Architectural histories: Block C is listed

Three pigeons on a ledge inside Block C at Bletchley Park. Photograph by Rachael Marshall.

Histories is the title of a module taught by Professor Colin Davies at London Metropolitan University's Architecture School that I took a few years ago. Referring to the history of a place, person or idea now seems wrong to me because any account of an event in the past is more revealing of contemporary values and attitudes than those of the time of the subject.

I mention this for two reasons. Firstly, I watched Enigma over Christmas for the first time since I saw it after its release in 2001. Anyone who knows Bletchley Park would spot immediately that the mansion house is not the real one. According to the IMDB this is because "Bletchley Park did not look enough like Bletchley Park to the production company to have been used in the film". More controversially, the main character Tom Jericho's achievements at Bletchley Park are obviously based on those of Alan Turing but Tom, who has a relationship with Kate Winslet's character in the film is not Alan, who despite an engagement to a co-worker, was homosexual. 

Enigma set out to tell a story and was inspired by historical events but not bound by them. I remember reading somewhere that good fictional dialogue is not achieved by writing in the way that people actually speak; to read a section of text written in this way is likely to be dull. Good dialogue needs flow, drama and pauses, but people in conversation meander, interrupt and hesitate. For a complete understanding of the true history of the codebreakers (or any history) perhaps we would have to invent time-travel and revisit not just the moments of drama and intrigue but experience moment-by-moment the painstaking and repetitive hard slog of the decryption process. That would be fascinating for a short time, but not a way to tell an engaging and powerful story. 

I've mentioned before that I think I was aware of the code-breaking activity at Bletchley Park before Enigma was released but for me the film brought to life the seriousness and importance of the work. I happened to watch the film with an IT enthusiast who explained the inaccuracies as soon as it was over, and I expect that these were widely debated in the media back in 2001. The story in Enigma therefore prompted interest in the Bletchley Park historical activities for many people who may not otherwise have heard of it.

I began writing this with the intention of comparing the idea of histories with story-telling and the UK system of listing and preserving certain buildings because Bletchley Park Block C joined the other remaining buildings in being Grade II listed last week. The story of Bletchley Park's buildings continues, and with it the  histories of the codebreakers, wars and education. That's enough about the listing process for now. The pigeons will have a home until funds are raised for the restoration works. 

Work produced by Caroline Devine, Maya Ramsay and myself will be on show in the Milton Keynes Gallery Project Space in May 2012. Details are here.

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