidding place. It was only later I realised the noise was made by a tinkling water pipe, and the corrugated ribs made it sound like laughter, giving it a long-tailed reverb. It was a sonic version of pareidolia, the tendency to see faces in inanimate objects. When I realised the noise wasn’t made by people, it became menacing, somehow.

There followed a long darkness with lots more spiders. A bleary light appeared, and I looked up to see the King’s Walk hole, partially covered by the proprietors of Ding Tea. Before I could get too excited, several pigeons flapped at my face and flew away. I looked up to see a huge mound of pigeon poo like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake: black and white and decrepit. They had made a home under the glow of the porthole. That would explain why the glass is frosted now.

Behind the old Ship Hotel, I found a plate in the riverbed: “Grindley Hotel Ware, England, Vitrified.” I later found that this trademark was in use in the early 1950s. If the first thing I picked up was seventy years old, what could be found a few inches down? Many holes in the culvert roof were boarded up; some establishments must have had access to the water at one point. The canoeing duo looked through a window in the roof here into what was once the Army Recruitment centre: “fire alarm on the wall, tasteful dried-flower arrangement perched on top of the glass.” This is now Madras Kitchen – there is no window any more.

On the right, “Ken McDonald 25/3/66” was painted in whitewash. A birthdate or the date of a significant journey? In any case, the culvert engineers who worked here in the summer clearly decided to leave it be. I was under the library by now. I saw the Abbey Mill arch ahead, a vestige of the last water mill powered by the Holy Brook, Soundy’s Mill, operating as late as the 1950s. It was demolished in 1964, with the arch left standing defiantly in the midst of modern office buildings.

A final swim out to the Kennet, and the journey was over. I got out at Blake’s Lock and walked home, feeling every inch Sowan’s “wetter sort of troglodyte”. Trudging home in the late afternoon sun, I fell into daydream: I wondered whether Reading could ever be traversed like Venice, on subterranean gondolas, like a town-sized Willy Wonka factory. We’d first have to get over the need for instant travel, and settle for a slower pace of life. Water is too slow, too ponderous – it took an hour to get from the Holy Brook Nook to the library.

Two star-crossed lovers, a monk at the Abbey and a nun, also coloured my thoughts. The story goes that he saw her body floating in the brook one day, and drowned himself in a fit of passion. The story is fictional, but that doesn’t diminish it: it just gives a sense of the deep wells of rumour that surround the brook. Having seen it up close, I’m inclined to believe anything.


Fahad Sperinck is a maths tutor living in Reading. When not earning his crust, he writes or makes art or music, or just as often, goes on long walks near water. On rainy days he can be found idling in bed with a good book.

If you like this essay, you can buy it in pamphlet form!

Over Water Under Ground cover image

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Hospitium – a poem by Geoffrey Winch


it was bound to have begun somewhere
that pilgrimage which became life’s work

not at a desk, but a drawing board within
the heart of the ruined Abbey’s relic:
the Hospitium of Saint John the Baptist

the echoey voices of its thick flint walls
and deep-set windows spoke to me instantly –

once a grammar school, its inherited spirits
of learning ever-suggesting routes that
would lead me to an unexpected career –

once a dormitory: a provider of sanctuary
for souls preparing for onward journeys –

young draughtsman among new friends:
planners tasked with controlling how
our town reshaped itself ceaselessly

arched doorway: enchanted when entering
from St Laurence’s churchyard tranquillity

or choosing the Town Hall steps to pass
along corridors – Victorian to Medieval –
to climb the office’s so-steep stairs:

five brief years these juxtaposed histories
worked for me, then let me go my way

Geoffrey Winch


Geoffrey Winch was born in Reading in 1943; educated at George Palmer Junior and Stoneham Grammar schools, and began his career in the Borough Council’s Town Planning Department. He subsequently became a surveyor and highway engineer working in Hampshire, Warwickshire, and West Sussex where he is now retired. For many years he’s been associated with various creative writing groups, and for more than three decades his poetry has been widely published in journals and anthologies mainly in the UK, US and online. In 2011 he was awarded the accolade of ‘The UK’s Best Small Press Poet’ by Purple Patch magazine. He has published seven collections, most recently Velocities and Drifts of Winds (Dempsey & Windle, 2020), and Coffee at Cockburn’s (Felworth Books, 2023) which is a collaboration with Cherrie Taylor.

