Russell Square’s Little Box of Secrets
Written By: Lois Evans
Photographed By: Jasmine Appiah
Drilled into the side of a tree in Russell Square’s archway is the Secret Diary of Bloomsbury. “Open me,” is written in typewriter font on the front of the little birdhouse that serves as eyes and ears to the secrets of anyone who is bold enough to offer their words to the Diary. The dark wood box is tucked away, but visible without loudly announcing its presence to the people of the Square. Beside it is a more colorful version of itself, the box full of blank pieces of paper, a pen, and a Twitter hashtag to follow. The greens, blues, reds, and pinks of the second box earned my trust when I first saw it, and I quickly scribbled a secret onto a page and stuffed it into the Secret Diary.
When I looked up the Diary the following night, nothing came up. The hashtag, #bloomsburysecret, has only five posts on Instagram. Google, for once, was out of answers, so I tried to forget about Russell Square’s little box of secrets. It wasn’t until I was walking past through the Square a few nights later that I circled back to the Secret Diary. When I wrote my secret and pushed it into the brown birdhouse, I didn’t think much of it, didn’t feel I had taken the task of sharing seriously enough to read the words of others. That night, I wiggled the door to the birdhouse open, balanced the flashlight of my old iPhone on my forearm, and was greeted by “Know Yourself” written in big black letters in the back of the box. It stood surrounded by sheets and sheets of words. Some told stories sillier than my secret, and some were quite significant–one person confessed love to a friend, another expressed their feelings on their sexuality. There were also numerous greetings written by tourists from all over the world. Tucked right behind the “Know Yourself” was a small Moleskine notebook–the physical diary of Bloomsbury.
“Everyone has a secret, a story they’ve never told anyone . . . what’s yours?” the book asks, explaining that there are diaries sprinkled all over Bloomsbury to hold stories and confessions. And because it’s 2018, there’s also a Twitter handle to follow.
The link in the bio of the box’s Twitter page, @BloomsSecret, leads to the events page for the Bloomsbury Festival, which will take place this October. The box of secrets was created by two University College London (UCL) fellows, Elizabeth Dearnley, and folklorist and medievalist, and Michael Eades, UCL’s Public Engagement Manager. I was fortunate enough to speak with Dearnley and Eades at UCL Senate House.
Eades, who is interested in Bloomsbury’s community as it extends beyond university students to the area’s growing elderly population and other marginalized voices, talked about the history of the neighborhood. Bloomsbury, according to Eades, has “lots of associations with spies and surveillance.” For those of you familiar with George Orwell’s 1984, Oceania’s Ministry of Truth was modeled after the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Information, which became Senate House after the Second World War. Eades expressed desires to move past the neighborhood’s history of censorship and propaganda with community endeavors like the Diary Project, which was an “experiment in catching voice” to unearth the “collective unconscious of Bloomsbury.”
Dearnley is concerned with fairy tales, storytelling, and the “relationships between stories and places.” The Secret Diary of Bloomsbury comes from Dearnley’s 2015 project involving storytelling that had people work on a collective story based on The Canterbury Tales. This colorful bird box in Russell Square, the one with the pens and paper, comes from this original project.
For the Bloomsbury project, Eades and Dearnley put their passions together to make twelve themed bird boxes. The Russell Square one, as you know, is about secrets. The cinema in the Brunswick Centre, just a few blocks from Guilford House, has The Diary of Desires, with sexual entries as well as one that simply said “stop exploiting your workers.” There’s a box in the Bloomsbury Coffee House called The Cringe Diary. Listening to Dearnley and Eades discuss the evolution of the boxes made their mutual interest in giving voice to the diverse voices of Bloomsbury especially evident. One bird box left on a Bloomsbury park bench was filled with the stories of lonely men before it disappeared. Another was made especially for children to write in as their parents worked on their own diary. I’ve seen this children’s diary. It features doodles and stories about cats.
The range of emotions and walks of life in the community are encapsulated in these diaries. Dearnley told stories of diaries planted in pubs going missing and then returning, filled with stories, a few weeks later. One student wrote about fancying a professor in The Cringe Diary, and other students responded agreeing with them (neither Dearnley nor Eades knows the identity of the popular professor), which fulfills the goal of the project–to “bring people together through the diary.” Do you remember the colorful bird box I mentioned? The one with the pens and paper? Dearnley and Eades didn’t stock that box. It was left empty after the initial secret diary was filled, but the Russell Square community provided materials to keep the tradition going without any kind of instruction from either creator.
As NYULondon students, we’ll be members of this community for the next few months. I encourage you to swing by the Square and look at some secrets. Of the secrets I flipped through that night in Russell Square, the one branded to my mind is an anonymous piece: “Regret the things you’ve done, not those that you haven’t”, which is cheeky when applied to pub stories and trips, but words of wisdom to the students studying away. You can also spill some tea of your own or give advice. Nothing’s off limits. When trying to figure out what to write or if your story is good enough to tell, follow the advice of the co-creator Michael Eades, who says “you tell us what’s important.”