I’m not usually one to be diverted. Side tracked, perhaps, and sometimes distracted but wilfully diverted? Not normally.
We almost passed the bloke squatting with chalk in his hand, writing details on a blackboard in the street. “Aunt Elsie’s Vintage Market” said the sign. I think we even read it out loud. The building he’s outside is unprepossessing; a grey 70s block with square windows and a prison-like facade. Downstairs is a bag shop, the sort where every surface is covered with stock and the owner loiters in the doorway to catch browsers and entice them in, like a Greek waiter on a beachfront restaurant.
The bloke with the chalk looked up.
Him: “It’s up on the third floor. There’s a lift”.
Me: “We’ll pop back later. I need a drink”.
Him: “There’s lovely stuff up there”.
Me: “It’s okay – we’ll come back later. I need a cup of tea”
Him: “There’s tea upstairs”.
Me: “Do they have Earl Grey?”
Him: “Yes. Of course”
And so we went in.
There is a lift. 70s architecture being what it is, it’s reached by a short flight of stairs, an irony that seems to fit this odd little building. We press the oval call button and wait for the steel doors to open. Two ladies join us in the tiny lift, we arrange ourselves in a 2 by 2 grid and breathe in. “You’re tall!” one of them says to me. Her friend chastises her for saying this “she knows that! Of course she does!” I admit that I am tall and we laugh together about being in the enclosed space together – the intimacy seems perfectly natural having been squished into the old metal box. We exit at the top and walk across the small landing.
The space we come into is something special. Far removed from the ugly 70s exterior with its grey and concrete surface, the space that Aunt Elsie occupies is a light, airy loft. And in that loft is a selection of artists and their handmade and vintage crafts. There are delicate handmade pots with tiny china spoons, vintage buttons and pins, birds hand-drawn onto vintage maps and magazines, felt owls, hand-stitched cushions and stunning photographs of Istanbul. In the corner, in front of a large faded union flag, someone is putting 40s style pin curls into the hair of a young woman with appropriately bright red lipstick.
We’re greeted warmly by the heart of the loft; Suzanne is the soul who created the group that now run this space. She’s effusive and enthusiastic and she offers to make us a cuppa while we look around and talk to some of the artists. We wander and browse and talk to artists we already know and artists we don’t and buy a few bits and bobs.
We sit down for tea and biscuits with Suzanne. We sip from vintage china cups and talk about the creative things that happen up in the light-filled loft that is filled today with stalls and bunting. She and Mr Manbag talk about setting up a writer’s group and I start to think it could really happen and that I could really be part of it. She’s so bright and funny and the atmosphere is so welcoming and creative that it makes me want to be a better person. It makes me want to go there to write and take tea with this band of artists. It makes me want to listen to Ella Fitzgerald with a bunch of creative types while knitting egg cosies and scruffy scarves. I’d take home made cakes and loose tea leaves and feel inspired by the amazing light and the views across the rooftops of the town centre. Sitting under the union flags with three enormous letters from Lionel Richie’s stage leaning against the wall (O, L & C, in case you were wondering) I felt so at home that I didn’t want to leave.
Outside in Reading proper a different sort of festival was underway; an official festival with clipboards and gazebos and proper printed signs. There was food and demonstrations and herb pots on little tables. And it was good. But I would much rather be upstairs with Aunt Elsie.