Ophelia Street, 1970. A street like any other, a community that lives and breathes together as people struggle with their commitments and pursue their dreams. It is a world we recognise, a world where class and gender divide, where set roles are acknowledged. But what happens when individuals step outside those roles, when they secretly covet, express desire, pursue ambitions even harm and destroy? An observer in the midst of Ophelia Street watches, writes, imagines, remembers, charting the lives and loves of his neighbours over the course of four seasons. And we see the flimsily disguised underbelly of urban life revealed in all its challenging glory. As the leaves turn from vibrant green to vivid gold, so lives turn and change too, laying bare the truth of the community. Perhaps, ultimately, we all exist on Ophelia Street.  

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1 Beneath the window
Ophelia Street was. It existed, way back then, in a time and place that seems as distant today as America in the Jazz Age. I am writing this now, some thirty years on, with all the embellishments of imagination to fill the gaps of memory.
Ophelia Street was. A no-through road, a huddle of houses, obscured from sight in North London in the year 1970. A place that had seen better and grander times. Like a once-fine ocean liner slumped on a deep sea bed, giving sustenance to the creatures swimming in its darkness.
In January, we used to say, you saw Ophelia Street in its natural colours. Wintergrey hung like a fog; window boxes lay dormant; through net curtains watery bulbs gleamed. And every so often it rained.
Ophelia Street. The pre-Raphaelite fancy of its Victorian builders mocked its current mediocrity. Ophelia Street, with Hamlet Close, a tired collection of houses which frowned upon romanticism; a cul-de-sac with a dirty yard leading off it. An air of boredom had seeped into the very bones of the street; boredom that in better times had called itself ennui. And within the confines of the street the inmates were forever restless, straining to burst free from its hold. Yet it was not that easy to escape: the mental chains that confined them, once confined earlier generations. Ophelia Street was a home, a prison.
I was struggling to make it my home, my first proper one since arriving in London. I’d come down from university a  few months earlier, a provincial newcomer to London, and I’d got a job as a journalist on a local paper. I was simply learning my trade, the trade of reporting and all the skills that I believed went with it. Ophelia Street for this year became my featured subject and my training course. By ‘Ophelia Street’ I mean the people who lived there in the houses next to me, for the most part unaware even of my existence because I was young and unimposing and content to look on from the sidelines. I didn’t really touch their lives but they touched mine. I got to know them a little at first by the shallow contact of nodding acquaintance, then to know them more deeply as time passed. Through observation and investigation, my developing journalistic skills, and then – I must admit – through the exercise of my imagination, I fleshed them into the people you will read about.
But I swear it is true. Even with the hindsight of thirty years, this is the place and these are the people that I knew then. The words I wrote then, and that I revisit now, are the relics and artefacts brought to the surface from that sunken period. Through them the people remain alive. Some of those people, perhaps even the ones I got to know best, I hardly exchanged words with at the time. But that is the way I am, as well as the way they were. Take us for what we are and were.

Author Info


John Simmons is an independent writer and consultant. He runs Writing for design workshops for D&AD and the School of Life as well as Dark Angels workshops. He has written a number of books on the relationship between language and identity, including The Writer’s Trilogy We, me, them & it, The invisible grail and Dark angels. He’s a founder director of 26, the not-for-profit group that champions the cause of better language in business, and has been writer-in-residence for Unilever and Kings Cross tube station. In 2011 he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the University of Falmouth in recognition of outstanding contribution to the creative sector. He initiated and participated in the writing of a Dark Angels collective novel Keeping Mum with fifteen writers. It was published by Unbound in 2014. He is on the Campaign Council for Writers Centre Norwich as Norwich becomes the first English City of Literature. John also wrote the compelling novel Leaves, which was published by Urbane in 2015
Spanish Crossings was published in March 2018 and The Good Messenger in September 2018.
Photo by Stuart Keegan, Bloomsbury Festival
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