Home > Culture, History, Literature, Reviews, Television > “Bletchley Park’s Lost Heroes” and “A Perfect Spy”: Tales of Britain’s Clandestine Elite

“Bletchley Park’s Lost Heroes” and “A Perfect Spy”: Tales of Britain’s Clandestine Elite

Much North American contemporary sociopolitical thinking, especially on the rightward end of the spectrum, tends to pigeonhole educated elites as simultaneously out of touch and malicious, interfering with and ultimately undermining the lives of the masses whose interests they claim to be dedicated to and yet either can hardly grasp or actively disdain. Whether this conception is accurate or not (and it is so generalized as to be almost certainly not), its widespread adoption in mass culture is all the more curious if one understands large-scale political messaging as originating from those same elites, or at least buttressed and distributed by them.

Britain, however, seems a different beast altogether. Public institutions have been integrated into British society to a much greater extent than in the New World, and for a much longer time. Public service is tied into ossified notions of duty and honour, and Britain’s aristocratic remnants have been chastened into relative humility by decades of P.G. Wodehouse novels viciously lampooning the dissolute, layabout wealthy. Perhaps in our present corporatist day, the view of Britain’s elites is no kinder than that of North America’s. But a certain history of accomplishment and pride underscores the (self-)conception of Britain’s best and brightest down to today.

These undercurrents run deep in two products of Britain’s established elite that I’ve worked my way through recently: Julian Carey’s BBC documentary Code-Breakers: Bletchley Park’s Lost Heroes and John le Carré’s 1986 novel A Perfect Spy. The former focuses on the Nazi message cipher-solving geniuses of the titular WWII-era headquarters of MI6’s famed Station X. A favourite subject of Britain’s contemporary intellectuals (whose own service to the nation consists of making television documentaries), Bletchley Park’s wartime collection of brilliant academics cracking enemy ciphers of fiendish complexity has become a prime example of the oft-maligned intellectual elite contributing directly to the betterment of society and the toppling of Nazi tyranny. The story, first widely disseminated by Station X, a documentary series by Britain’s Channel 4,  is an alternative to the stiff-upper-lip narratives of British endurance to the Blitz as well as to Greatest Generation military homosocial hagiography of the Band of Brothers variety. For modern creative elite types worn out by the consistent advancement of humble suffering and masculine power as the war-effort values most worthy of hallowing, Bletchley Park represents an opportunity to similarly hallow their own values of meticulous study, innovative out-of-the-box thinking, and sustained cognitive exertion.

Although such things are essentially immeasurable, conventional wisdom has it that the acitivities of Bletchley’s intelligence units shortened World War II by two to four years, and indeed may have made it winnable for the Allies in the first place. Much of the credit for this is laid upon the breaking of the code of the Enigma ciphering machine. The complex mechanically-generated code was initially broken successfully by Poland’s Cipher Bureau at the start of the war, but their methods were adapted and accomplished in greater repetition at Station X largely due to the efforts of Alan Turing, the famed mathematician, pioneering figure in computer science, and martyr to social homophobia. Turing’s mental triumph over the Enigma code has become a metaphor for the similar eventual triumph of Western democracy’s intellectual openness over the rigid ideological thought of the Nazis (even if that “openness” did not extend to sexual predilections, much to his detriment).

Code-Breakers, for its part, follows the Freakonomics-style, “everything you know is wrong” approach to this material. It focuses on two figures from the Bletchley Park circle that Carey and his documentary team consider to be forgotten or at least insufficiently feted: William Tutte, a mathematical prodigy who provided the blueprint for cracking the code of the much more complex post-Enigma cipher machine codenamed “Tunny”, and Tommy Flowers, the engineer who designed and built Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer, to decode Tunny messages. Due to the top-secret nature of their great wartime accomplishments, neither Tutte nor Flowers received what the documentary deems to be sufficient recognition for them. Still, both lead perfectly pleasant and successful bourgeois lives after the war, and neither was arrested for sodomy, chemically castrated, and killed by cyanide poisoning like the apparently sufficiently recognized Turing was. So they did have that much going for them, anyway.

