2020 vision: what I saw at Bloomsbury this year

From a crisp autumnal walk and talk through its streets, to a virtual event inspiring enough to make me forget the slightest bit of Zoom fatigue, my experience of the Bloomsbury Festival this year has been just the tonic for 2020.

I joined the first of 26’s Eye:Spy walks on the festival’s opening weekend. With Andy Hayes as our guide, and Galen O’Hanlon as our reader, we set off from the Charles Dickens museum in the heart of leafy Bloomsbury – its streets almost painfully handsome on a clear autumn afternoon.

As we meandered and shimmied (Andy’s patent-pending mode of Bloomsbury shortcut), we took in five stops for beautiful readings from Galen. Each one revealing a hidden story spied out by 26ers in their allocated square of Bloomsbury. From Dickens’ penchant for fast horses and Fortnum and Mason hampers, to the non-domestic bliss of the ladies of Chenies Street Chambers, each reading revealed something new and unexpected – Bloomsbury behind the blue plaques.

On Tuesday I clocked off work at 5pm sharp to join the festival’s virtual event Bloomsbury, Noor Inayat Khan and inclusive remembrance, featuring 26’s own John Simmons alongside the author of Noor’s acclaimed biography, Shrabani Basu. Shrabani shared a potted history of Noor’s fascinating life, and spoke about her successful campaign for a well-deserved blue plaque to honour her. And John’s reading of his piece from last year’s festival was as emotive as ever.

Last on my festival agenda was Wednesday’s event for 26 Weeks – a chance to hear from some of the writers behind the project, and the people they’ve been speaking to for the duration. There were words of strength from Alastair Creamer’s conversations with ocean rower Roz Savage “I’m learning to trust in life and surrender control. It’s going to be OK.”  And the analogy of feathers on a scale – small efforts adding up – if we all put feathers on the scale, it tips the balance.

Maeve O’Sullivan’s conversations with charity founder Ben Rafiqi painted a picture of the speed at which things changed at the start of the pandemic – for the better, not just for the worse. “He has seen the lockdown unplug horrendous systemic bottlenecks, like the reduction of housing wait times from 8 months to 48 hours.” But with this good news comes an element of frustration. Why did it take a pandemic for homelessness to be taken seriously by those with the power to help?

Nina Kunkel - Senior ICU nurse with the indents of a face mask on her cheeks.

Ending the evening, it was Stephen Potts’ conversations with senior ICU nurse Nina Kunkel (alias Siobhan) that have left the greatest impression on me. “Like a soldier in the quiet hours before battle, I have rewritten my will, kissed my kids goodbye, and wept alone on a woodland walk, fearful of what I’ll find tonight in intensive care, where I’m redeployed as a volunteer reservist.” Powerful words made all the more emotive by Nina joining the event and revealing, as she stifled a cough, that she now has COVID herself. Cue outpourings of gratitude in the chat section, “Thank you” “Take care” “Stay strong”. Small tokens that I hope will stay with her, as her sacrifice has stayed with me.

– Sophie Gordon

Read all the Eye:Spy stories here.

Discover the writing from 26 Weeks here.

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