I Spy Bletchley Park by George Stratford
BLETCHLEY PARK IN PERIL : Deeply embittered by the government’s seizure of her financially ruined father’s Buckinghamshire estate, Lady Margaret Pugh swears revenge on all those in Westminster. With World War II looming, Hermann Goering then makes her an irresistible offer if she will agree to spy for him. Before long, the many curious comings and goings at nearby Bletchley Park capture Margaret’s attention. And as she starts putting all of the pieces together, so Britain’s most vital war secret becomes increasingly in peril of a devastating bombing raid. In response to this suspected threat, a young working-class WAAF is thrust untrained into the world of counter-espionage. Thanks to a prodigious musical talent, Betty Hall is uniquely placed to infiltrate Margaret’s private life. But matters suddenly escalate, and the fate of Bletchley Park soon hangs entirely on Betty becoming ever more deeply and dangerously involved. With countless lives at stake, two most determined women find themselves fighting a very private war.
Q) For the readers, can you talk us through your background and the synopsis of your new novel?
A) Some time ago I wrote a fictional tribute (BURIED PASTS) to my Canadian father who was a pilot with RAF Bomber Command. He was killed whilst on his 28th mission when I was just six weeks old. That proved to be very cathartic, so for my new novel I decided that I should pay the same kind of literary tribute to my mother, who served as a WAAF at Bletchley Park for two years during WWII. I SPY BLETCHLEY PARK is the result.
A great deal has been written and filmed about BP, but with a theme almost always centring on the codebreakers themselves. Given the priceless nature of their work, this is perfectly understandable. At the same time, there were huge numbers of less featured people (mostly female) providing priceless support to the ‘stars of the show’, especially the WAAFs and WRENs stationed there. Surely, I reasoned, it was time for a compelling story to be written featuring one of these in a heroic role.
Step forward Mum, or in this case, my fictional WAAF Betty Hall.
Q) Can you talk us through the journey from idea to writing to publication?
A) With my main protagonist already in place, the next thing I needed was of course someone to provide the opposition and conflict. In this case, a spy threatening to expose the secret of Bletchley Park to the enemy. That gave birth to Lady Margaret Pugh.
I’m very much a ‘pantster’ when it comes to writing novels, and in the process of creating Margaret, I soon found her taking over the vast majority of the opening chapters. “Hey, move aside. This is Betty’s novel,” I was tempted to shout on several occasions, but I allowed her to have her head anyway. And I’m so glad I did. There’s something uniquely fascinating about putting together a well fleshed out baddie. Especially when they are many long streets away from being all bad. In fact, as the story building process accelerated from a canter into a full-on gallop to the finishing post, I found that I had a far blacker villain in Richard Forest/Forst for readers to boo and hiss at.
As for research, following a visit to the current Bletchley Park site, I was fortunate enough to encounter John Bladen, one of the dedicated volunteers regularly working there. Via telephone conversations and emails, he then continued to supply me with a host of invaluable information and advice on numerous matters of detail. Every question I threw at him was answered in full, and nothing was ever too much trouble. I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.
During the writing, I sent files of two or three chapters at a time to people I know to gauge their reaction. Their feedback proved highly useful, especially remarks concerning female psyche. Ruth Maxwell Greenwood was especially helpful in this area. With the novel finally completed, I then sent PDFs of the full story to people who I knew for certain would be brutally truthful in their opinion. No polishing of egos from these guys. Good reviews from those who just want to be kind, although well intentioned, would have been no help at all at this stage.
With a big thumbs-up from 95% of the selected ‘brutal ones’, I then jumped aboard the same old agent submission trail yet again. But this time bursting with confidence. This novel, I felt certain, had everything that these self-appointed gatekeepers to publishing’s Chosen Land could wish for. Indeed, one very major agency stated quite openly that I SPY BLETCHLEY PARK indeed ‘stood out’ from the many they receive. I take it they meant this in a favourable way. That said, no request for further reading was made. The same could be said for the dozen or so others I approached as well.
In a slightly ironic twist, my mother used to type all of the manuscripts for prolific best-selling author John Creasy way back in the 1950s and 60s. Mr Creasy collected an acknowledged world record of 743 rejection slips before going on to publish nearly 600 books under 25 pseudonyms and achieve worldwide sales in excess of 80 million. Oh yes, and he also founded the renowned British Crime Writers Association. That’s true inspiration! That’s why, even at 75 years old and after literally decades of agent rejections, it’s still my mission in life to keep battering away in an attempt to break down those traditional publishing walls. Meanwhile, my current books can continue doing the talking for me as KDP releases. Whatever else you may think of Amazon and their self-published titles, at least they have provided readers with the opportunity to judge each work put out there for themselves and comment publicly on it.
