History Reviewer

#EmptyShelf 2016 #22: Saving Bletchley Park by @Dr_Black with @stevyncolgan (Unbound, 2015)

SAVINGBLETCHLEYPARKOver the last few weeks I’ve watched the whole of 24 (208 episodes in total I believe), but today decided I was ready for reading a bit of paper! I’ve had Sue Black’s Saving Bletchley Park since Christmas in an e-book, and the hard copy turned up not long after … and I had promised myself that on this two weeks of annual leave (no work emails, no CPD, mostly sleep) I would read the book … and I read it in one sitting! Sue’s book, co-written with Steven Colgan, is (still?) the fastest crowd-funded book ever. The book format alternates between Sue’s story of how she’d got interested, and how social media helped ‘save Bletchley Park’, and Colgan’s history of Bletchley Park. The book is published by Unbound – was pleased to see my contribution listed:


With #24, their code-breaking, and spy-busting, in my head, that definitely added a particular spice whilst reading the book! I was trying to think where I first met Sue – I think I first came across her name via Dame Wendy Hall at a Twitter conference in (2009?) at Southampton University, contacted her via Twitter, met at several digital events – and one very memorable evening on the South Bank with Kate Russell -or maybe unmemorable judging by the amount of cocktails we had, my running for the last train at Waterloo, and having to pick up my car early the next morning! Sue has been asked so much about ‘Saving Bletchley Park’, which she’d first visited in 2003, she decided to turn it into this fascinating book. She highlighted that the Second World War was shortened by at least 2 years, with probably 11 million+ lives saved each year because of the code-breakers, and stuck with it because of a passion for telling the stories of women, technology, and something so significant historically for the nation, and for the subject of computer science.

I loved hearing about the skills that the staff needed – all working within a highly secret environment – which included the classics, or maybe mathematics or language skills, and the importance of education in influencing “one’s mental make-up” (p44), and for importance of taking time out from the day-to-day routine to come up with creative solutions. The campaign highlighted the need for preservation of Bletchley Park, highlighted as of importance to both those in the humanities (the history of Britain), and the sciences (the start of computer science). With history as my official subject-background, it’s not surprising that I love hearing oral history, so enjoyed hearing of Sue’s meetings with survivors, and the veterans who have accompanied her on various tours around Bletchley [I undertook questionnaires for my thesis with plans for interviews, but never got there, and have to acknowledge the morbid truth that many of those stories/voices are now lost]. The original Bletchley stories came from an early grant enabling oral history of the many women who worked there – as Sue says, we wish there had been more female role models such as Mavis Batey (p85), and  Edith Cavell, when she was growing up.

We hear the story of getting Bletchley Park in the news, and the importance of getting celebrities and influencers linked to a cause to gain mainstream attention, whilst we hear of at the ‘fun’ (and stress) involved in media interviews, with the need to stay calm and on topic…  and just how fast they go by! Part of this inspiring story of taking opportunities, learning to live both with rejection and the unexpected opportunities that come when you follow your passion, along with the hard realities of fundraising. Having met Sue on Twitter, I loved hearing about her early experiences on the platform – I recognise that initial feeling of ‘I don’t get it’, turning to a love as you start to see how it works to engage with others with similar interests and undertake a backchannel conversation whilst a talk is ongoing … and the pre-conversations that make it much easier to meet face-to-face.  Sue highlights her first blogging experiences… and getting Stephen Fry engaged in the campaign, which brought many of his followers into the discussion… although that fame did not come without some negativity (and not forgetting the number of ‘ordinary’ people involved:

Careless Talk Costs Lives 1 - propaganda poster by Fougasse for the MOI, 1940

The staff were constantly reminded of the need for secrecy … [as the posters put it ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives‘] – which could put a strain on lunchtime/social conversations. Throughout the book I was constantly reminded of the need for human interpretation and application as the ‘characters’ in the book came to grips with the technology they were using (but then that’s something I am always on the look out for … the social shaping of technology!).

That technology has affected the modern day technology – Sue recognised something I’ve come to learn since I’ve been online – traditional media can get a lot of coverage, but it’s very short term.

Social media had given us the opportunity to find our audience and interact with them over a period of time, gradually building up a larger and larger presence and following (p181) .

Social media also offers opportunities to connect with key influencers in a way not possible before .. and encourage action, but one needs to learn to use it well: 

Knowing how the make the best of Twitter from @blackse .. I concur

A photo posted by Bex Lewis (@drbexl) on

Sue reflects that Twitter is more real time than other communications channels – and therefore not surprising that those you meet offline after having met them on Twitter are much as they are online (p205) – something I’ve often said in workshops, and particularly in relation to my friendship with Bryony Taylor.

In 2010 Sue gave a paper that I remember reading ‘Can Twitter Save Bletchley Park?’ at Museums and the Web conference. Sue highlights the importance of public engagement for academics (something I find a really important aspect of my academic career):

… this type of initiative, which gets information across in a way that is palatable and entertaining to the general public, is a great way to honour our pioneers. It is an important role of both traditional and social media to present important information in a way that helps us all to understand our history (p234).

I was encouraged to hear ‘if you can bring the right people together, incredible things can happen’ (p264) – and, particularly inspiring, how all of those involved in many of these projects had not known what their chances of success were, but thought ‘Sod it’ and decided to go for it anyway (p266). I concur with Sue (p306) that social media has allowed us to challenge the notion that many people (and their ideas) should not be heard, or that our opinions not valued. Putting one’s head above the parapet teaches you that it’s OK to voice opinions – someone will probably always be offended, but others won’t be … and the positives outweigh the negatives.

It was lovely to see the names of so many familiar friends scattered in through the book, including Benjamin Ellis, Christian Payne and Jemima Gibbon. And lots of familiar names amongst the supporters on Unbound, but you can buy all kinds of places, including Amazon. It was great to come across a mention of Lord Asa Briggs (p272), who at my PhD viva (2004), was quick to mention that he’d watched Gone with the Wind at the cinema in Winchester, but not his work at Bletchley Park – which he’d been so careful to keep the secrets that the Official Secrets Act had asked of him.

I really like the style that Unbound has allowed, a good scattering of pictures (some in colour), and the use of tweets embedded within the story – and I particularly like the mix of the personal the the historical stories – differentiated by different fonts. I’ve still not managed to visit Bletchley Park, aside from driving past it a couple of Christmas’s ago, but I will!

To complete a Bletchley Park kind of day, I’ve bobbed around the internet, watched the BBC2 documentary about Gordan Welchman (and the impact that his work had had right up to the modern day with Edward Snowden, who also uses traffic analysis) – combined with The Imitation Game  – all the stories don’t necessarily tie in together – so I’m particularly fascinated by these popular representations (which unsurprisingly collapse detail and put storylines into the hands of other characters!):

Thanks Sue, so glad you wrote this … rest of you, you should buy it!

Note: Post re-edited after 24 hours to remove some spoilers.