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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Harris’

I’m near the end of Robert Harris’s early novel Enigmaabout the World War II code breaking operation at Bletchley Park. I’ve stayed with it, but it’s not one of his best. As a thriller, it’s too clunky; the romance is unbelievable; and he doesn’t give you enough geeky detail about the machines or the codes to make them half-comprehensible without doing some extra research. So if you want a historical thriller by Harris I’d recommend Fatherland or Archangel, both of which play with counter-factual history: what if Hitler had won the war, what if Stalin…I won’t say any more!

And this morning I read that they have just discovered a coded message in a Surrey fireplace that was probably on its way to Bletchley Park but never got delivered. It was filed in a small red capsule and attached to a carrier pigeon, sent from Nazi-occupied France on June 6, 1944, during the D-Day invasions. The poor bird possibly got lost or disoriented and stuck in the chimney. You can read the full report by Hannah Furness.

Here is the code, which hasn’t yet been broken:

AOAKN HVPKD FNFJW YIDDC

RQXSR DJHFP GOVFN MIAPX

PABUZ WYYNP CMPNW HJRZH

NLXKG MEMKK ONOIB AKEEQ

WAOTA RBQRH DJOFM TPZEH

LKXGH RGGHT JRZCQ FNKTQ

KLDTS FQIRW AOAKN 27 1525/6

Isn’t it amazing that pigeons were a key part of the war efforts, in this case because there was a radio blackout for the D-Day invasions.

The Royal Pigeon Racing Association believe the bird probably either got lost, disoriented in bad weather, or was simply exhausted after its trip across the Channel.

Due to Winston Churchill’s radio blackout, homing pigeons were taken on the D-Day invasion and released by Allied Forces to inform military Generals back on English soil how the operation was going.

Speaking earlier this month, Mr Martin said: “It’s a real mystery and I cannot wait for the secret message to be decoded. It really is unbelievable.”

It is thought that the bird was destined for the top-secret Bletchley Park, which was just 80 miles from Mr Martin’s home.

The message was sent to XO2 at 16:45. The destination X02 was believed to be Bomber Command, while the sender’s signature at the bottom of the message read Serjeant W Stot.

Experts said the spelling of Serjeant was significant, because the RAF used J, while the Army used G.

Pigeon enthusiasts – commonly known as “fanciers” – have called for Mr Martin’s mysterious military bird to be posthumously decorated with the Dickin Medal; the highest possible decoration for valour given to animals.

The dead pigeon was likely to be a member of the secret wing of the National Pigeon Service – which had a squadron of 250,000 birds during the Second World War.

They can reach speeds of 80mph, cover distances of more than 1,000 miles and are thought to use the Earth’s magnetic fields to navigate.

Secret messages, unbreakable codes, privacy, encryption – it’s all as relevant today as it was in 1944.

As a child I used to love stories about messages being put into bottles on desert islands, cast onto the oceans, and picked up hundreds of miles away. It’s incredible that you make this connection instantaneously now with billions of people through an internet site, a blog post or a Facebook update. A tweet, in effect, is just a message scrawled on a desert island only without the bottle.

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I’m a great fan of the novelist Robert Harris. I got hooked when I read the first three pages of Archangel, and then devoured Fatherland and Pompeii. I’ve only just got round to reading his magnificent Imperium. It’s the story of Marcus Cicero, set in the last years of the Roman Republic, told by his secretary Tiro. And – for the most part – it is true.

Cicero by tonynetone.

Even though I lived in the city for five years, when I was training for the priesthood, I can honestly say that this is the first time ancient Rome has ever come alive for me. Cicero leaps out of the page – a brilliant, ambitious lawyer, full of insecurities and foibles, who longs to climb to the top of Roman politics. There are sublime moments when he comes to the defence of the weaker man against some monstrous injustice. And there are other times when it is clear he will sell almost his soul in order to gain his heart’s desire.

Ancient Rome (Detail) by Alun Salt.

The political campaigns feel as contemporary as the debates in an episode of The West Wing. And all the while – this is a thriller, remember – you are desperate to know what happens next. I had coffee with a friend just after I had finished the book, and he started to tell me what happens in Part II (in the recently published Lustrum), casually recounting a bit of supposedly well-known history. I cut him off quickly, grateful for my ignorance, in case he spoiled the pleasure of reading the next installment.

It’s about power, as it’s title proclaims. And how political power – even with all the idealism and public-spiritedness - will always be inseparable from ambition, money, friendship, vanity, jealousy, favours given, favours expected. This is not cynical – just realistic. The question is how to make this messy and ambiguous reality work – as far as possible – for the common good, and not against it; how to make it serve the cause of justice even as it serves the inevitable ambitions of those involved. There are so many contemporary parallels.

It’s also about writing and making speeches and the agony of facing a deadline with a blank sheet of paper before you. Here is one lovely quotation to end with:

No-one can really claim to know politics properly until he has stayed up all night, writing a speech for delivery the following day. While the world sleeps, the orator paces around by lamplight, wondering what madness ever brought him to this occupation in the first place. Arguments are prepared and discarded. Versions of openings and middle sections and perorations lie in drifts across the floor. The exhausted mind ceases to have any coherent grip upon the purpose of the enterprise, so that often – usually an hour or two after midnight – there comes a point where failing to turn up, feigning illness and hiding at home seem the only realistic options. And then, somehow, under pressure of panic, just as humiliation beckons, the parts cohere, and there it is: a speech. A second-rate orator now retires gratefully to bed. A Cicero stays up and commits it to memory. [Arrow Books, 2007, p. 132]

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