Between Silk and Cyanide, A Codemaker’s War

“Put down on a half a sheet of paper what difference silk codes would make to our agents.”
“Half a sheet at most!” echoed Davies.
‘I think it could be done in a phrase, sir!’
‘Oh?’ said Courtauld. ‘We’d be interested to hear it.’
‘It’s between silk and cyanide.’

“This book is not a casual read,” I thought, as I waited for my tire to be repaired. A gargantuan TV, three feet away from me, was blaring the Country Music Awards; I was mouth-breathing, an inefficacious strategy to ignore the overwhelming smell of rubber, and reading three times a paragraph on coded message, attempting to comprehend it. After failed attempts at deciphering acronyms, I made my own code on the inside cover with their meanings.

84-charing-cross-road Knowing the author, Leo Marks, was the son of the owner of the bookshop made famous in Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Roadwas a big draw to this book. There are many references to the bookshop; it would be helpful, but not essential to have read it first. Although Hanff’s story is set after the war, knowing it provides a fun context.

At twenty Marks begins fighting the Fuhrer with his cryptography skills. He trained agents headed for enemy territory to send and receive messages in a code based on a famous poem the agent had memorized. The problem with poem-codes is that the enemy cryptographers could break the code if they figured out which poem was used. If an agent was captured, he or she would swallow cyanide to keep from telling secrets under torture. The enemy would often continue sending and receiving messages, concealing the knowledge of the capture.

Even as an understudy, Marks understands the the system’s vulnerability. He begins writing original poems for use, a few of which have become famous. Over time he threads together a remarkable innovation to use a one-time, disposable code printed on silk, easily burned after use. This book is the story of his failure and success to spin his silk idea to his superiors.

Marks’ agility with language delights.
→ As a boy he studied the mating habits of the alphabet.
→ A superior officer had a knack for switching on silence as if it were air conditioning.
→ He writes about a desk so small, it was like keeping vigil on a splinter.
Could we have a quick word? He was a verbal weight-watcher.

Marks relates the story of his intelligence with self-deprecating jabs.

The need to justify and its sister frailty, the need to boast, were lethal weaknesses in SOE, and the shock discovery that I was prone to both started me worrying about the coders of Grendon.

While his acute concern and the initiatives he made to protect the safety of the agents shows remarkable maturity for a young twenty to twenty-three year man, the bawdiness that occasionally pops up reminds the reader that he was indeed still close to adolescence.

The story of the code-war fascinated me. I enjoyed the book more after I stopped trying to be an agent in training, when I kept going after I read the explanation without understanding. <grin>

On Christmas Eve, 1943, Leo Marks got word that his girlfriend Ruth had been killed in a plane crash in Canada. He wrote this short poem, which he later gave to an agent Violet Szabo. Wikipedia tells me this poem was read at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding.

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours.

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is your and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause.

For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.

England, Goudge, the Eliots

101_4570Elizabeth Goudge’s Eliot Family Trilogy?

First, it is English: paragraphs of appreciative comments on the comfort of tea; gallons of hot tea consumed; nine variations of rain—slanting, gentle, white, solid, gloomy, light, windy, misty, sparkly; logs added to warming fires; imaginative children; a country vicar; the pronoun ‘one’ put to good use (Eustace—dreadful name! One thinks at once of a parson’s dog-collar); ditto for the adverb ‘rather’ and the adjective ‘dreadful’ (Ben says it’s dreadful. They’re trying to do a telescoped version of ‘The Wind in the Willows’, and it won’t telescope.)

Then, it is Elizabeth Goudge. I find Goudge in a category of her own. She is spiritual, at times mystical, fantastical (Faerie, but just in cameo appearances), romantic in the sense of the woods being infused with symbolism, almost medieval.

But her characters deal with modern problems that most authors of her genre would avoid. One man falls in love (inexcusably, I’d say: one must recognize boundaries) with the wife of one of his relatives. This complex relationship is the focus of her first book, but isn’t completely resolved until the third. Goudge’s parents have favorite children. Some of the marriages lack love. One character’s violent past is haunting.

There is a strong sense of place. Damerosehay, a large eighteenth century house purchased by the Grandmother, home base for the Eliot family, is the focus of book one. The Herb of Grace—a Pilgrim’s Inn, where sojourners stay on pilgrimage to a sacred place—is more ancient, with deep history in its walls. George and Nadine’s restoration of this Inn is the focus of the second book. The third book adds Lavender Cottage, a small place where Margaret and Lucilla can retire.

Her themes resonate with me: determined contentedness; work as a sacramental offering; the mystery of small joys; beauty indoors and outdoors, interior and exterior; the inscrutable connection between twins; aging, grandparenting, and above all else, relinquishment.

“Relinquish.” It was a good word. It suggested not the tearing away of treasures but the willing and graceful sacrifice of them.     The Bird in the Tree

The twins mimic a blend of The Wind in the Willows, medieval crusaders, and pirates:

“Scrooge, scrabble and scratch.” repeated Jerry. “For the glory of God, my hearties. For the glory of God.” Pilgrim’s Inn

Hilary, wounded in the first world war, is stable, sensible, lovable.

Nevertheless, the tea was what he wanted. Heat, he thought, there’s nothing like it. All the best symbols have to do with light and fire and warmth. The Heart of the Family

Hendrickson has recently reissued the trilogy.
            

I took the top photograph at Shere, a picturesque English village. While I was in England, I darted into used bookshops looking for treasures. It is thence I found a first edition of The Herb of Grace (the English title for Pilgrim’s Inn), my favorite of the three books. I’d like to give away this book that has given me much pleasure. (It’s the first time I’ve used this widget. I hope it works.)

a Rafflecopter giveaway Congratulations, Di! You won the Herb of Grace book.

*It occurred to me that my definition of ‘treasure’ might not jive with yours. Here is a picture of the book. It is not a pretty book, but I love the inscription in the front “Jeanette Pound 1950” and I like old hardbacks.

DSC_8686