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Documenting the quest to track down everything written by (and written about) the poet, translator, critic, and radio dramatist, Henry Reed.

An obsessive, armchair attempt to assemble a comprehensive bibliography, not just for the work of a poet, but for his entire life.

Read "Naming of Parts."

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Henry Reed, ca. 1960


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I Capture the Castle: A girl and her family struggle to make ends meet in an old English castle.
Dusty Answer: Young, privileged, earnest Judith falls in love with the family next door.
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«  Boffins and Debs  »

Reeding Lessons: the Henry Reed research blog

17.10.2017


Boffins and Debs

I devoured a small book this evening: Bletchley Park People, by Marion Hill. It was everything Codebreakers (previously blogged here) was not. Where Codebreakers is a technical, scholarly work — dry at times, and impersonal — Bletchley Park People is a collection of warm, human stories from the people who helped break the Axis codes during World War II.

I took waaaaay too much time to read Codebreakers. The book is mostly recollections by cryptanalysts and engineers, and it's full of diagrams of letter squares and bigrams, cribs, relays, and circuits. It was my laundry day reading: I used it as a shield behind which I remained invisible, while sitting in the laundromat, watching my shirts and slacks tumble in the dryer. The only truly useful fact I gleaned from all those loads of laundry was that the Italian Naval Section at Bletchley was absorbed by the Japanese Section after the Italian armistice on September 8th, 1943. Which would explain how Reed, fluent in Italian, ended up teaching Japanese to Wrens for the remainder of the war.

Bletchley Park People, on the other hand, is a collection of more than 200 accounts made by the heart and soul of the codebreaking operation: Wrens and WAAFs, Colossus-tenders and signal-interceptors, lorry drivers and couriers. At its high point in 1945, Bletchley Park had over 2,000 support staff. At a mere 144 pages, laced with poems, cartoons, sketches and photographs, I read it cover to cover in a little more than two hours.

There's no narrative or attempt at storytelling, but the book is broken up into chapters on specific topics, comprised of managable chunks of quotations taken from transcripts and interviews with former Bletchley residents. There's sections on the working conditions, lodgings, food and entertainment, and the atmosphere of secrecy. The stories are personal and anecdotal. Most memorable were the poor ladies who found themselves lodged in cold, damp quarters, and who were forced to hang their freshly-washed underwear on clotheslines strung up over running Colossus computers to dry.

The prefixing author's note warns that "Many accounts have been amalgamated to give a composite picture of what life was like then." This is where I had problems with Hill's book. While the idea of creating a composite might work when telling a fictionalized history from one character's point of view, Bletchley Park People is mostly made of of long, unattributed quotes. There is a complete list of sources' names included as an appendix, but no way to know who said what. Several times I found myself paging back through the book, trying to put two quotes I thought were from the same person together. There is no index.

By far, the best thing about this book are the pictures. Where Codebreakers had mostly diagrams, and the requisite photographs of Bombe machines and Colossus, People is like a family photo album. There are pictures of folks on picnics and taking breaks, posing and mugging for the camera; wartime shots of the Bletchley mansion grounds, Milton Keynes, and the railway station; even cast photographs from plays put on by the drama club. We're even privvy to the handwritten inscriptions on the reverse. (Incidentally, Flickr has a bunch of pictures of the Bletchley Park museum, as it is today.)

I ordered the book sight unseen, in the hopes it might contain a reminiscence of Reed's time at Bletchley. There is a chapter, "Boffins and Debs," which contains stories about some of the more memorable characters who were stationed at Bletchley: the "boffins" being the somewhat eccentric academic dons and mathemeticians, geniuses who worked in their pajamas and (mis)behaved the way only absent-minded professors can. To my delight (and slight dismay), in this chapter there appears:
‘I worked with Henry Read [sic], the poet who wrote the fine poem "The Naming of Parts".’ (p. 63)
No attribution, although it certainly came from one of the sources belonging to The Bletchley Park Trust Archives.


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Notation for "Boffins and Debs":
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What is Henry Reed's first name?

1513. Hodge, Alan. "Thunder on the Right." Tribune (London), 14 June 1946, 15.
Hodge finds 'dry charm as well as quiet wit' in "Judging Distances," but overall feels Reed is 'diffuse and not sufficiently accomplished.'



1st lesson:

Reed, Henry (1914-1986). Born: Birmingham, England, 22 February 1914; died: London, 8 December 1986.

Education: MA, University of Birmingham, 1936. Served: RAOC, 1941-42; Foreign Office, Bletchley Park, 1942-1945. Freelance writer: BBC Features Department, 1945-1980.

Author of: A Map of Verona: Poems (1946)
The Novel Since 1939 (1946)
Moby Dick: A Play for Radio from Herman Melville's Novel (1947)
Lessons of the War (1970)
Hilda Tablet and Others: Four Pieces for Radio (1971)
The Streets of Pompeii and Other Plays for Radio (1971)
Collected Poems (1991, 2007)
The Auction Sale (2006)


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