EYE SPY: John Simmons – Remembering Bloomsbury

I was born just outside the city walls of Bloomsbury. No, it doesn’t have city walls but it’s always had that feeling of being enclosed, a parallel universe where life is the same but different, a secret garden with buildings attached.

I was born in Levita House, a council estate opposite what was then a railway yard for St Pancras station but is now the British Library. Walk with me, back in time, across the Euston Road into Judd Street. We’re in Bloomsbury now. Memory’s a good way to spy on your past. Here in the St Pancras Town Hall in 1959 my mum sneaked me into the general election count. A smarmy TV-broadcaster-Tory called Geoffrey Johnson-Smith beat my mum’s favourite, Labour’s Lena Jeger. Political life lessons started early; we cried together as we walked the few hundred yards home late at night.

Further down Judd Street is Clare Court, a grand between-the-wars apartment block. I remember its basement because that was where we visited the NHS doctor. I was born in the same year as the NHS: mum always told me that with pride.

Walk on further and you reach Brunswick Square Gardens with the Foundling Museum on your left. In the 18th century children were left here by destitute mothers in exchange for a token, perhaps never to be redeemed. But a lesson never to forget the children.

I can never forget being a child, walking in file two-by-two down Lambs Conduit Street from my primary school in Drury Lane, my football boots strung around my neck, as we went to play football in Coram’s Fields. Now I remember the ghosts of memories in these shops and houses, and some of those memories come because I set parts of a novel here: Spanish Crossings, a book lured into the open by memories.

And exposed too by the family researches of my daughter Jessie (named after my mum) who lived at No.48 in this street for a few years with her friend Celie/Cecelia. That was a strange enough coincidence as my mum’s sister was Ce/Celia/Cecelia. Jessie and Ce together.

But it was beyond serendipity when my daughter Jessie tracked down the birth certificate of my mum and texted me the photo. Bizarrely I was sitting on a plane in Barbados waiting to fly home after a work project when I read the text. It showed that my mum ‘Jessie Cecelia Elizabeth Branch’ had been born in 1912 in No.44 Lambs Conduit Street.

The plane took off and I passed the transatlantic crossing in a state of wonder and reverie. Everything is connected: it’s been the guiding principle of my life. And nowhere represents that thought better than this square mile of central London that is Bloomsbury.

Now I’ll leave you here, as I go outside the imaginary city walls, making for Drury Lane where I went to primary school. We are secret agents of our own hidden history; it’s always there, even if we can’t always see it.

John Simmons

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