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Margins of Reading – a poem by Alex Saynor for Peter Robinson

Retrieved Attachments CoverAlex Saynor writes: I have been inspired by Peter Robinson’s poems for several years now; the starting point for me was The Returning Sky, and I’ve loved all publications since, up to, and very much including, the recent Retrieved Attachments. I started teacher training at Reading School in 2007, and therefore feel an affinity and familiarity with many of the locations referred to in the poetry. When Buried Music was published, I sent ‘Inland Seagulls’ (referred to here) to the longstanding Head of English at the school, as it is set directly next to the school – he was really struck by the mention of Baudelaire’s albatross in the context of local imagery and wondered how the boys would react! There are references to other poems as well (including the amazing Locks and Moorings) and I have been very inspired by the syntactical style too. The encounter with Iain Sinclair refers to the hour or so before delivery of the Finzi lecture at London Road a few years ago now. In that connection, The Constitutionals was another book I found fascinating, especially as an avid reader of both Iain Sinclair and the late W.G. Sebald, both acknowledged in the book, whom I was fortunate to be taught by for one semester prior to his untimely death in October 2001.


Margins of Reading
For Peter Robinson

With all that brickwork, a shed ablaze
and also, through intersecting lines,
the sky at the far horizon,
there’s a gift for the burning bush
observed through rain-smudged glass,
in writings on negotiated walls
or in the voices of students on their way to class.

I once overheard you and Iain Sinclair
among porticoes on London Road.
It was something about the architecture of hospitals.
Do places retain a memory of pain?
In building anew, what do we remove?
Your eyes roam through famous and common land,
find what makes a town distinct

on the margins: gasometers, factories,
an odd inland gull, people on unique trajectories,
made new or strange by weather, politics,
light catching off glass by the Oracle offices
as though fire radiates across the valley
from a business park and cobbled together
nature reserve or gesture by Sonning.

Then the pause, the interregnum:
thoughts of Liverpool and stations in-between,
a life transplanted and re-planted
as a now quite utterly unique breed
in a Thames Valley influenced by the Far East
seen through a lens of past industry
with modern trade on credit seen for what it is

and mainstream media interests
less significant than the cracks on the road,
geese proliferating by Kennetside
road ends, salvaging moments
against the currents of memory
in fleeting cloud glimpses and aphorisms
converging in time and halting,
as you said, but only for now,
in the grounds of abbey ruins.

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English Flâneur in the Most Unlikely of Places ­– One Local’s Take on Peter Robinson’s The Constitutionals

English Flâneur in the Most Unlikely of Places ­ One Locals Take on Peter Robinson’s The Constitutionals

Belinda Cooke

John Betjeman’s ‘Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough’ echoes in my ears when I recall how I resented growing up in Reading rather than the idyll of my grandparents’ Mayo farm. I only realized my prejudice when a lifelong friend recently countered somewhat affronted: ‘I really liked growing up in Reading!’ And then, in 2007, Peter Robinson arrived in the town after his eighteen-year sojourn in Japan.

Our paths had first crossed when he did the highly unusual thing of writing to thank me for reviewing one of his books. Uncanny, then, that he should relocate just minutes’ walk from my mother’s home, resulting in: a fluttering back and forth of emails on said friend’s local knowledge of children’s schools; a mild – we can laugh about it now – bumping of his wife Ornella and my mum’s cars at the awkwardly placed mini-roundabout outside their new house; my brother David finding in him the catalyst to start writing again after a twenty-year gap, and my discovery of the benefits of capturing an emotion in the moment – a trait that Peter has put to powerful effect in his poetry.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Here’s our dad on the steps of our three-storey house in South Street in 1960 – me, spoilt baby girl, David left, looking like one of the Bash Street Kids, and Martin, never seen without his cowboy hat, lifelong supporter of Reading Football Club, who, sadly passed away in December 2021. Our house has long been demolished but similar ones remain including the former location of Reading’s seventies employment exchange, now the South Street Arts Centre and home of the Reading Poets’ Café.

Yes, places and people. David and Peter were both born in 1953 and shared many common experiences with respect to poetry and music. But after a successful start winning a Gregory award and publishing his first book as a student, my brother had all but given up writing. Wonderful then that, one conversation with Peter was enough to reawaken his muse – resulting in an outpouring of books and readings and, ultimately, his High Window Press and Journal, started in 2015.

