I just saw an article about a reunion that Bletchley Park held on the seventy-eighth anniversary of Britain’s declaring war on Germany (after Hitler invaded Poland). More than a hundred veterans gathered at their old stomping grounds to commemorate the occasion and their contribution to the war effort.

The one hundred men and women had all worked at Bletchley Park as cryptanalysts, translators, mathematicians, file clerks, typists, Typex machine operators, Wrens, traffic analysts, wireless operators, and dispatch riders, indexing, cross-referencing, translating Morse code into letters, sending, receiving, and decoding messages.

The reunion event, which included a tour of the museum’s displays, media interviews, and photograph-taking, was a far cry from the one at the end of the war, when they burned documents and were re-sworn to secrecy about what they’d done at Bletchley Park and then went home to their families, unable to tell anyone about the critical part they’d played in the war. All they could say was that they’d had “a clerical job” or “worked in the War Office.”

What they’d really done was to win the war. Working in absolute secrecy, they’d intercepted, decoded, and translated Hitler’s (and the Italians’ and the Japanese’s) impossible-to-break Enigma codes and then used that information in dozens of decisive battles. They were responsible for the winning of the Battle of the North Atlantic and the success of D-Day, as well as many other battles, and if it weren’t for them, Rommel would have reached Cairo and the Allies would have lost the North Africa campaign.

But they couldn’t tell anybody, including families and spouses, that for over twenty-five years after the war, even though for some it meant being accused of shirking their military duties. They kept the secret nonetheless, during and after the war–so completely that husbands and wives were unaware the other worked at Bletchley Park, and so were roommates. Mary Every and Betty Webb both worked in Block F, Mary translating intercepted messages between enemy aircraft and Betty paraphrasing those same messages so that if they fell into enemy hands, the Nazis wouldn’t’ be able to figure out their Enigma codes had been broken, but they were unaware they were working within a few yards of each other.

Some of them carried their secret to the grave, and one woman nearly did–she initially refused to have emergency surgery because she was afraid she might blurt out something under the anesthetic.

In 1970, F. W. Winterbotham’s book about the work Bletchley Park did, THE ULTRA SECRET, was finally published, and people were finally able to talk about their experiences. In 1995, while doing research at the Imperial War Museum for my two-volume novel, BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR, which is partly set at Bletchley Park, I had the unique opportunity of interviewing a group of women who’d worked in World War II as ambulance drivers, fire watchers, and ARP wardens. One woman in the group said very little, and I thought she was probably just shy, but when I asked her what she’d done in the war, she smiled slyly and said, “Well…until a few years ago, I couldn’t tell you.” She had worked at Bletchley Park.

In 2009 the British government announced that Bletchley Park personnel would be recognized by a commemorative badge (which says, in typical understated fashion, “We also served”), and in 2012 Bletchley Park began holding reunions for the staff. At those reunions, Mary Every and Betty Webb found out they’d both worked in the same building and finally got to talk about their experiences in Block F, and many others made similar discoveries. For veterans like them, coming back to Bletchley Park has had a special meaning. As Doris Tuffin, aged 94, a former message transmitter, said, “It’s such a relief to come here because you had to keep the secret so long.”

This year’s event, which included a tour of the mansion, museum, and the new Codebreakers Wall, on which their names are listed, doubtless brought back memories of their time there. Bletchley Park still looks much the same as it did during the war.

I visited Bletchley Park last year–with considerable trepidation. I was terrified I’d find out I’d gotten some detail of my portrayal of it in BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR wrong. But it looked exactly like it had in photographs taken during the war. Originally a gingerbread-style Victorian estate with extensive grounds just outside the town of Bletchley, the house was transformed into offices, guards were posted at the brick-and-wrought-iron gates, and a score of wooden huts were erected on the grounds to serve the ever-expanding workforce.

The Victorian house looked exactly the same, and so did the pond, which the scientists and Wrens skated on in the winter and swans swam on in the summer, and the beautiful lawn, where people played tennis and sat listening to concerts. The gate through which thousands of workers poured every shift change was still there, and so was the gravel drive.

Some things have changed. The main hall of the mansion now holds a costume display from the movie THE IMITATION GAME, and Hut Four has been turned into a cafeteria for tourists (with much better food than in Bletchley Park’s wartime days of rationing). Block F is gone, demolished in 1987. There’s a visitors’ center and a museum, where you can see the bombes and Enigma machines and put a message into code yourself, and in the huts, you can see life-size holograms of cryptanalysts, Typex typists, and clerks working. But from the outside, when I was there, it looked just like it did in THE IMITATION GAME and ENIGMA, and, I hope, BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR.

