• Oxford Together Stories

Life In Reverse Gear

Before the pandemic, I was living in London, and only visiting Oxford at weekends, staying in my house where I had a couple of lodgers. I was between job contracts, and so to do something useful, I was a Digital Champion volunteer with Healthwatch Islington. So luckily, I had a DBS certificate from doing that earlier this year. I was doing lots of work, helping people come to terms with technology, make better use of it, etcetera. Normally, I work in change management and digital transformation, and a lot of that is to do with making better use of digital for the citizen. One of the things the pandemic has emphasised is the significance of digital skills, particularly for older people. Especially if they’re shielding and isolated, and they don’t know how to pay online, they need cash to pay for shopping. The whole interface between the citizen and digital is a big deal. And it’s increasing in importance. It’s something I’m passionate about. I need to have a mission. I’m used to working with public service and doing something useful. I can’t bear not to be doing something useful. 

When the pandemic hit, two of my lodgers in Oxford left, leaving me with less income, and a semi-empty house, so I thought, ‘Rather than stay in a small flat in London, I’d better go back to Oxford.’ So I came back, and I thought, ‘I’d better volunteer, because then I’ve got something to do that’s useful.’ Also I can’t bear not going out. If I’m doing shopping for people, I’ve got an excuse to go out every day, and I’m also doing something useful in the community. I put out a message on Facebook to friends of mine in Oxford, and said, ‘I’m coming back to Oxford for a month or two, does anybody know anything about volunteering?’ And then somebody said to try the Oxford Hub.  

Because I had a DBS certificate I was asked to go and do shopping for people who were shielding already. That’s primarily what I’ve been doing, but there’s also a very active WhatsApp group on my road. I’m part of that, and I then started picking up people on my road who needed prescriptions fetched for them and that sort of thing. So I’ve had four or five referrals from Oxford Hub to do shopping for people, and then three or four other people from the WhatsApp group locally, who mainly needed prescriptions – it’s an amazing number of people that need regular prescriptions. 

So from the very beginning of lockdown, I was able to go out every day and go shopping for somebody, and I was able to go out for exercise, so I haven’t felt locked down. And it then became part of my own personal schedule, because I thought ‘This is all a bit of a disaster. I need to come up with a structure for my week.’ So if I’m going to be doing these errands for people, I’ll do those in the morning, I then go for a walk, and then I’ll play the piano for an hour. That’s something brilliant I’ve been able to do since I’ve come back to my house in Oxford, as I didn’t have space for my piano in London. 

It now looks as if I’ve moved back here permanently, which is pretty bizarre because I vowed I’d never live in Oxford again. I don’t actually like Oxford, London is a lot more fun. But the trouble is, London isn’t fun at the moment, and actually, I don’t think it’s going to be fun for a long time. I got forced to move to Oxford a long time ago, because my job relocated. But it was really hard work to get established and make friends. Even now in lockdown you don’t really get to meet people, because you knock on the door, drop the shopping and stand back. And then they come to the door and hide in their hall and you shout at each other from a distance. 

In fact, I had my house on the market, before I came back, and I was intending to move permanently to London. For the last 17 years, I’ve been working in London and coming back to Oxford at weekends, living between the two. Now I’ve come back to the house here, which I’ve always loved, and after two weeks I took the ‘For Sale’ sign down. I have a very nice house in a great location. It’s two minutes’ walk from the river. That has been of immense value during lockdown, so I’ve been incredibly lucky. I believe in making the best of it. Whatever ‘it’ is. I look for the opportunities in life, there’s no point in sitting around moaning. I find myself living in Oxford, which I vowed I’d never do. And I’ve now got a resident’s parking permit, and I’m looking to adopt another cat! You take life a week at a time at the moment. 

In terms of the general goodwill everybody’s felt under pandemic pressure, I suspect as lockdown eases that will start to dissipate. It’s just human nature to get busy with other things, to get on with our lives again. I’ve never been interested in neighbours and community, to be totally honest. Of course, it depends what you mean by ‘community.’ Most people are seeking a circle of people they have something in common with. The thing is, in my area, unless you have children and you use the local school, or you go to the local church, or the local pub, there’s nothing. But I’m a single, atheist urbanite who doesn’t drink. So I’ve been thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to have to have another go at trying to create a life in Oxford.’ The trouble is, all the arts and cultural things I normally do are cancelled, and they aren’t going to be happening for ages. I mean, it’s a desperate situation for the whole arts and cultural sector. I’m attempting to join an orchestra I used to play in 20 years ago. It’s hilarious because I said I’d never play in that orchestra again and I’d never live in Oxford again. I feel like I’m living life in reverse gear at the moment. 

Edited by Sofia Smith-Laing

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