I’ve recently read The Secret Life of Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay and then was lucky enough to visit Bletchley Park itself last April.
Bletchley Park is all at the same time small and unassuming whilst being imposing and awe-inspiring. This contrary impression is evident when you walk through the huts, which you can imagine damp and cramped with the breaths of the many people hard at work steaming like hot dragons puffs in the cold air, and the clacking and clunking of the Bombes so loud as to rattle the ear drums and send you slightly doolally. At the same time the grounds are beautiful with manicured lawns, a tennis court and The Mansion with its impressive library, and formal rooms which call to mind a more ‘cultured’ laid-back scene. Something which is very much supported by the personal memoirs, shared by Mr McKay, of most wonderful music recitals in the main house, chess clubs and dance societies such as the Highland Reels club which were part of life at Bletchley.
Mr McKay weaves an insightful tale about this most discrete of places with the loves, lives, fears and hopes that these extraordinary people experienced during their time at Bletchley. The men and women who worked there, fascinate me. I don’t know if it’s the secrecy and that this community of thousands kept it hush hush, the extreme conditions that they put up with in the pursuit of finding the key to win the war or the code breaking skills that these amazing people employed that I’m most intrigued by? What I liked about this book was that I was able to find out more about the actual people and from their own words.
With its independent chapter structure the story can unfold at the readers pace as it’s easy to delve in and out, here and there depending on mood and time. You can read a chapter about the social diversity of the staff one day and then wranglings over whether Bletchley was civilian or military the next. Churchill has a mention and there’s of course much content on the Enigma and codebreaking. But it is the personal accounts of life at the Park, memories from debutantes, students and service personnel, all thrown together because of their significant abilities and bound as one community forever in time, that are the central focus.
It’s a snapshot and in no way a thorough exploration of the phenomenal code breaking that took place, but it is a good introduction to Bletchley and helps to give context and ‘life’ to the Park by sharing the thoughts and feelings of those most marvellous of people who stepped up to serve.