A Guide to Sira’s London
- Posted by Julia Burns
- On May 1, 2021
- London, Maria Dueñas, Sira
By Jimmy Burns
To mark the BritishSociety’s presentation on May 6th of María Dueñas long-awaited sequel novel, we retrace the heroine Sira’s footsteps through post-war London as she takes up a new secret assignment.
Sira stays at the Victorian villa of her English mother-in-law Lady Olivia Bonnard, in The Boltons, zona que había servido de blindaje frente a las sanguinarias acometidas de la aviación alemana in the Brompton district of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. “La fachada de estuco blanco, desconchada, y aún espléndida…’
She visits the 19th century Anglican Church of St Mary’s in the beautiful and exclusive garden square- damaged by the war before being restored . . ‘The Boltons se había quedado sin órgano, sin vidrieras, sin techo. Hasta la verja de hierro que circunvalaba el parque la habían arrancado para fundirla y dedicarla a la fabricación de armamento..’ “El primer domingo tras mi llegada propuso que la acompañara a la parroquia cercana…. Nearby she sees the ruins of Balden Lodge in Boltons Place ‘La grandiosa propiedad de Balden Lodge cercana a su casa ya no era mas que un desmonte lleno de escombros (today the site of Bousfield School)
‘No tardé en llegar a una arteria donde el panorama se percibía diferente…más coches más gente, autobuses, movimiento…”
Sira goes shopping in the Fulham Road and King’s Road where she visits the popular department store of the post-war era Woolworth’s (today the site of the chemists’s Boots).
Shopping also takes her to the legendary dressmaker Digby Morton whose business at the time was run out of a large Victorian building in Palace Gate, Kensington.
Another day she walks east along Old Brompton Road (today the site of Abel Lusa’s popular Spanish restaurant Cambio de Tercio) and Brompton Road through South Kensington and Knightsbridge, past the Oratory Church, The Victoria & Albert and Natural History Museums , and Harrods.
In Mayfair, she will try, without success, to find her beloved wartime friend Rosalinda Fox. The wartime night club hostess and British agent has long departed from Number 9 Tiley Street. But Sira strikes lucky when she meets up with another secret British government contact in the luxurious Dorchester Hotel.
Near Piccadilly Circus, she will dine at the legendary Spanish restaurant Martinez, with its walls decorated by tiles and the head of a Miura bull, in Swallow Street (now the site of an argentine restaurant called Gaucho). She is also invited to tea by an old school friend of her late husband Marcus at Fortnum & Mason.
Other personal and secret assignments take her along Regent Street and Oxford Circus to the BBC headquarters building Broadcasting House and also to the centre of the BBC Overseas Service, Bush House in The Strand.
The Lefevre Gallery near Bond Street is where Sira meets a group of distinguished Spanish exiles, at a reception for a Spanish painter. She then goes with a BBC colleague to one of the capital’s most popular and picturesque pubs in Bruton Street, The Coach & Horses.
Among those who make an imagined appearance in Dueñas’s new novel, are several names of real-life characters who staddle the history of the British-Spanish community in post-war London during the Franco era. They will be well-known to some members and supporters of the BritishSpanish Society whose parents lived that period.
BSS member Carlos Oppe lived in Tregunter Road next to The Boltons from where he went as a child to the nearby preparatory school St.Philip’s with the current chairman of the BSS Jimmy Burns Marañón. Carlos recalled entering the ‘quiet and leafy square’ where one of the houses was owned by the American Douglas Fairbanks Junior’s house ‘with its long wall hiding its vast garden.’
‘I don’t remember seeing many of the Boltons dwellers as the wooden shutters of the large windows were usually well shut when I returned in the afternoons. One of these houses belonged to authoress Beatrix Potter. Near the square there was a 19th century house that was destroyed int the Blitz’, Carlos remembers .
Carlos’s mother was Lucila Gonzalez-Posada. Like her friend Jimmy Burns’s mother Mabel Marañón who, in post war London, worked for the BBC Overseas Service at Bush House, Lucila came from a liberal family in Spain and had married an Englishman. ‘Luci’, as she was known, and Mabel settled into the post war ambience in London, extending their network of English and Spanish friends .
Their circle included Natalia Cossio, daughter of one of the characters Sira meets while in London. Natalia’s parents had fled to Oxford in the Civil War as her mother was the daughter of Alberto Cossio, founder of the Escuela de Libre Enseñanza and her father the director of the Residencia de Estudiantes – beacons of the liberal movement in Spain prior to the Spanish Civil War. Natalia married John Stuckley, an aristocrat from Dorset, a navy officer who then became a judge. The Stuckleys were members of the BritishSpanish Society (previously called the Anglo Spanish Society) along with other Spaniards and British.
Mabel Marañón, like Sira, for a time collaborated with the BBC overseas and Spanish language service. Mabel’s husband was Tom Burns who had worked in intelligence and propaganda during WW2 as press attache in the British embassy in Madrid with Alan Hillgarth (Sira wartime recruiter in the British secret service). Both Burns and Hillgarth feature in Dueñas novel. Tom and Mabel were close friends of several of the Spanish exiles who Sira meets in London including the Spanish academic Rafael Martinez Nadal, an expert on the poet and dramatist Lorca.
Another character who Sira meets in the spanish exile community in London is Tomas Harris, marchante de arte y experto en nuestros grandes maestros. Harris also worked in British wartime intelligence and ran the legendary double agent code-named Garbo.