Even Dad gets a cameo mention, in The Constitutionals as it tracks postwar migrations – one of the enterprising Irish navvies who relocated from Camden to London’s satellite towns for cheaper housing. Here he stands, proud of his domain, and Mum behind the scenes, as our numerous tenants and neighbours piled in to our ‘open house’ to watch their newly acquired TV set: ‘Ah yes, Wagon Train,’ I hear her sigh, ‘we thought that was great.’

Sometime after he arrived, Peter and I walked around Reading University’s campus, Whiteknights Park. He, jokingly, acknowledged the delightful watery atmosphere of the swans among the reeds. ‘Yes, absolutely, but I can’t do anything with this,’ he said, though his latest collection, Retrieved Attachments, proves him wrong. Nevertheless, in The Constitutionals he notes: ‘rooflines and gable-ends…their crisscross of washing lines, the woodwork, outhouses…it might be my primal landscape’ (p.25), while the eyesore of the Kennet Canal gasworks has a ‘lovely old, rusty old gasometer’ (p. 113).

See me, then, the Readingite, looking through the lens of The Constitutionals, a Gertrude to his Hamlet: ‘Come and sit you down, you shall not budge! / You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you’ (Act 3. Sc. 4). Goodness, was the unnervingly high, rickety Horseshoe Bridge actually tacked onto a bridge built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel?  And that so familiar descent from the train station couldn’t possibly be an artificial construction by his gangs of navvies, those great gods of manually shifted earth, could it? As for the three-shelled emblem on my old school blazer – that just belonged to us, not to the whole town, surely? And who’s ever heard of the Victorian Mrs. Dyer who drowned multiple babies at Caversham weir close to our own icy, leaf strewn Kings Meadow open air pool where we had those shivering school swimming lessons back in the day?

No question, the narrator of The Constitutionals in this thinly veiled autobiographical outing is Reading’s perfect flâneur, not the original aimless wanderer with too much money (definitely not) and time on his hands, but Walter Benjamin’s more nuanced individual: ‘the observer, the witness, the stroller of the commodity-obsessed marketplace. He synchronises himself with the shock experience of modern life […] to lead us toward an ‘awakening’ –  the moment at which the past and present recognise each other’ and the ‘flâneur is the virtuoso of … empathy’, he writes in ‘The Arcades Project’.[1]

Robinson’s ‘empathy’ is in full flight by the book’s conclusion, but it also surfaces lightly here and there on his daily walks where he sets out with the futile hope that he might thus overthrow neo-liberal capitalism and the more likely one that they may help cure a mystifying virus that has left his doctors stumped, where ‘you never do feel your old self again, for your old self is gone forever’ (p. 5). In the process, he takes us on a psycho-geographic journey which leaves no architectural stone unturned in revealing Reading’s landscape, history and myriad cultural associations, the whole purpose of which is he tells us is that he ‘might be trying to re-appropriate the soundtrack to what remained from the thing that was once optimistically called ‘my life’ (p. 15).

And, in the process, he takes us through the cultural impact of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as well as how it came to be his narrator’s favourite book. The upside of being landed with the name ‘Crusoe’ by name-calling bullies was that it directed him to a love of words: ‘I was able to find an identity, and what started to look like a vocation … it was to those mockers that I owed my life’ (p. 39). The first signs of the book’s empathy is then movingly directed towards them as victims of their own lack of resources or identity: ‘the damaged emptiness of others, passed on like a childhood malady or plague, so that those tinkling cymbals and sounding brasses can feel a little bit less empty, by reducing the painful contrast with their absent selves – or merely out of spite’ (p. 40).

From here, the Crusoe label enables him to consider ‘the idea of both needing to be among people, and needing to be away from them’ (p. 41). Thus, along with the running gag of calling his wife Friday, which she hates, he proceeds with delightful little snatches of Crusoe imagery to consider the nature of The Constitutionals project: ‘my message in its bottle, starting out towards that dangerous coast, the landfall of publication … those private words of mine, this pretended autobiography, or sea voyage into the past, and return to the disappearing present’ (p. 39).

Those unpleasant memories of bullying reinforce his present isolation both as a returned exile and suffering this present malady, which triggers a false memory of being reborn: ‘being hurled onto dry land from the breaking waters, as if my mother had haplessly marooned me, cast me away from this spinning desert island of a world’ (p. 42) with little hope of recovery: ‘You wouldn’t know whether to laugh or cry at this sorry specimen – for recovery had left me a castaway on the shores of whatever life remained’ (p. 57).

