Full disclosure: Octavia is one of my closest friends. We met at University in London, where at first I admired her from afar as she held court over a rapt following of other chic Camden denizens. Later we did "Bodypump" class together at a gym in North London, where the teacher, a stern yet Amazonian babe named Wilhelmina, would glance admiringly as O casually bicep curled her way through the routines while I lay sniffling on the ground whimpering for mercy. We'd (I'd) recover afterwards, drinking sweet mint tea in our shorts by the heaters in Camden Market, and putting the world to rights. In short, she's somehow just brilliant at everything, this girl. She's who you go to when you want to talk about your innermost thoughts and your outermost fears, as well being my go to source for feminist theory and book recommendations a go-go. She also never fails to be wearing the snazziest jumper in any social situation. I'm thrilled to introduce her and give you a sneek peek inside the beautiful home that she has transformed into an oasis all her own. Now, take a walk with Octavia on the street where she lives.
On her neighbourhood of Dalston:
I live in Dalston, the dirty pearl in the borough of Hackney's rose red crown. I'm a Londoner, but grew up on the other side of town - a West End girl by birth, though I've done quite a lot of roaming, via Camden, Holloway, Madrid, Cambridge, Paris.. but I seem to have settled here in the North East corner of the capital, for the time being at least. The area has changed a lot even in the four years I've been there - gentrification happens fast in this town. When I first moved in, Dalston reminded me a lot of Bayswater and Portobello when I was growing up (before Richard Curtis made that bloody awful film) so I felt instantly at home.
On her charming street:
My street is classic urban London - a complete mixture of old and new, grime and glamour, and in the summer the roses in everyone's front gardens are real showstoppers. My street is pretty typical of this part of London - a real mixture of privately owned flats, council flats, big fancy houses, big fancy houses split into flats, some studios, a primary school... The old buildings all date from about 1883 and I'd guess the new blocks all filled the gaps left after The Blitz - the East end was hit very heavily during the second world war. We residents are a motly crew too: some young-ish families, a cabbie, some artists, at one point a celebrity of some sort had one of the houses but I didn't pay attention to who exactly, and a load of families that have been here for thirty years and seen the neighbourhood smarten up around them. We all look out for each other.
On her beautiful home:
My house is really a maisonette - the basement flat belongs to someone else, and then I have the ground and first floors. The building is pretty old - she's an aged but beautiful pile of bricks and, like most old gals, needs quite a lot of TLC, especially in the winter when her bones begin to creak. There are two rooms upstairs, my bedroom and then another that I use as a study, and then an open plan sitting room / kitchen, and a hall with a cheery green lino floor and a wonky staircase. The windows are my favourite thing about my place. Lots and lots of glorious windows, so even on a grey day (which in this town is one thing you can bet on and win) the place is flooded with light. It's a special little nest that vibrates with positive energy. It has a good and bold soul, this house. I get the feeling lots of people have been very happy in it.
On some unlikely house guests:
I've had a chronic problem with squirrels in the roof and so am on excellent terms with a load of pest control guys. Once we forgot about one in the attic and it went through all the stages of decomposition, leaving a pile of bones stripped totally clean. The house was filled with a swarm of spooky red-eyed flies - it was horrid, but also kind of fascinating to experience such a primally disgusting thing - so biblical! There is something about a multitude that is truly uncanny. I was reading a book called The Anatomy of Disgust at the time and I remember it all feeling oddly synchronous.
On Dalston's reputation as hipster central:
Because it's full of bars and clubs, Dalston has a reputation for being clogged up with hipster wankers, and don't get me wrong, it absolutely is… but they mostly don't live here. The neighbourhood has a strong, mixed community of locals from all over the shop - so Dalston's daytime folk look pretty different from the night crawlers with their edgy haircuts and health goth gear. It has been steadily gentrifying since before I moved in, so things are kind of in flux and there are some big ugly developments creeping up around and about the place - it's hard not to feel anxious about how they will change the area, but nostalgia is dangerous and urban living is defined by constant change and evolution - it's one of the things I love about it. Having said that, In the summer it can be a bit rowdy with drunk stragglers ricocheting from pub to club or drinking street beers on the curb, but I don't really mind, it's part of the deal if you're an urban fox. Speaking of which, there are a load round here, getting tamer by the day, and they don't half scream blue murder when they get amorous. So that can be a bit of a pain. Especially when the local alleycats holla back.