What it didn’t look like, then or now, was a military intelligence operation. It looked more like a college campus, with its assortment of bookish, pipe-smoking professors and sloppily dressed nerds and pretty girls young enough to be coeds. And a whole array of eccentrics, from Turing, who wore a gas mask while riding his bicycle, to Dilly Knox, who would absentmindedly stick pieces of sandwich instead of tobacco into his pipe, and Alan Ross, who wore a blue knitted snood over his beard, and from physicists and statisticians to Egyptologists, chess players, classics scholars, Morse code experts, and crossword-puzzle whizzes.

They didn’t look much like a crack team of anything. When Winston Churchill saw them, he told Commander Denniston, “I told you to leave no stone unturned, but I had no idea you had taken me literally.” And it’s no wonder there was a local rumor that it was an insane asylum.

To add to it, the place didn’t look anything like a military facility, let alone the site of the most closely held secret of the war. I’ve always felt that one of the reasons Hitler never figured out the Allies had cracked the Enigma code was that if he’d had a place devoted to deciphering messages, it would have had high stone walls topped with barbed-wire, searchlights, dogs, and sentries armed with machine guns, not tennis and concerts. And it would have been staffed with military officers in impeccable uniforms, not pretty young debutantes wearing lipstick and professors in tweeds.

And it would NEVER have occurred to him that those professors and debutantes would have kept the secret entrusted to them–and not just for the duration of the war, but for years and years afterward–not because they’d been bullied and threatened and terrorized into it, but because they loved their country and the values it stood for.

Bletchley Park is an amazing place, and I highly recommend visiting it. The exhibits are fascinating. But the true wonder of it is the people who worked there, from Turing, who designed the bombe that cracked Enigma and was the father of the modern computer, to Mavis Lever, who cracked the Italian naval Enigma code by realizing that the girlfriends of the Nazi coders could provide a clue to its decoding. From Tommy Flowers, who designed the Colossus computer and broke the Lorenz-encrypted messages between Hitler and his generals, to the thousands of WAAFs and Wrens and debs (many of them only eighteen) who intercepted messages, transcribed them, translated decoded messages into English, and typed, filed, cross-indexed, and saved the world.

I’m delighted they’re finally being honored and given their chance to tell their stories and reminisce about old times.

Shortly after I read the article about this year’s reunion, somebody posted the picture of the staff at the reunion with the caption, “We’ve called you here together today because the Nazis are back.”

It was funny–and yet not really. Especially after Charlottesville and the article I’d just read in the New York Times about the alt-right which quoted alt-right leader Jason Jorjani as bragging, “We will have a Europe, in 2050, where the bank notes have Adolf Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte, Alexander the Great.” And when I read the comments sections of articles about the reunion, the number of pro-Nazi screeds was sickening.

“I thought we’d done away with the Nazis, finished, kaput,” Betty Webb said in an interview in the Independent. But if they come back, she’s ready for it. “I helped defeat the Nazis in 1941, and I’m ready to fight fascism in 2017.”

With her–and the rest of Bletchley Park’s heroes–behind us, I think we’ll be okay. Though they still don’t think of what they did as heroic. Arthur Maddocks, a mathematician who came up with cribs to break the coded messages, said, “It’s rather an exaggeration to be called heroes–the real heroes were the poor buggers doing the fighting.”

To which I say stuff and nonsense. They were–and are–the epitome of heroes!

Connie Willis

NOTE: If you’re interested in learning more about Bletchley Park and the work they did in World War II, I recommend:

THE ULTRA SECRET by F.W. Winterbotham

CRYPTONOMICON by Neal Stephenson
BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR by Connie Willis

THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE, Seasons 1 and 2.



I was so sorry to hear last week that Kit Reed had died.  she was one of my favorite authors–and had been since I was thirteen and first read her brilliant short story, “The Wait.”  It was the most frightening story I had ever read.  It left a lasting impression on me, and from that moment on, I was on the lookout for Kit Reed stories. When I found them–stories like “The Judas Bomb,” “Mr. Da V”, and “On Behalf of the Product–they were just as good as “The Wait” and, in their own way, just as frightening.  The fear came not from slasher gore or creepy atmospherics, but from the feeling that she was telling you the truth about the world–and that truth was what you’d been afraid it was.

Kit didn’t use the usual trappings of horror.  She used harmless things like housewives and day care centers and visiting moms, small towns and celebrities and magazine ads to terrify you.  And make you think, really THINK about things you thought you understood.

Like in her novella, “Songs of War,” about an actual war between the sexes, in which the women of the town take to a military encampment up on the hill and prepare to do battle.  It was written at a time when there were lots of women’s rights stories being done, and “Songs of War” has been called a feminist story.  But that doesn’t really cover it.  She was also writing about mixed allegiances (one of the women keeps sneaking back into town to fix dinner for her husband) and misplaced loyalties and  how volunteers (no matter in what conflict for what cause) always think the war’s going to be noble and exciting and easy–till it turns into something else altogether.

