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Suffering purgatory early: a perspective on Oxford

ELOISE MILLAR

Two years before she joined Writers in Oxford in 2005, Eloise Millar contributed the following view of the city in which she still lives to Crap Towns, the anthology edited by her boyfriend, Sam Jordison.

 

THE BEAUTY, PROSPERITY and inspirational intellectual atmosphere of Oxford make it the most appealing of all English cities.

Unfortunately, they come at the expense of dumping most of the poorer sections of the community in large, desperate estates.
 

Crap Town No. 32        Oxford

Motto:                     Fortis est veritas (The truth is strong)
Population:             134,248
Unemployment:       2.2%
Violent crimes:       13.2 (per 1,000 per annum)
% achieving 5
or more GCSE
grades A–C:
            98

AT FIRST GLANCE Oxford appears to be the ideal English city. It’s the beautiful home to one of the world’s most distinguished universities, with a thriving centre and lush green spaces draped over a winding river.

Travel further afield though and you realise that this harmony is achieved thanks to the ghettoisation of large sections of the community, as the working classes are forced to live miles from the town in some of Europe’s largest – and most notorious – housing estates. Like Blackbird Leys.

Blackbird Leys was where I grew up, and my childhood years revolved around the notion, dispensed from my Nan, that by living there we were suffering purgatory early, and would head straight for the highest reaches of heaven in our afterlife. Well, you had to believe something.

It wasn’t just the row upon row of tiny matchbox houses, the serf’s square of garden, the dogshit smeared along the dreary pot-holed roads. It wasn’t even the fact that Blackbird Leys had been built on top of Oxford’s sewers and that the air was constantly permeated with a heady mixture of decomposing waste.

It wasn’t the melancholy; the look on people’s faces as they formed an untidy queue outside the post office, waiting impatiently for a giro that wouldn’t quite buy enough food. Not the snot-face kiddies screaming hungrily in their buggies, or the sullen mothers hastily pulling a ragged piece of tissue from their pockets to wipe the little shithead’s nose. The black-eyes worn like make-up, the low-level apathy seeping into everyone’s bones.

It wasn’t any of that. It was us, the kids: we were the worst thing. We happily committed unspeakable atrocities. Whether it was terrorising the local loonies – Mental Martha, Electric Mary, Demented Fred – setting fire to bins or spray-painting obscenities on to doors, whatever it was, we excelled at it, turning the sunset into curfew time for most.

Other kids I knew stole our neighbours’ cars and raced them around the dingy estate roads. They badmouthed defenceless pensioners and pickpocketed people so poor the loss of money meant hunger for a week. They were young, unaccountable and blithely transformed the melancholy of the adults into palpable, stinging pain, as they dully watched them traverse the same old road, to the same old destiny.

That destiny sentenced most to curtailed school careers, teenage pregnancies, a lifetime of menial work and to purgatory in that shithole, Blackbird Leys.

No dreaming spires here. Tourists, enter at your peril.

_______________________________

Eloise Millar's first novel, Wednesday's Child, which was published by Virago in 2003, brings to imaginative life the view of Oxford she sketches here. The novel is set on an Oxford council estate and is a first-person account of a working class family as seen through the eyes of its eight-year-old protagonist, Janet Roberts. Carol Birch, whose Turn again Home was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003, wrote of it: 'A terrific first novel. I found myself reading it compulsively.'



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