On living on her own:
I have lived by myself for a couple of years now, and I love it - I can grow quietly more eccentric without having to worry about offending anyone else. Having said that, there's an old guy in the block of flats opposite who sometimes watches me when I do my nightly dance to Howlin' Wolf, so I suppose not everything goes unnoticed. Also, I say alone, but that's not strictly true because beloved people are always passing through and staying for a week or two. In some ways it's the best of both worlds! I usually have at least one human being sleeping on my sofa, but it's been known to house up to three... well, one was a baby, so, two and a half.
And not long ago a little feline wolfing named Lupo moved in, so we've been having relentless fun with ribbons and toes and pieces of string. Luckily, he likes Howlin' Wolf too.
On her job as London's premier Renaissance Woman:
I write and give talks and all sorts, but right now my main gig is my thesis - I'm in the final year of a PhD at University College London, which is basically short hand for 'I am on the edge of sanity most days but don't worry I'm too tired to bite you'. It's been an incredible few years full of all sorts of different challenges, and I've loved it and loathed it and loved it again. My office has variously been in the department at the university, the British Library, Senate House Library (I am a library tart, a fickle and philandering reader, a bibliophilic bigamist, and proud), the cafe at the Wellcome Collection, and in my flat. Right now I'm incredibly lucky to have a beautiful set up in the spare room, which is a relief as I can leave my ramblings spread out waiting for me to return to them the next morning.
I also co-host a literary radio show/podcast called Literary Friction with the very excellent Ms Carrie Plitt - it goes out monthly on Dalston stalwart NTS Radio. Their programming is mostly music based but we're one of a couple of talk shows that they host. The studio is just up the road in a tin can booth in Gillet Square, alongside other local institutions like Vortex and the Dalston Jazz Bar.
On travelling and finding her calling:
I have been in the business of learning and thinking and teaching for a very long time…! I do worry that I am pretty institutionalised these days. I was determined to stay in London for my BA, so read Hispanic Studies at UCL by day and explored London's premium dive bars by night (long live Gaz's Rockin' Blues). One of the best things about my degree was getting to spend a year abroad - I lived in Madrid with a dear friend and got to play out all my Almodóvar fantasies dancing with fabulous drag queens until the sun came up and we all realised our make up had melted off. After my finals, I decided I wasn't finished with the books so went to Cambridge to do an MPhil in European Literature and Culture (yes, all of it), and as well as learning about French philosophy and Spanish poetry I discovered that small towns are not for me. So, I hot-footed it to Paris where I got a job teaching at the Sorbonne. La vie était belle but the smog of my hometown was a-calling so I returned to the fold and began my PhD. And it's not all about being a library mole, thankfully! I've had the chance to give talks in some really exciting places, the most exotic being Tulane University in New Orleans. I was also lucky enough to spend a week at a symposium on Passion in Tuscany - there were real Giotto frescoes on the wall of the certosa, it was so beautiful. And mind expanding. And the food was off the chain!
On her relationship with her home city:
Ohhhh London. London London London. Stockholm syndrome? London's been my home ever since I took my first lungful of its loud and dirty air, and I love it fiercely. But. Every few years it becomes unbearable and I have to go somewhere else. The winters are miserable. But the summers are glorious! When it's still light at 9pm and the flowers are all in bloom and the parks are full there's absolutely no better place to be. I think wherever I end up in the future I'll always be umbilically attached to this city, for better or worse, for richer or poorer... I've lived in a few other countries, as a child and then again in my adult life. I love it, and I hope to do it again in the future, but it also always makes me nostalgic for home. London's a pretty hard act to follow. Right now I mainly feel incredibly lucky to be able to live where I do. Lucky and excited and trepidatious and frustrated. All the feelings!
Describe your street in five words.
Wide, bright, straight, old, mine ("ALL ways are MY ways!" says the Queen of Hearts)
When you walk down your street, what do you feel in your heart?
When I turn the corner into my street I hear Steppenwolf's 'Jupiter's Child' in my head and I stride along with wings on my boots and guitars in my heart. It always feels like coming home.
On her perfect day off in her neighbourhood:
Dalston is a great place to potter around, there are loads of sweet little cafés and bars where you can get really excellent coffee and sit and read for a couple of hours. One of my favourite spots is Ivy’s Mess Hall, just up the Kingsland Road – they do great little tapas-style plates and the gang who work there are lovely, a very international bunch. In the evenings, I like to go to my local cinema, The Rio, which is a Dalston institution – they’ve been showing films there since 1909 but the beautiful Art Deco exterior is from the 1930s. You can see a lot of independent cinema there, and they often schedule old films that it’s rare to see on the big screen.
Thank you, sweet Octavia, for allowing us to snoop around. You're the very best.