Last Friday, I was hugely surprised and humbled to be presented a Pride of Reading award for my cultural contribution to my home town, during this year’s ceremony at the Royal Berkshire Conference Centre, at the Madejski Stadium.
To have even been nominated was a huge honour, particularly as my nomination came from the force of nature that is Zsuzsi Page, director of the Reading Fringe Festival and all-round cultural powerhouse. She herself won the same award, a few years ago.
She, along with my wife, Anne, accompanied me to the awards. I have to say I had no idea how big an event it is, with over 300 people in attendance. We were lucky enough to be seated at a table with some interesting people, including the editor of BBC Radio Berkshire, Duncan McLarty, the editor of Newbury Weekly News, Andy Murrill, ebullient photographer Dijana Capan and Paul Stacey and Nick Thompson of the brilliant Reading Rep Theatre.
There were lots of familiar faces from Reading’s cultural scene, many of whom were involved in organising this fantastic event. Notably, Hilary Scott, who is an integral part of Theatre & Arts Reading (TAR), the group who are at the centre of the campaign to turn Reading Gaol into a community arts and heritage venue. One of the first people to greet me with a big hug was Kirsti Wilson, managing director of Connect Reading. It was also great to see Suzanne Stallard from Jelly, with whom APO has worked several times, as well as Matt Whitelock from Berzerk Productions, whom I’ve known for over 25, since our days in Starmaker Theatre Company. I also had a nice chat with Matt Allwright (off the telly), who also went to Reading Blue Coat School (without ageing him, he left a couple of years before I started!). We shared memories of Roger Johnson, the inspirational director of music at RBCS at the time, and I learned about the wonderful sound of the pedal steel guitar.
When it came to the cultural contribution category, I had managed my expectations. My feeling was that classical music or classical musicians never win such awards, so I was genuinely surprised and delighted when I was announced as the winner. So much so, in fact, that as presenter Simon Thomas pointed out, I had been involuntarily shaking my head all the way up to the stage!
I told Chris Tarrant, who presented the award to me, that I felt like an imposter, given the incredible tales of bravery and selflessness on which light had been shone, in many of the other categories. Indeed, I felt a bit lonely on stage (the sponsors of my category were unable to be at the ceremony, unfortunately), but as I started to walk away I was held back by the other presenter, Mel Bloor, so that a special video message could be played. It was from BBC Radio 3 presenter and my friend, Fiona Talkington. Naturally, it was a lovely and very moving message.
One of the things that came across in Fiona’s message, and the event as a whole, was our pride in Reading as our home town. I saw a Tweet the other day describing Reading as ‘bleak and soulless’. I gently suggested that the author of that Tweet have a look at the new What’s On Reading website (onto which APO will be uploading content very soon). Even in its early days, it shows the breadth and sheer quantity of arts, culture and heritage events in Reading. As for Reading being ‘bleak’, I suggest the author takes a walk taking in the Abbey Ruins, Forbury Gardens, the town centre (look above ground floor level), the river, Caversham Court Gardens etc. If you can’t see beauty in them, you’re not looking hard enough.
My Pride of Reading award now sits on the dresser in our dining room, above a photo of my late Dad, who would loved the recognition it represents for me, personally, but for the amazing achievements of APO. Now it’s onto our next big project: two performances of The Planets in February, complete with our first relaxed concert. Hopefully, we can continue to contribute to everyone feeling proud of Reading.