Book Club: The Secret Life of Bletchley Park

10 Oct

The Secret Life of Bletchley Park

The WWII Codebreaking Centre and the Men and Women Who Worked There

By Sinclair McKay

“No work I have ever done in my life has been more fascinating or given me greater satisfaction.” – Anonymous codebreaker

I dropped out of school at fourteen, and whilst I’ve never regretted it really, I still miss history lessons. Part of me finds it strange that it took me nearly ten years after school to pick up a history of this, that or the other, but I think that I was so engulfed in fiction, and it’s so easy to jump on the internet, that it never seemed that important. A few months ago I read Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad. I enjoyed it so much, though I did find it a little hard going sometimes. This, I’d like to quickly point out, is more to do with me than the writing. Stalingrad made me realise how wonderful it is to be able to read up on things I’m interested in, and now it has also started a horrible black hole in my bank account.

History books also feed my vain/low self-esteem need to feel clever. Feeling quite stupid the other night I opened up my Waterstones app (do I get a discount for a plug?) and scrolled through their history – and transport, weirdly – section looking for something interesting.

I stumbled across Sinclair McKay’s The Secret Life of Bletchley Park and bought it. I had a sketchy knowledge of Bletchley, most of which turned out to be wrong. I knew the wonderful people there contributed a huge amount to the war effort but it didn’t go much further than that, apart from knowing of Alan Turing and the Enigma machines. And, urm, having read Robert Harris’s Enigma. Which could, possibly, be where most of my… knowledge… came from.

The Secret Life of Bletchley Park is an absolutely wonderful book. While the technical side of things obviously plays a part, it’s more about what life was like for the people working there. (Clue is in the title, negative Waterstones reviews!)

McKay puts together a really lovely portrait of the place, using first-hand accounts of Bletchley veterans and some great anecdotes. It’s really fascinating to read about the social life of the people who worked there, and how some of their lives were effected by the years they spent working at the house or in the seemingly temporary huts in its grounds. One of the best stories is of the Wren whose mirror evaporated on one of the decoding machines, which puts trying to put mascara on in a cab in the shade.

It’s quite amazing to think of such a huge, clandestine operation being quiet kept for so long now. Someone, somewhere (yeah, we’re all looking at you, Wikileaks) would feel that people should know about it, and it knocks me for six that so many people kept what they did at Bletchley Park entirely secret for so many years. There is something vaguely nostalgic and a bit ‘for God, Harry and St. George’ about the book, but in a very attractive way.

While, as I’ve said, the technical side of the code breaking that went on at Bletchley is skimmed over a bit, the book does give a massive insight into how the work was done and how it was handled. Going on what I thought, I think the most common thing people associate with BP is the Enigma machine, but it’s fascinating to see what else was happening and being worked on at the time. Along with the Enigma code comes Alan Turing, and, with no disrespect to him (reading this has prompted me to buy a biography of him), it’s great to learn more about the other prominent names from Bletchley. Dilly Knox is such a fantastic character to read about, as is his relationship with Alistar Denniston.

This is one of those books I just couldn’t put down and I’d recommend it to anyone who was at all interested in the subject, or just wants to pick up an interest in it. I think it’s probably a great starting point to learn more about the place, the Enigma code and everything else that went along with Bletchley, but most importantly the role it played in people’s lives at the time.

The book charts the start of Bletchley Park to the modern day, and its life now as a museum. I’ll be heading there as soon as I can, and, without wanting to sound sickly, I only hope that people always do, so that it can stay like that and we can always remember the colossal amount people did for us during, and after, the war.

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