Chasing grandparents at Bletchley


When a friend suggested a trip to Bletchley, I was immediately keen; I’d vaguely meant to go for a long time, knowing that my paternal grandparents met there. I can confirm that whether or not you’re planning to look up, and be impressed by, a grandfather you never knew who managed to switch from Italian to Japanese ciphers, or to remember a slightly intimidating grandmother and think of her as a twentysomething seeing the same things you’re seeing… it’s a wonderful day out, with tons to see. You get to look around some of the ‘huts’, dim and dismal yet the site of incredible work; they must have been awful places to spend time in, especially in winter and blackout, yet this doesn’t seem to have hindered their occupants. A reconstruction of Alan Turing’s office was in one of them; elsewhere, discussion of the shameful laws that led to his sad end wasn’t avoided, though there was also celebratory Turing-kitsch in the presentation of a not-very-nice coffee in a replica of the tin mug that he kept chained to the radiator. I got to look at the PhD notes of Bill Tutte, examine a whole case of Enigma machines, and think about the amazing cleverness of the codebreakers who made some enormous strides in computing (and made some enormous computers). I saw what I think might be the perfect office (not Turing’s). And there were some wonderful little paper treasures, showing how some of the Bletchley workers managed to have fun, putting on plays, operas and country-dancing sessions (see the well-observed flyer above). A few of them married each other in the parish church, the outside of which I visited at the end of the day (it was locked).

Any kind of sentimental feeling for something as awful as wartime, with the stakes so high against a foe so dreadful, shouldn’t be encouraged. But this place offers a collection of stories about cleverness, innovation, imagination, hard work, focus, bravery, tenacity and toughness that do inspire and make one aspire to the same qualities in oneself.

I was a little thoughtful and sad when I left, knowing that this was just about within living memory but that many – probably most – of those lively people are no longer here, including my grandparents. Thinking of your deceased recent ancestors reminds you that each generation has its turn, and that nobody is exempt from the inevitable end. Let us focus, choose good work to do well, enjoy life, and treat each other and ourselves well, in the tiny space that each of us has to experience the world.

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