Last week saw the release of The Imitation Game starring man of the moment Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, father of modern computer science. Turing was born in Warrington Avenue, Maida Vale (a Blue Plaque at Number 2 now commemorates this) while Joan Clarke, the cryptographer played by Keira Knightley in the film, was another Londoner.
You can read about them both in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – log in with your library card number – or in some of the excellent recent books on the subject such as The Secret Life of Bletchley Park or Colossus: the Secrets of Bletchley Park’s Code-breaking Computers. Searching the library catalogue for ‘Turing‘ or ‘Bletchley Park‘ brings up a wealth of other fascinating titles for your reading pleasure.
While the mathematical boffins were doing their work in Buckinghamshire, another secret coding operation was going on in Baker Street. This was part of the Special Operations Executive, usually called SOE, a secret organisation formed in July 1940 to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers, and to aid local resistance movements. The SOE headquarters were at 64 Baker Street though they ended up occupying much of the West side of the street.
One of the key activities of the SOE’s London operations was devising safe codes so that their operatives in occupied countries could send messages safely. The head of the coding operations was the remarkable Leo Marks, who wrote about his wartime career in Between Silk and Cyanide: A Code Maker’s War, 1941-45.
Marks was the son of Benjamin Marks, owner of Marks and Co, the antiquarian bookshop later immortalised by Helene Hanff as 84 Charing Cross Road. In his book, Marks gives an interesting insight into what really went on there (for example, Frank Doel, Hanff’s chief correspondent, ran a price-fixing ring with other booksellers).
Marks believed the existing coding system used by the SOE agents was hopelessly insecure being mostly double transposition cyphers based on well-known poems which could be tortured out of captured agents or even recognised by a well-read codebreaker. So his first solution was to use poems he wrote himself.
The most famous of these is The Life that I Have, immortalised in the film Carve her Name with Pride starring Virginia McKenna (based on the book of the same name by r J Minney) about the SOE agent Violette Szabo. There are two splendid monuments to this brave lady in the neighbouring borough of Lambeth, one on the Albert Embankment and another by Stockwell tube station near her childhood home.
Leo Marks’ connection with Westminster continued after the war. In 1960 he wrote the notorious horror film Peeping Tom, directed by Michael Powell, about a young photographer who kills women with a spike attached to his camera and films their deaths. The film caused an outrage at the time – you can read some contemporary reviews in our newspaper archives. Famously, CA Lejeune wrote in The Observer
“It is a long time since a film disgusted me as much as Peeping Tom…I don’t propose to name the players in this beastly picture.”
However, by Mark’s death in 2001, critical opinion had changed and the film is now acclaimed as a cult masterpiece. It was set and partly filmed in Soho and plenty of the locations are still recognisable.