le Carré’s A Perfect Spy, on the other hand, sets out to tell a story of Britain’s clandestine elite that is much more ambiguous and difficult. The novel follows Magnus Pym, a Cold Way master spy who vanishes days after the death of his legendary con-artist father and is immediately suspected of defection, treason and double-agency. Some of those suspicions are accurate, others not so much. But the book, like all of le Carré’s best work, is less about the revelation of secrets than the moral character and human dimension of the people who keep those secrets.

Pym is not some kind of monster, as he is accused of being at one point by a colleague who strongly suspects him of betraying intelligence secrets to a Czech agent. That is certainly the impression that le Carré attempts to put across by making Pym the unreliable narrator of his own life story. Holed up in a seaside boarding house to write his story and die, to paraphrase Pym himself, this cicadian storyteller unspools his path up to that point of no return with a mix of wit, skepticism, humour, pathos, and self-deprecation that is frightfully, delightfully British. These episodes penned by his hand are intercut with the efforts of his wife Mary, his intelligence mentor Jack Brotherhood (that’s not a codename, either; le Carré has a flair for naming that is so symbolically obvious as to be transcendent) and other figures at “the Firm” and beyond to understand and to locate him, which are evidently viewed as the same thing, ultimately.

Magnus Pym was not born of Britain’s elite nor was he raised in its genuine auspices. Although his confidence trickster father Rick constantly finagled his way towards wealth and privilege and often affected its trappings in his elaborate schemes before his ubiquitous “temporary problems of liquidity” caught up to him, Magnus is deprived of the sheltered, consistent privilege of the circles he moves in by the time he is an established Firm agent. Indeed, despite the loose family atmosphere provided for the boy by Rick and his entourage, Magnus finds human connection difficult except in the very rare case, and is haunted in particular by the untimely ends of two maternal figures: his spectral invalid mother proper and Lippsie, his father’s German Jewish paramour for a time who is an adored and more than a little sexualized ideal for the younger Pym. Partly from his con-man father and partly from the milieu of constant change and adaptation, the foundations are laid in Magnus Pym to become the titular “perfect spy”: he can vary his personality to appeal to anyone in any situation, and his conceptions of loyalty are ephemeral at best.

le Carré’s writings are often reduced to the intrigue-soaked conventions of the espionage genre that he helped to create, but what he’s doing is much more sophisticated and literary than he tends to gets credit for. Indeed, the espionage intrigue is almost secondary to the humanistic elements of the novel, the character sketches and the sharp dialogue and the persistent symbolism (Rick hauls around a large green cabinet that supposedly contains the heart of his deceptions and the lungs through which Magnus breathes the world but winds up being a sort of metaphorical MacGuffin). The sections in Magnus’ narrating voice, detailing his own growth and education as well as many of the most notable episodes of his father’s schemes, are hugely entertaining reads, dripping with delicious irony (Rick’s dedicated entourage of co-conspirators is referred to as “the court”, and their shifting headquarters is the “Reichskanzlei”, the grandiose wartime German name for the office of the Chancellor).

But as much as these chapters sprawl in their scope, they finally serve the larger project of examining the inscrutable identity of a representative member of the clandestine elite. Like Bletchley Park’s Lost Heroes, A Perfect Spy considers not only the necessary dedication of the elites serving the hidden objectives of the British nation but also the attendant sacrifices and disfiguring demands of the institutions they serve and the tasks they face. If the novel does not glorify the elite representatives in question as the documentary does, perhaps that is the function of the fundamental ambiguity of the post-war world, where absolute righteousness is impossible and absolute evil a matter of ideological disagreement. Whatever their differences, however, both of these works give fascinating insight into the clandestine activities of elites that is blissfully free of anti-intellectualist fervour. We could do worse, and far too often do.

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  1. May 5, 2015 at 1:32 pm

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