I enjoyed the first of three episodes of The Bletchley Circle the other night on PBS. I liked it as what promises to be one of the better of those mystery/thrillers the British do so well. It's a long and venerable tradition that reaches well back beyond television to the days of BBC Radio and, beyond that, to the stories of such luminaries as Daphne du Maurier, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, Leslie Charteris and, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. These were the writers I cut my teeth on, as a youngster, along with the Baroness Orczy, whose Scarlet Pimpernel stories were among my favorites. I would not myself have become a writer without them. The "mystery" is of course the endless mystery of life and death, the greatest of them all.
But I have a special reason for enjoying "The Bletchley Circle," and that is because we had three of the Bletchley girls living with us during World War II. Bletchley Park was but a stone's throw from the village where my father was Rector, Aspley Guise, and we lived in a big old Victorian rectory--much too big for our small family. Needing places the "billet" its personnel, both military and civilian, the War Office called upon my parents to make our spare rooms available for the war effort. We hosted airmen from the local Cranfield aerodrome, the occasional naval officer--and the three girls from Bletchley Park. Their names were Fiona, and Vivian, and Gay.
The activities at Bletchley have been well documented in the past decade or so, but they were ultra secret during the war, and for decades after its conclusion. The capture of the Nazi Enigma encoding device and its use in decoding enemy communications is reputed to have shortened the war by at least two years, and it was our girls at Bletchley who contributed significantly to this effort. The Bletchley girls were brilliant young women recruited mostly from universities, their clever minds put to work in the vital task of code-breaking. Living with them in our house, we knew only that the work they were doing was very "hush-hush"--as the word was then; that they remained silent about it for so many years afterwards is a tribute to their dedication and discretion.
The new TV series finds a quartet of them, years after the war, bringing those brilliant analytic minds to bear on the search for a serial killer. I'm sure they'll find him, but in the meantime the chase is fun, and the four women play their parts to perfection--each very different, with different skills and mind sets, but each essential to their search for the patterns that will eventually, we hope, unmask the killer before he manages to murder too many more victims.
My cousin Sam, also intrigued by the series, sent out an email to the family requesting memories. I was surprised to hear from him that one of my uncles, Alan, was amongst the Bletchley crew, and wrote to tell him what he did not seem to know--that our Gay, who was to become Alan's wife, was also there. He was unsure of this, but when we visited Bletchley Park, now a museum and open to the public, a few years back, we found her name in the register: Gabrielle Williams. Gay was the only aunt I addressed by her first name only, rather than with the "Auntie" or the more formal "Aunt," and I have fond memories of her. She died, sadly, of cancer a number of years ago; and Alan was only very recently the last of his generation to go.
World War II was a formative experience for me. I have warm memories, like these; and exciting ones, like the Messerschmidt fighter that crash-landed in a muddy field a half-mile from our house; and still others that were more frightening, like the jettison bombs dropped close to the rectory by German bombers, lightening their load for the return flight home after a raid on London, or the arrival of bus loads of Londoners in our village, traumatized by the Blitz. I remain to this day fascinated by that period, and am currently also watching the PBS series on the Nuremberg trials, featuring each week a different defendant. Last week, it was Hermann Goering, the Reichsmarschall...