When in 1969 Helene Hanff finally managed to get to London her beloved bookshop, 84 Charing Cross Road, had closed. However, as she recalls in her memoir, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, waiting for her at her publishers was a letter from a man I never knew existed.
Dear Miss Hanff,
I am the son of the late Ben Marks of Marks & Co. and want you to know how delighted I am that you are here, and how very much my wife and I would like you to dine with us.
I do not know where you are staying so could you please ring me at the above telephone numbers? The second one is an answering service and any message left there will reach me.
We are both looking forward to meeting you.
The Leo Marks that Hanff then goes on to describe is a writer best known for the script of the 1960 film Peeping Tom and for a number of plays that appeared in the West End. Not once, in either this or in subsequent books, does she mention his wartime role as the man who completely restructured the codes used by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents sent into Occupied Europe and further afield between 1942 and the end of hostilities three years later. To some extent this silence isn’t surprising. Given that Between Silk and Cyanide, the book in which Marks records his time with SOE, was not allowed by the powers that be to be published until 1998, despite having been written over fifteen years earlier, in 1969 Marks almost certainly wouldn’t have been allowed to discuss his wartime role. Apart from anything else, he would probably have had more than enough to say about the bloody-minded incompetence of many people still with a finger in the pie of government to put several cats among a whole flock-load of pigeons.
Having been fascinated by codes since the age of eight after he cracked the one used by his father to indicate what 84 had paid for a book, when he is called for war service he applies to work as a cryptographer. Rejected by Bletchley Park, (who later recognise him as the one that got away) he finds himself installed with SOE training FANYs (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) to decrypt those messages that have been garbled in transmission. If the wireless operators in Occupied Europe have to be asked to repeat a message then there is a far greater chance of their being captured and so the decryption of indecipherables is a unit priority. Marks is horrified by the codes that the agents are being asked to use. Based on a poem chosen by each individual agent anyone intercepting a message and working out key words has only to flick through a volume of best loved poetry to gain access to the code and thus read any future messages sent by that particular agent. Consequently he devises a number of more secure codes, one of which involved a series of non-repeating keys printed on silk for ease of concealment. Hence the book’s title: he saw the executive’s choice as being between providing either the silks or cyanide. In fact, each of the agents did carry a cyanide table with them and despite Mark’s best efforts too many had to resort to using them.
Ultimately it became clear that agents would still have to have a named poem that they could use if their silks, and later their ‘one time pads’, were not immediately available to them and so Marks and his decoders set about writing original and often scurrilous verses that would be difficult to predict. The most famous of these is the one that Marks wrote after the death of a woman he had hoped to marry and which he later gave to Violette Szabo, the agent whose story is told in the film Carve Her Name With Pride.
The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours 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.
Szabo was eventually executed in Ravensbrück in 1945.
Three things scream out from the pages of this book. The first is the incredible bravery of the men and women who risked, and all too often lost, their lives in an attempt to free their homelands from occupation. The second, the devotion to duty of the (mostly) women who struggled to decode the messages sent back, sometimes at the eight or nine thousandth attempt. And the third, the sheer stupidity and egotistical search for power of many of the people who commanded them. Why Britain was not overrun in the early 1940s is beyond me. The ordinary people may have been pulling together, but those at the top were definitely not. I can only assume that the same was true of the German High Command and that one set of narcissistic idiots cancelled the other out.
Re-reading this book in preparation for the Summer School it seems clear to me that Leo Marks had Asperger’s and at quite a high level too. Not only is this apparent in his fascination with codes but also in what we learn of his relationships and in his style of writing. He assumes his reader is going to be able to follow all the minute detail he includes about the way in which the codes work and even though I am minded in much the same way as he was, I soon recognised that I didn’t need all the information he was giving me to get the gist of what was really important. If you decide to read the book don’t be put off by all the coding information; you can manage perfectly well without it. And I would strongly recommend that you do read it. The sacrifices of the SOE agents and those who supported them in the U.K. and elsewhere, deserve to be commemorated in the minds and hearts of those who came after. And, as book lovers you will also relish all the mentions of 84 Charing Cross Road, the shop that Leo was intended to take over from his father and a place that he loved with a passion that Helene Hanff was replicate a decade or so later.