I am going to the theatre tomorrow evening, for an audience with two very elderly ladies who worked as code-breakers at Bletchley Park during the war. This has reminded me of a trip to Bletchley Park itself.
I went with friend K on one of those elderly persons’ mini-coach trips. We saw ourselves as two sprightly spring chickens, uncomfortably roosted in narrow seats just behind the driver, adrift in a sea of white curly perms, half-mast trousers and walking frames. We felt out of place. Oddly, the owners of said perms, trousers and walking frames didn’t seem to notice this.
I have had other depressing, age-related experiences. Not long ago my sister and I went to view a dementia care home – the same one, in fact, that our mother moved into yesterday. We assumed it was pretty obvious that we were visitors, being under the age of eighty. However, eighty and ninety year-olds came surging forward to welcome us – the two charming new lady residents. We’d like it there, they said. It was a nice place. Bright and sunny. Good food. Even a cat.
Much further back in time – soon after my divorce when Mum and Dad were trying to keep me amused, thereby forestalling an inconvenient and expensive daughterly nervous breakdown – I went with them on a visit to the Dickens Museum in Rochester. Granted it was a filthy, cold day and tipping it down with rain, and we were all wearing dripping anoraks with the hoods up. All the same, it was an irritation when the lady at the till offered us three Senior Citizens tickets.
Anyway, K and I sat on this sunshine-yellow minibus for a very, very long time. I never realised the rush hour traffic jams into London continued until eleven o’clock in the morning. But it was worth it to be in the actual Bletchley Park, where all that clever stuff happened during the war. It’s a big old house with a gravel driveway, and a lake with sun glinting on its mildly rippling surface. It’s one of the few museums – in fact the only museum – that I would be happy to visit more than once. Code-breaking used one of my fantasies, you see – doing something absorbing, secret and clever in the service of the Nation, in a remote, grand, quiet place surrounded by lawns, with a lake – and not in any physical danger.
As the novelist John Braine pointed out in How to Write a Novel, it is quite possible to be born with the strongest of ‘callings’ to write yet possess not a shred of ability to do so. A cruel irony, he said. So it was with me, the fantasy code-breaker. As a child I was always making up complicated little codes in old school notebooks, then forgetting how they worked or losing interest. I was no good at any of the things that might have helped, such as mathematics or chess. I could only do crosswords if they had sensible clues – anything slightly cryptic and I was mystified. I’ve never even won a game of Scrabble.
But for me the saddest association with Bletchley Park will always be its star performer, Alan Turing, and the terrible waste of a promising life. I know times were different then but still I find it hard to forgive those 1950s types for hounding, prosecuting and finally chemically castrating him because he admitted to a policeman that he was gay. No matter that he was a genius, and probably Asperger’s, and vulnerable. And now they exonerate him, now they bother to apologise – so many years after he lost all hope and injected the cyanide into the apple.