Leo Marks crops up in the oddest corners of the 20th century. The only son of doting Jewish parents, his father owned the bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road, made famous by Helene Hanff’s book. Marks read his Freud (who once visited the shop), wrote a lot of stories and produced the brilliant/notorious script for Peeping Tom, the film about a disturbed young man who kills women with his camera and which virtually destroyed the career of its director Michael Powell in the early 1960s. And look, here’s Marks again, providing the voice of Satan in Powell’s chum Martin Scorsese’s equally notiorious film, The Last Temptation of Christ. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that if you think you don’t want to read Yet Another book about secret codes in WW2, think again. To say that Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker’s War 1941-45 is about just codes is like saying that programmes featuring Charlie Dimmock are just about gardening.
"In January 1942 I was escorted to the war by my parents in case I couldn’t find it or met with an accident on the way," begins Marks’ funny, angry, intriguing account of how, at a very tender age, he ended up working for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the cloak-and-dagger operation set up by Churchill to infiltrate agents into German-occupied countries and "set Europe ablaze". The trouble was that all these agents had to communicate with England by wireless, but that the codes they were using, as Marks quickly figured out, were easy to break.
By his own account, young Marks was an insufferable little smart-alec (he was compiling cryptic crosswords for The Times when still a schoolboy). If, he argued, he could easily break the SOE codes on his own, all based on poems, then all the resources of the German intelligence services wouldn’t find them much of a challenge either. Marks’s job, as head of codes for SOE, was essentially about devising new codes, then persuading the powers-that-be to accept them, then finding the personnel and resources (sheets of silk and labs to photograph the codes onto them – silk was easily sewn into an agent’s clothes and could withstand the most assiduous frisking by German security-checks) to produce them in the huge quantities required.
Marks spent his war sitting at a desk; an anonymous neighbour, seeing him returning to his parents’ home each evening and leaving each morning laden with black market food by his Mama sent him a white feather. When he told his parents (who understood he was some manner of civil servant) that he was to be sent to Cairo for a week, his father left the room. "Now look what you’ve done," said his mother. "He’s gone to get pissed." But his father returned after an hour with a pith helmet, which both parents made him swear he’d wear at all times.
In his Cairo hotel, he got talking with the Jewish American comedian Jack Benny, who persuaded him that being Jewish, he ought to start taking this war – a wonderful chance to fight the greatest anti-Semite of all time – a damn sight more seriously. Marks then told him a funny story about an uncle’s efforts to evade the call-up in WW1 and watched in astonishment as Benny re-told the story, giving a perfect impersonation of the uncle he had never met. "Thank you Jack Benny," he says, "for giving me a month’s holiday in the hour we spent together … And thanks for not being ashamed of being proud of your race. I wish I had the courage to be one of the troops you’re here to entertain."
Marks’s war, though, was anything but a lark. It was part of his job to brief agents on their codes just before they were dropped into enemy territory. Their life-expectancy was pretty low, and their radio transmissions were usually the first thing that gave them away to the Gestapo. Marks carried this responsibility heavily and he remains angry, bitter even, to this day about the bungling and the bureaucratic in-fighting that resulted in so many astonishingly courageous men and women being captured, tortured and executed.
These included his special hero ‘Tommy’ Yeo-Thomas, who was caught late on in the war and endured unbelievable torments because the Gestapo knew that he knew everything there was to know about resistance in France, but who nonetheless managed to escape. Or Noor Inayat Khan, the brilliant daughter of an Indian prince and religious leader; a capable enough wireless operator for the SOE in France, but because of her religion and upbringing she was incapable of telling a lie. Khan died in a concentration camp, as did the most famous SOE agent of all, Violette Szabo, subject of the postwar film, ‘Carve Her Name with Pride’. By late in the war, where agents had to use poem-codes, Marks had decreed that they should at least be originals, as well-known ones could be pieced together by the Germans and the codes broken more easily. Part at least of Szabo’s fame is due to the one he gave her to memorise:
The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.
A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.
Violette Szabo was shot in the back of the head in a concentration camp in 1945, holding the hands of two other SOE agents. More than half a century on, Leo Marks still carries the burden of her fate and that of hundreds of others. For that reason alone, his book demands respectful attention, but there are plenty of others, too. It’s a valuable historical account (most of the official records of SOE have disappeared, probably because MI6 devoted a lot of its energies to destroying SOE rather than Nazism), but it’s also very funny, conveying perfectly the frantic 22-year-old always skating on thin ice and passing off his awesome responsibilities with wisecracks. There’s some interesting bits about codes in there as well, but you can easily skip them if you want.