An Enigma: Bletchley Park as Setting for Lucy Ribchester’s The Amber Shadow
Bletchley Park encompasses a collection of basic huts, a small late Victorian Gothic mansion, and a stable block and cottages on a 58-acre Buckinghamshire estate. How did the work carried out there make a “very decisive contribution to the Allied war effort,” as General Dwight D. Eisenhower commented? Why has it fascinated writers like Andrew Hodges, whose biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma (Simon & Schuster, 1983), was transformed into the film The Imitation Game (2014)? What has led historical fiction author Lucy Ribchester to set her most recent novel, The Amber Shadows (Simon & Schuster, 2016), there with her engaging main character, Honey Deschamps, working at a type-x machine in Hut 6?
When ‘Captain Ridley’s Shooting Party’* spent time at Bletchley in August 1938, it heralded the start of one of the most mysterious undercover Secret Service operations of the Second World War. The party consisted of members of MI6 and the British Government Code and Cypher School, and resulted in Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, Head of MI6, buying the Park and renaming it ‘Station X.’
Intrigue surrounded the cypher work of codebreakers like Mavis Lever who, at age nineteen, started working as part of Dilly (Dillwyn) Knox’s team. In addition, the better-known Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman, Peter Twinn and John Jeffreys cracked the Enigma and Lorenz codes. This ensured Bletchley’s legacy for historians and novelists alike. But Ribchester explains, “It was hugely important to me to try and create a sense of the day-to-day activities of the Park. However, I didn’t want to focus particularly on the mechanics of codebreaking, or on a handful of genius brains who have already been singled out in fiction and nonfiction. I’m not really mathematically inclined, so a lot of the algebraic cryptanalysis which went into setting up the bombe machines still goes over my head – even after watching several live demos and reading half a dozen books on the subject. I was also more interested in the ordinary people who worked at the Park and how the pressures of work and secrecy affected their nerves, their sense of self, and their relationships.”
By D-Day on 6 June 1944 up to 18,000 messages were being deciphered each day; by 1945 there were 8,600 staff working at ‘BP,’ as it became known, with another 1,500 working close by. It was a world of its own with a language of its own: ‘cribbing’, ‘clonking,’ ‘spaghetti’, etc.* Concerts, plays and musicals were performed in Hut 12, tennis was played on the courts, but nothing was ever quite egalitarian, with the ‘top brass’ eating in a separate dining room and not having to queue. However, everyone shared an ability to keep secrets. Ribchester says, “I guess it was a combination of the time period and the idea of so much secrecy and subterfuge that I found interesting about Bletchley Park. It’s incredible to me that so many people could have kept such a monumental secret from their loved ones as well as keeping the day-to-day secrets within their different sections of the Park. I became fascinated with the idea of secrecy and what that does to your own trust in other people – if you know you are keeping your own secrets, what’s to say the people around you are being truthful with you? This then branched off into wider ideas of family secrets and secret love affairs and how to trust strangers we’re falling in love with, and the book just ran on from there.”
For historical novelists like Ribchester, the place and people of Bletchley Park have provided an atmospheric enigma, a source of inspiration that is in every way a mystery to be decoded.
Lucy Ribchester can be found on facebook, twitter and at lucyribchester.com
About the contributor: MYFANWY COOK is an Honorary Fellow at two universities in the UK and has published numerous short stories and articles. She teaches, designs and runs writing workshops and promotes historical fiction writers and writing whenever and wherever she can.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 76, May 2016