Monday, 31 December 2018

Born in the Wrong Age - an Oxford Tale

I have an Oxford friend - let's call her Octavia - who although not born in Oxford, looks like the archetypal 'Oxford character' you would expect to find in an OxBridge novel - petite and birdlike with wire framed round glasses, an academic air and an eccentric taste in dress, long skirts, not quite Edwardian but not quite 20th century either, let alone 21st Century - a combination of vintage charity purchases and home sewing of silk and lace remnants.

For someone so 'in place' she has been finding herself feeling increasingly out of place, even born in the wrong age.

Her plays and novels bear this out. Octavia has penned at least half a dozen novels and numerous plays. All meticulously researched and often tackling big themes such as war yet too densely written for a modern audience, let alone pandering to the ever narrowing political correctness of current times. Nor can she boast the exotic background increasingly required for theatre competition entries that rule out a white Croydon-born spinster of a certain age.

Her successes have been modest  - a few short stories accepted by a local publishing collective and a few short plays accepted and performed by amateur groups. Her income remains eked out of parental inheritance.

As a child Octavia was highly praised and repeatedly told she would go far in life with her many talents from writing to painting, sewing, sculpture and antiques.

Now at sixty, she finds herself on the verge of a breakdown that so little has come to pass and the fears of deteriorating eyesight and contracting dementia, like her late mother, have begun to loom large.

Perhaps it has not helped that she has never known the grounding experiences of a regular job or a relationship in life. Mental health has always been fragile, all hopes and dreams pinned on becoming a literary success, much as she acknowledges that this is not an easy task for any writer these days, no matter how talented, such has the publishing world changed.

Indeed with her antidepressants precluding the day starting before lunchtime it would be hard to imagine a suitable day job for Octavia, even if she were prepared to compromise on the writing dream.

Not family (mostly died out), faith nor furry animals seem to be able to offer succor and almost 40 years after graduating from Oxford university the future renewal of her Bodleian library card (a lifeline) hangs in the balance as apparently there is a new regime seeking to crack down on those with no current link to the university.

I can imagine losing this would be the equivalent of signing a death warrant for Octavia as she spends most of her waking hours in this sanctuary, laptop and sandwiches to hand. On the plus side she has managed to avoid falling into the pit of addictions or anything other than prescribed drugs. In fact I've never seen her drink anything beyond herb teas and fruit juice.

Meantime Octavia has reached out to the local mental hospital where she was treated twenty years ago to request more CBT (the only treatment she feels she has ever truly benefited from). Regrettably they will not send anyone round to assess her until she removes her asbestos ceiling tiles (as an OCD sufferer as well, she felt obliged to warn them, even though asbestos only poses a health risk when disturbed).

However as a hoarder of silks, old books, prints and antiques it is hardly possible to enter Octavia's tiny two and a half room flat (bunk bed in the kitchen), so clearing it to remove the ceiling tiles would be an impossibility.

In truth, having such a full flat is more of a risk to Octavia's asthma owing to the mildew and dust collecting in all the unreachable corners. Asbestos is the least of her problems, and does not seem to have affected her in the 22 years she has lived there.

What Octavia could really do with (barring my previous suggestions of a lonely elderly antiques dealer with a big house in need of a late adopted daughter or celibate companion or a hoarding reality TV show) is an Oxford specialist in psychiatry who seeks a challenge - and possibly enough material in one subject to constitute a life's work!

People increasingly believe they have been born in the wrong body, but how often can they lay claim to being born in the wrong century?

Underneath all the issues, a charming young woman of voracious intelligence is waiting to be rescued, who does brighten under the lamp of human interest, whatever her protestations and self-deprecatory statements.

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