Thursday, February 26, 2015

A Visit to Bletchley Park

From our usual tube station, located just a few blocks from our hotel, we headed to Euston Station – a “mega” station that encompasses both the underground and long distance rail lines.  Despite the vast setting, we were able to quickly locate ticket concessions (both automated and staffed concessions are provided), and obtain our round trip tickets to Bletchley – some 50 miles north of London.  (We could have used our Oyster Card, but didn’t want to dig too far into our balance.)
 
Soon enough, the city was fading into the distance as we entered London’s version of suburbia, populated largely by row houses with relatively few free standing homes.  Then we were in the country and saw cows and horses.  A little over an hour later, the train pulled into the Bletchley railway station.
 
A messenger's cycle.

Pond at Bletchley Park, with mansion in background

Memorial to the codebreakers.
 
 
Bletchley Park is a mere five minute walk from station, and near an attractive new housing development.  The site was originally a private mansion with extensive grounds which passed through several aristocratic owners before the government purchased it in 1938.  Although some green space remains, today the Park largely consists of buildings constructed during the war (note than when British mention “the war”, it still refers to World War II – some 70 years after its conclusion), with the main mansion located further up the property.  The “huts” in which the codebreakers toiled to break the Germans’ “unbreakable” Enigma code were primitive even by the standards of the 1930s-1940s.  Despite their hard work, they made slow progress until Alan Turing created his code breaking “bombe.”  Turing’s original machine was dismantled immediately after the war’s end.  But a working replica has been created.
 
video
 
 
I will not pretend to understand the details of how the bombe actually worked, but it was somehow able to decipher how the rotors in the Enigma machine were set (the Germans changed the settings daily), and use that information to decrypt the messages.  Watching the machine in action, I couldn’t help wondering what Turing, who died in 1954 – apparently a suicide – would make of our computer driven era, with instant connectivity and real time communications.  Even more, I thought of how Turing suffered under the repression of the era, and how the Western world has evolved to the point that I could bring my same-sex spouse to Bletchley Park, how we could walk the streets of London hand-in-hand, with no one so much as batting an eye.
 
Alan Turing (photo: Wikipedia)

The letter of apology (right-click to open at full size)
 
Much has been rightly made of the fact that the British government issued an apology to Alan Turing, and Queen Elizabeth II’s subsequent pardon of him.  Now there is a movement underway to formally pardon all those who were prosecuted under the UK’s anti-homosexual laws.  I support this movement, and I welcome how both the United States and the United Kingdom continually reexamine their own histories.  In the 1980s, the US Government offered a formal apology and reparations for families who suffered under Japanese-American internment during World War II.  And although racial, religious, and sexual prejudice continues to be a problem here, there are very few who would defend our ancestors’ treatment of Native Americans, and almost no one who would dare to speak in favor of slavery, lynching, or the KKK.  We Americans are unafraid to air our dirty laundry, and it appears the British share this same trait.  Contrast that with many other nations, in particular Japan, which continue to deny some of the most savage crimes against humanity committed in the wake of their nationalistic movements.  No nation’s history is devoid of stains.  Redemption is gained not by whitewashing, but by facing up and making restitution.
 
While at Bletchley Park, we saw a group of school children on a field trip.  This was one of several groups we saw during our trip, who were invariably better behaved than their American counterparts.  With all the talk of Common Core and teacher pay in America, I believe we also need to look to the parents –who should be the ultimate guide in teaching their children good manners.  From what I observed, we could learn a lot from the British.

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