But before seeing that recovery building to a delightful crescendo, let us first return to his impact on us locals. Here we are where the town centre’s ‘might have been’ jewels-in-the-crown converge: Reading Gaol, the Abbey Ruins and The Forbury Gardens which Robinson believes could have been another Canterbury if Henry the Eighth hadn’t destroyed it. But at least Oscar Wilde is now a celebrated emblem of the town in spite of the current unresolved question as to what to do with the disused HMP Reading: ‘Transformed from imprisoned outcast to martyr and saint of sexual liberation and gay pride, he had taken over from Reading Sauce or Simonds beers [where our Dad worked between labouring jobs] or Huntley and Palmers biscuits [where my brother Martin was employed for years] (p. 188).

And this is the very spot that just happens to be the very heartland of the Catholic working-class Irish: St James’s church and primary school with its annual processions through the Forbury with me as flower girl and David as altar boy. Here, my brother captures well the languor of a soon to be rejected Catholicism along with the procession meandering past the Gardens centre-piece, the Maiwand Lion (about which Peter furnishes many interesting anecdotes) as well as their mutual take on the country’s unrelenting economic boom and bust:


hagiography and a dead language
bound us to our past, the tedium also
of a Corpus Christi parade winding
slowly through these gardens, the air heavy
with hymns and incense, my tired head mesmerized
by a thurible clattering against its chains.

Today even the Lion towering above on
his plinth seems at a loss to justify
those fallen in Afghan wars, staring,
muscle-bound, into a sky where cranes loll
ponderingly, raising disposable
futures from a debris of junked decades

(‘The Forbury Gardens, Reading’)


Meanwhile, I am back in the girls’ playground more suitably placed than the boys’, with its tantalising keyhole into the Abbey Ruins’ ‘love seat’: ‘we would spy through a door in the wall / to a tangle of raw limbs: mini skirt / and drain-pipes ignorant of our illicit gazing…’ (‘Peter Pan’):


We didn’t know it but we were right there
at the start: The Abbey Ruins with the first
written song: ‘Summer is icumen in
loudly sing cuckoo – Cuckoo!’

Wilde’s Reading gaol wasn’t far away –
our school back onto both.
And we were as rough as the flint which
bordered our school playground.

(‘Learning to Read’)


Even more unnervingly accurate is Robinson’s description of our own Eastern Avenue,[2] with its new builds evolving over time in the sold off plots of the grander houses’ gardens: ‘as if you were having to elbow your way through an oddly alluring crowd of old grey ghosts’ (p.45). Growing up surrounded by doctors, teachers and professors was a lived reality for us, and how we must have ‘lowered the tone’ as our now subcontractor Dad unloaded his transit van of fellow navvies each evening, or those Saturdays when Mum responded to our yells of: ‘Mum, is it time for the jumble sale yet?’ with ‘Sssh! We don’t want the neighbours knowing.’ Such visible signs of social difference were also there to taunt the returning Robinson looking for a mortgage just before the Credit Crunch; but even as a child I was also aware of it, living in a house where we had inherited the towering trees of those grander gardens:


Crippled giants cut back because they
shouldn’t have been there in the first place
not like the ‘plantation’ across the way
with its mystery girls in their green-ribboned boaters.

(‘Horse Chestnuts’)


And Robinson’s following in our tracks doesn’t stop there, for at the bottom of the road, we had also long imagined our Dad turning in his grave on the discovery that his local, ‘the Granby’, had become a short-lived ice-cream parlour. So it is amusing to read Robinson’s imagined sighting of the French Symbolist poet, Arthur Rimbaud:

‘wandering out along the King’s Road in the direction of London and pausing for a drink at the Marquis of Granby to down a pint of foaming English beer, to eye the barmaid’s figure, eat a ham sandwich, and plan his next escape?’ (p. 216).

This is a far cry from all dad’s cronies congregating there and occasionally making the local Reading Chronicle after the latest pub brawl, much to our amusement, as we read out the list of false names they’d given. Less amusing – though we can also laugh about this now – to recall reading about our Dad himself being called up before the beak for playing Pitch and Toss outside the pub – oh dear, what would the neighbours say?

As Robinson continues to consider his own isolation, he becomes increasingly aware of how much public spaces have changed: ‘In comparison to the black-and-white footage of old twentieth-century urban areas there as so few people around…no signs of children playing out in the street…it makes you wonder what has happened to the idea of shared community spaces have they become deserted through a species of social fear’ (p. 249).

