“Bored, bored, bored, bored, bored”
Bletchley Park was a beautiful house, with exquisite grounds, but the hundreds of people labouring away in the huts in those grounds scarcely had time to stop and look at them for a second. There was work to be done – work that could easily make the difference in the war effort, and save countless lives. Because Bletchley Park was where some of the most secret work of the war was taking place – the decryption of German military messages.
The people working on that exceptional task were not, to look at them, exceptional people, and in that respect at least Alan Turing was not unusual. He was of average height, though he looked shorter, due to a tendency to attempt to fade into the background. He was twenty-eight, but looked younger, and no matter how much he tried to control his hair, it would look ruffled within a couple of hours. He looked utterly typical of the mathematicians who were working in Bletchley, but for his eyes, which were a piercing blue which stood out dramatically against his otherwise dark colouring.
He wouldn’t have said as much to anyone else, of course – modesty would forbid it – but Turing knew that he was, if not the most intelligent man in the country, certainly the most intelligent man involved in the espionage community. He had already made some of the most important conceptual breakthroughs in mathematics in generations.
And on this day in May, the greatest mathematical mind in Europe was sitting in an office which, no matter what the weather outside, was always slightly too chilly for comfort, looking at yet another tedious piece of paperwork that needed to be filled in with the results of a meeting he had attended more or less against his will.
“When I was brought in to this job, I was told I’d be a mathematician, not a bloody, buggering, administrator. I’m supposed to have important mathematical work to do, but instead all I do is have meetings about meetings about meetings!”
Talking to himself had become a habit in recent months, as the need for intelligent conversation came into conflict with the necessity of secrecy. Secrecy was not something Turing was particularly suited for, either by training or temperament; he was a mathematician, and mathematics, like all the sciences and indeed every aspect of human culture and knowledge, grew by sharing ideas and building on what came before. More importantly even than that, he was a man who knew that a secret can never be entirely kept, and that the incorrect belief that one has successfully hidden something can be much more harmful than the public exposure of a secret ever could. His work showed that – the Nazis believed their encryption kept their secrets safe.
Turing knew that Newton’s comment about standing on the shoulders of giants was meant as an insult, aimed at a short rival, but he also knew that there was truth in it. Only by sharing knowledge could mathematics ever progress – Newton himself had provided the perfect counterexample, by keeping calculus to himself until Leibniz reinvented it independently, and thus got all the glory.
He saw the need for secrecy in his current work, of course – it would hardly do to tell the Germans “Oh, by the way, we’re reading all your most secret communications, and know what you’re planning to do next” – but like so many of the irritants in his life, that need was a contingent fact caused by the stupidity and irrationality of the human race, rather than a fundamental of the universe.
The basic job of breaking the Enigma code had been completed long ago. Now it had almost become routine – gather the transmissions every day, try to find a crib as quickly as possible, run them through the machines. There was little intellectual satisfaction in that kind of work.
Turing was still an important part of the work – possibly the most important, he liked to think – but it was no longer the mathematical and engineering puzzle that he’d been drawn to in the early months of the war. And while for the most part that was a good thing, there was a tiny, selfish part of him that missed that work.
And so Turing had, instead, become an administrator. It had happened piecemeal, but by now it had become unmistakable. He was doing important, necessary, vital work – but not his work. It wasn’t that he objected to the work itself, of course, no matter how tedious – he was very aware that there were men all over the world dying, while he was sat in an (admittedly chilly, admittedly dull) office, and he never forgot how comparatively lucky he was. But still. It was dull.
He gazed, half-reading, at the documents before him. The subjects were all personnel matters, organisational, bureaucratic – everything that required the maximum thought for the minimal intellectual pleasure. He chewed on his pencil while trying to bring himself to think properly, and then grimaced at the next sip of tea as he realised there were tiny flecks of wood in his mouth.
The phone rang, the piercing noise once again breaking his concentration while he was trying to drink his mug of tea. Not that the tea was actually any good – institutional tea has its own flavour, as if someone had put a pair of sweaty socks into the urn. Turing imagined at times that he could almost see the socks in his mind’s eye. They would be grey, woollen ones, and would have been worn for a full weekend’s walking through particularly muddy fields, in leaky boots. Possibly a few cowpats would also have been involved.
But still, a man needed his tea if he wanted to have any chance of getting his brain to work properly. Not that his brain was needed for these papers, of course.
He sighed, and reached for the phone.
“Not a moment’s peace around here. Hello, who is it?”
“It’s Godfrey here. Not busy, are you? Only something rather important has come up. I’d like you to go and see Fleming.”
This is an excerpt from my novel, Destroyer. If you like this chapter, please buy the book. It can be bought in hardback from Lulu. The Kindle and paperback editions are available from Amazon (UK) and (US). For non-Kindle ebook versions This Books2Read Universal Link will give you links for your preferred ebook retailer.
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