One thing is for certain. Seeing those five-star reviews against your novel and knowing that those readers have thoroughly enjoyed it is by far the most rewarding feeling of all. Even if the lit agents don’t agree with them.
Q) What are your favourite authors and recommended reads?
A) There are many authors I’ve enjoyed spending some time with, but Ken Follett and Stephen King are the two that I currently look forward to sitting down with most of all. Thank goodness they are both prolific.
Ken Follet’s historical novels, be they set during WWII or way back in the Middle Ages, are always a great read. And so well researched as well. The Kingsbridge series starting with PILLARS OF THE EARTH is a fine example of the latter, while THE EYE OF THE NEEDLE is WWII fiction at its very best. In a more modern era, THE HAMMER OF EDEN is one of my favourites. If my own writing style has subconsciously been influenced by anyone, it is most probably Mr Follett.
As for Stephen King, my opinion that he was largely a writer of supernatural and horror stories was absolutely blown away when I first read his 2012 work, MR MERCEDES. Although still written in his own easily identifiable style, this is pure crime and detective fiction. So too is the second book in the trilogy featuring retired detective Bill Hodges, FINDERS KEEPERS. Only in the concluding novel, END OF WATCH, does the theme stray back slightly into Mr King’s previously established ground. And even then, it seems to fit in seamlessly.
Q) What were your childhood/teenage favourite reads?
A) After moving on from the usual comics of the time such as the Eagle and the Hotspur, I soon became an enormous fan of the JUST WILLIAM books. For me, Richmal Crompton captured perfectly the essence of a spirited 11 year-old boy of the time. No real electronic gadgets for William or the other kids of that era; entertainment was nearly all in the imagination. Master Brown could quite easily manufacture an invisibility cloak out of an old sheet, or perhaps a futuristic ray gun that turned people into blancmange from a stick and a couple of empty tin cans.
I was at first absolutely astonished when I discovered that the author was in fact a woman. How could Miss Crompton possibly have such a deep understanding of what made William tick? I wondered. How was she able to make him so utterly believable? Only later did I fully realise that, apart from a huge dollop of writing talent, the answer almost certainly lay in an ever-alert eye and ear whenever in the company of young ones. Or to give it another name, plain old-fashioned research.
Q) What has been your favourite moment of being a published author?
A) My first published novel was a paperback titled IN THE LONG RUN. It was released by Citron Press in 2000, when I was working as a copywriter at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising in Charlotte Street, London.
The International Chairman of Saatchi at that time, Alan Bishop, so enjoyed the novel that he arranged a launch party for me at the company’s in-house pub, the Pregnant Man. Former world record holder for the mile and current BBC athletics presenter, Steve Cram, was sent an advance copy and he too was enthusiastic. So much so, he offered to write a foreword for the book, and agreed to be guest of honour at the official launch.
It was a truly magical evening, packed to the rafters and with many old friends from my days back in Bournemouth coming up to attend. The novel very quickly went on to sell like those often-cited hot cakes. It was sitting solidly at number one in Citron’s best-selling list, and I was able to walk in and see it sitting on the shelves of Europe’s largest book store, Waterstones in Piccadilly. I was indeed living in my own little dream world for a short time.
The news that Citron Press had gone into liquidation burst my bubble big-time. Worse still, after the main creditors had been paid, there would be no royalties for any of the company’s authors.
Yup! What goes up certainly does come crashing back down again. But nobody can take away from me that magical evening in the Pregnant Man. It will live with me for the rest of my life. I can never thank Alan Bishop enough for that. You are a true gentleman, sir.
Q) Who has been your source of support/encouragement, throughout the writing process?
A) No one individual had been with me throughout. A good number of years ago when I was still trying to get IN THE LONG RUN published, I did meet up with Frederick E Smith (author of the 633 SQUADRON novels) two or three times at his house. He was extremely kind and helpful, especially as I had just knocked on his door out of the blue like a cold calling salesman on the first visit. He even provided me with tea and biscuits.
Another fine gentleman, to be sure.
Other than that, I think I should refer you back to the second question here. Although we never actually met, John Creasy and his sheer determination to fulfil his dream of becoming a best-selling author is still a constant source of encouragement. Mum spoke of him quite often, and I feel like I almost knew him well. In a final strange twist, Mr Creasy died on June the 9th – the same date as my birthday.