Kind of like Kit’s stories.  When you’re reading “The Food Farm” or “Pilots of the Purple Twilight” or “Automatic Tiger,” you think at first it’s about the cult of celebrity or the plight of military wives or the dangers of wish fulfillment.  But Kit always has bigger fish to fry, and, as you read, you realize the story’s also about culpability or grief or losing your soul.  Or something even deeper than that.

Short stories aren’t the only thing Kit did.  She also wrote sardonic, provocative novels like FORT PRIVILEGE and MOTHER’S NOT DEAD, SHE’S ONLY SLEEPING and suspense novels like TWICE BURNED and GONE under the name of Kit Craig, and she was a journalist, winning the New England Newspaperwoman of the Year Award twice as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship, and she taught writing workshops at Wesleyan University.

But her true genius lay in her short stories, which ranged from funny to horrifying to infinitely sad.  My absolute favorite (except for “The Wait” which is in a class by itself) is “Great Escape Tours, Inc.”  It’s about a group of senior citizens who go on a field trip to the past where they’re promised they’ll be young again.  And they are.  But this is not COCOON, and the tour promoters neglected to say how young they would be or what would happen if they missed the bus back.  Only Kit Reed could have written that story–or thought of it.

Most people never get to meet their heroes.  I was lucky.  In 1998, I was asked to write a foreword for a collection of Kit’s stories called WEIRD WOMEN, WIRED WOMEN.  It was one of the great honors of my life.  And a couple of years later, Sheila Williams, my editor at ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE, called to tell me Kit wanted to have lunch with me when I was in New York.  “Oh, frabjous day, callou callay!” as Lewis Carroll would say.

“You have to promise me you won’t act like a crazed fan,” Sheila said.  “She thinks of you as a colleague, not a fan.”  Which was ridiculous–she was my hero!–and I wasn’t sure I could keep from gushing all over her, but I promised to keep the fawning to a minimum.
Kit took us to lunch at her elegant club, and I was concentrating so hard on behaving that I don’t remember anything about it except the heavenly macaroons we had for dessert (long before the whole French macaron craze swept New York.)  Nor do I remember anything we talked about except for her saying they were about to lose the macaroons because the chef who made them was leaving, and she didn’t know what she was going to do without them.

But I remember the conversation was delightful and that Kit was exactly as witty and smart and kind as I had thought she would be.

Later on I got to see her at several conventions and discovered she was as big a fan of the BBC series PRIMEVAL  as I was.  We had a number of great conversations about how well-written and cleverly plotted it was, and we also talked about politics and children and everything else.

I wish we’d had the chance to have more conversations and that I’d gotten to know her better.  And been able to communicate (without sounding like a gibbering fan girl) how wonderful I thought she was and how much her stories had inspired me.  To say I’ll miss her and her unique voice as a writer is the understatement of the century.  I don’t know what we’re all going to do without her.