This brought to mind reminiscences I had gathered from another significant Readingite, my mum’s second husband Brian Blackburn, now in his nineties who grew up Great Knolleys Street, near the old Central Swimming Pool. Though we grew up thinking it the roughest street in Reading, Brian wore it as a badge of pride: ‘Oh, yes, we were the Great Knolleys Street boys’: ‘This was during the time of the Blitz. In them days Great Knollys Street was a great community. All the men were away and the grandads did all the control. My grandad used to tick of all the kids out in the street and wasn’t past giving you a clip around the ear. He’d sort out all the kids in the street and they needed it some of them. That’s how it was in our day’.

As the book winds to its close, there is a delicately constructed shift in Robinson’s state of mind. The double realisation that he is actually getting better and that there is no Quixotic solution to the world’s ills, which have possessed him during his walks, creeps up on him unawares. It comes first, like little chinks of nature on his human walks as he tries to locate some kind of shared experience with the people around him: ‘my attention would keep drifting back to the rooftops and sky. It would alight for a moment on the passers-by across the way from the hoardings – for there were so few signs around here of the sorts of mutual recognition that a lonely soul returned to his home country might hope to find in the encounter of everyday outings to the post office and shops’ (p. 149).

And as he recovers, he convinces himself that the walks had a second purpose of trying to make a difference ‘to the political life of the world by going on a walk’ (p. 253) and in this context thinks of all the great marches in history which were to make a difference: Jarrow, CND, and the like. Yet almost in the same breath he distances himself from such heroic notions, cutting himself down to size as just one of the many poets in their ‘purposeless drifting’ (p. 257). All the same, the reader feels a certain quiet joy at his accounts of recovery which also comes with the change in the weather: ‘the lushness of our greenery might be the illusion of more time created by the longer days, the daylight stretching on towards more time related by longer days’ (p. 255): ‘it suddenly dawned how you had yourself changed, had changed yourself, how these constitutionals really must have made a difference, that this was, for better or worse, another person than the one who had set out on them at one ambiguous beginning of spring. Yet peculiarly coloured by these circumstances […] this person appeared to have got sharper too, making me even more like Robinson returned to his home world’ (p. 272).

And as he works through what this might mean for what he can ‘do’ in the world, he comes to the very real conclusion that there are no grand schemes but just the resilience to keep going: ‘like those who are undefeated because they have gone on walking, in whatever, long march or constitutional, I had no other choice than to get out of the house, to recover my health, to get myself back to fitness, all in aid of returning to face the struggle once more’ (p. 265). By the book’s close, I felt it had achieved what the meta-narrative of its ‘editor’ had claimed was the author’s desire, that it should offer a balm ‘for the salve of his own damaged self and for that of the world’ (p. 295).

Reading it had led me to a reflection of my own as I looked back to some of my first poems, this one written in the eighties in my ‘courting days’ as our parents would call it, only to discover, now in Benedick’s words: ‘A miracle! Here’s our own hands against our hearts’ (Act 5. Sc 4 Much Ado About Nothing), when Stephen and I used to stroll back from town dropping off to have a pint in the ‘Jolly Anglers’ – perhaps, even back then, I had taken something of Reading’s unspectacular charm as my own:


Grey on grey. In the distance
swans would move under a fog
tuned to the fine eye of the eskimo,
back and forth with no colour.

At times I also felt our shadows
also embrace the canal,
just like those shadows
we searched beyond the fog

while nameless holly
offered up its berries,
a drop in the ocean
in this harsh monochrome.

A little way along the
elephant-grey gasworks
would stand immense
against changing skies

and on late evenings
you could hear the river’s
heaving monster breathe,
and could catch

the moon-reflected ripples
of the dark swan
as it made its
flight through water.

(‘Canal Walk’)


Belinda Cooke is a widely published poet, translator and reviewer. She has published seven collections, including translations from both Russian and Kazakh. Best known for her translations of Maria Tsvetaeva, she has recently written a prose memoir of her mother’s life: From the Back of Beyond to Westland Row: A Mayo Woman’s Story (The High Window Press, 2022). Her latest collection, The Days of the Shorthanded Shovelists, is due out from Salmon Poetry in 2024.


[1] For a thorough discussions of Benjamin’s interpretation of the term see

[2] For an account of its building history see the self-published Vaughan, Philip. The Avenue Story: Eastern Avenue and its People through Two Centuries. Self-published. Available in Reading Library.