Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Obscure? No, authenticity, Englishness, Enigma, Liberalism are all connected

Years ago, I was having lunch with my then American publisher who asked me – as American publishers tend to do – what I wanted to do with my life from then on. I said I wanted to write as many books as I possibly could.

I thought he would be pleased by this, but he wasn't. “Why quantity?” he asked. It was a good question.

I mention this because a number of people have mentioned to me over the past week (thank you, Simon!) that they were surprised at the range of subjects I was writing about.  I know they meant well, but it is rather a sensitive subject. The publishers certainly hate it. The bookshops prefer neat categorisations, and there is just a hint, the merest hint, that maybe I am dashing the things off in some way.

The thing is that, as far as I'm concerned, everything I write about is connected. It's just that, often, I'm the only one who can see how. So I thought I would maybe try people's patience with a blog post trying to explain how.

I have had two books published this month, both the result of literally YEARS of work. One is How to be English, which derives from a growing interest in culture, Englishness and class - and my own obsession with teaching my own children about their roots.

I wrote two non-fiction books which fed into this one – Broke (about the struggling middle classes) and Authenticity about the new way we were increasingly searching for a complex and, in some ways, problematic ideal.

With me so far? So how did I also end up publishing Operation Primrose, subtitled, ‘U110, the Bismarck and the Enigma Code'?

The answer is that I first became interested in Alan Turing when I was writing Authenticity, and because I was increasingly interested and critical of the Turing Test when I wrote about the future of organisations in The Human Element, with what I regarded as a healthy scepticism about IT systems in public services.

Turing himself, I think, would have understood this concern, but I'm not sure his true believers do. So I wrote a short biography of Turing which was published early last year.

Writing about Turing took me seamlessly into writing about Enigma, and I've always been passionate about naval history. But Operation Primrose in some ways brings me full circle.

Because once you put the Enigma cryptographers back into context, and realise that Turing, Knox and their colleagues were in hour by hour conflict with Wilhem Tranow and his colleagues at Bletchley's German rivals B-Dienst – and that Tranow succeeded in cracking the British wartime naval code as early as 1935 – you then start wondering about the really big question.

Which is this: why did one side win and one side, despite these huge advantages, lose?  It seems unlikely to have been greater courage, especially given the fatality rate among the U-boat crews. Why did one side’s systems of intelligence and code-breaking win out in the end? Why did democracy trump the so-called efficiency of technocracy?

And the answer it seems to me has lessons for us now – because systems which share knowledge tend to win out over systems which hoard it. Informal systems tend to win out over formal ones. Sceptical ones prepared to tolerate difficult people asking difficult questions tend to win out over systems that tend to blame every setback on traitors.

In the end, the real story of Enigma raises questions about political and organisational structures that are very relevant to today. That's why I wrote the book. See what you think.

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