Connie Willis

Books I Love – The Connecticut Contingent Part II


5.  THE EIGHTH DAY by Thornton Wilder
In my last post, I talked about four of my favorite Connecticut-connected authors:  Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ursula Curtiss, and Sigrid Undset.  But my absolute favorite is Thornton Wilder, and he’s not just one of my favorite Connecticut writers, but one of my favorite writers of all time, so it’s sad when people say, “Thornton Wilder who?” to me when I mention his name.
By rights, he should be just as famous as his contemporaries Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  (Notice that nobody says “Who?” when you mention them.)  Thornton Wilder’s the only writer ever to have won the Pulitzer Prize for both fiction and drama, and one of the few to win a Pulitzer for drama more than once.  He also won the National Book Award, Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
And he wrote a play, OUR TOWN, that’s been done by practically every high school in the country.  He also wrote brilliant novels, and THE MATCHMAKER (which HELLO, DOLLY is based on), and THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH, an impossible-to-describe play about Adam and Eve–and Moses, Plato, Muses, fortunetellers, famines, singing dinosaurs, sniping maids, Ice Ages, wars, a casting crisis in the middle of Act Two, the boardwalk in Atlantic City, and Armageddon.
And unlike his contemporaries, everything Wilder wrote is completely different from everything else.  Which is probably why his name isn’t as well known as the more easily described Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
Wilder is serious and off-the-wall funny and deeply philosophical  He’s also the most quotable author I know.  His work is full of great lines, and at our house we quote him constantly, from Barnaby and Cornelius’s code word for adventure:
“Pudding, Cornelius?” “Pudding, Barnaby.”
to Horace Vandergelder’s:
“‘Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world are fools and the rest of us are in great danger of contagion.'”
and Emily Webb’s:
“‘Goodbye, Grover’s Corners.  Goodbye to clocks ticking and Mama’s sunflowers.  And food and coffee.  And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up.  Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful to realize you!'”
It’s impossible to read Thornton Wilder without a pencil to underline memorable lines with, and sometimes you end up underlining the entire book.  Everything he wrote is chock-full of memorable comments–and dialogue–like:
“Hope, like faith, is nothing if it is not courageous, it is nothing if it is not ridiculous.”
* * *
“Money, pardon the expression, is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow.”
* * *
“We’ve always had two children…just not the same two.”
* * *
“…every good and excellent thing in the world stands moment by moment on the razor- edge of danger and must be fought for.” * * *
“Any man who goes to a big city deserves what happens to him.”
* * *
“Dr. Gillies was lying for all he was worth.  He had no doubt that the coming century would be too dreadful to contemplate–that is to say, like all other centuries.”
* * *
“Have you milked the mammoth?”* * *
“There are the stars–doing their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky.  Scholars haven’t settled the matter yet…seem to think there are no living beings out there.  Just chalk…or      fire.  Only this one is straining, straining away all the time to make something of                itself.  Strain’s  so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest.”
Even Wilder’s stage directions–“No curtain, no scenery”–and the warnings his characters give the audience–“I advise YOU not to think about the play, either”–are worth writing down and keeping.
Wilder also wrote two of the best endings in literature.  The first, from THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY, about a random group of people killed in the collapse of a rope bridge in the Andes in 1714, is so hopeful and true I’ve read it aloud at several funerals, and the British prime minister Tony Blair read it at a memorial service honoring the victims of 9-11.
Wilder’s talking about the five people who died in the bridge’s collapse, and he says, “But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
The ending of THE EIGHTH DAY, which begins, “There is much talk of a design in the arras…” is even better.  Which is doubly remarkable because THE EIGHTH DAY also has one of the best first lines ever: “In the early summer of 1902, John Barrington Ashley of Coaltown, a small mining center in southern Illinois, was tried for the murder of Breckenridge Lansing, also of Coaltown.”
The paragraph goes on to tell us,
“He was found guilty and sentenced to death.  Five days later, at one in the morning of Tuesday, July 22, he escaped from his guards on the train that was carrying him to his execution.”
There’s enough plot in that paragraph for an entire novel, but Wilder’s just getting started, in a story that’s part murder mystery and part quest and part family saga, and yet not really any of those.  The novel starts in the middle and goes not just  backward and forward, but off in all directions, reading sometimes like MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and sometimes like AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY and sometimes like a post-modern work of metafiction–and nothing like any of them.  As Wilder himself said, “It’s not really like usual novels.”
I’ll say!  And because it wasn’t, the critics had no idea what to make of it (or its ending).  Some of them thought it was too ambiguous and depressing.  Others called it old-fashioned and “too optimistic.”
They were right.  THE EIGHTH DAY is all those things, cutting-edge and old-fashioned, ambiguous and crystal-clear, cynical and optimistic.  And also wrenching and compulsively readable, full of indelible characters like Porky and Sophia and Dr. Gillies–and of adventure and tragedy–and plot twists that leave you gasping.  It’s full of digressions and impromptu sermons and stray comments and asides.  And suffragettes, journalists, nuns, singers, shooting matches, South American mines, Aphrodite, sea voyages, saloons, lemonade stands, boardinghouses, chinchilla pelts, newspapers, and homemade fudge.
It’s about no less a theme than history and the small, obscure part we play in it.  Or about fate.  Or that design in the arras, which may or may not be decipherable, which may or may not even be there.
All that makes THE EIGHTH DAY sound ponderous and heavy, but it’s not.  It’s fascinating, fun to read, and light as a feather, written with what John Updike called “globe-spanning nimbleness and cosmic lift-off.”  And full of marvelous insights, marvelous lines.  Which is why it’s one of my favorite books.
NOTE:  I said Thornton Wilder wasn’t as famous as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, but actually that’s not true.  On any given evening of the year, OUR TOWN is on stage somewhere, to say nothing of matinees.  Pixar introduced HELLO, DOLLY to a whole new generation in WALL-E. A new production of THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH was produced off-Broadway this year, and Bette Midler just won a Tony playing Dolly Levi opposite David Hyde Pierce (you know, Niles from FRAZIER) in a Broadway revival of HELLO, DOLLY,  so I can hardly complain.  I just wish people knew Thornton Wilder wrote them all.  And that they were reading THE EIGHTH DAY.