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March - the month for women's history

And what a history we have to share with you this week. Our sincere thanks to Rhian Tracey for the following fascinating and insightful Blog and for the tease regarding Official Secrets she leaves as a cliffhanger for us.

Seven years ago, when my daughter was in Year 6, her class visited Bletchley Park as they were studying World War Two, in history, as part of the National Curriculum. My great-aunt Audrey, had in recent years accidentally, and very dramatically, revealed that she worked at Bletchley Park during the war, and so, I volunteered to join the school trip, as a parent helper, keen to find out more if possible. 

Our family didn’t know much about great-aunt Audrey’s work at Bletchley Park because she’d signed the Official Secrets Act; she’d been terrified, as a young seventeen-year-old, into keeping the secret for life. Despite reassurances from the family that the information had been declassified by the government, there were only a handful of times when she forgot herself and let some absolute gems slip, which our family fell upon. Overall, Audrey was very much a closed book on the matter, which of course, piqued my curiosity even more.

Walking around Bletchley, counting (and recounting!) the eight or so children who were my responsibility for the day, I couldn’t help but picture her and the other seven thousand or so women who worked there, walking in and out of the huts, having lunch by the lake or working into the night trying to break codes before the Enigma machine reset itself every twenty-four hours. After looking Audrey up on the Roll of Honour, I knew there were enough seeds to sow a story with and so I spent the return journey back to school scribbling in my notebook, surrounded by curious faces. After I explained what I was doing, the children shared their own ideas about what makes a good spy story, and why Bletchley Park was the perfect setting for a series. They were kind enough to share with me their list of demands; the children should be in charge not the adults, there must be animals, and a mystery to solve. It became the perfect recipe.

I wrote the majority of I, Spy, during lock down and was lucky enough to have a captive audience in my three children, and a Medical Detection Dog puppy, to test my chapters out on; a sleepy puppy is an excellent listener. There is of course, no harsher critic than a primary school aged child with a short attention span, and two teenagers with social media at their fingertips, but their constructive criticism was invaluable. And when they let me take my turn on our shared laptop, for a few hours, I wrote feverishly, much in the same way as I imagine the code breakers worked, under timed conditions, cut off from the rest of the world, against the backdrop of lifechanging, historical events. I became fully immersed in Robyn, Mary, and Ned’s world, as the theatre of World War Two played out, in fact, it was hard to leave, which is why I went on to write Hide and Seek.  

Bizarrely, I had the idea for Hide and Seek, eight years before I started writing I, Spy. As a National Trust Writer in Residence, my children spent A LOT of time visiting properties across the country. One day, during the VERY LONG summer holidays, I took them to Upton House in Warwickshire. Upton House had no family connection, and I knew little about its owners, but during our day there, I stumbled upon a connection with Wales. Lord and Lady Bearsted, the owners of Upton House, had one of the finest private art collections in the country and as trustees of the National Gallery, they were aware of the plan to empty the National Gallery and hide the collection during the war, to preserve our national treasures. Winston Churchill decreed: "Hide them in caves and cellars, but not one picture shall leave this island." An exhibition in the house caught my eye, particularly a box stamped with the words: National Gallery Staff investigating using Blaenau Ffestiniog slate quarry as a store. I am drawn to social histories and my natural nosiness told me there was a story here, an untold mystery and a secret history, two of my favourite things! Once again, I filled a notebook, while keeping an eye on my children, who were equally as curious as me but also wanted to go back outside and climb more trees, which was understandable.

I came away from Upton, intrigued by a place called Manod, which I knew I’d passed through on a school trip to Blaenau Ffestiniog, to go down the big pit (are you even Welsh if you haven’t been down a big pit?). I mentally bookmarked Manod as something to return to, which I did, eventually! I wrote about many different women in history in Hide and Seek, notably scientist Miriam Rothschild, pianist Dame Myra Hess and the artist and suffragette, Lily Delissa Joseph; these Jewish women deserve to be remembered and their stories told and I’m so pleased that I was able to include them in Hide and Seek. After much research and visits, and phone calls with family, and friends of family, and more digging about Audrey’s story, as well as a happy discovery whilst listening to the Bletchley Park podcast about a train coming through the brickyard with an enormous and priceless painting on its way to Wales, Hide and Seek is published! And just a few months after its publication, my youngest son, who is in Year 8, will visit Bletchley Park, as part of the maths curriculum and the history curriculum; it’s fair to say that no one could blame him for feeling that he could give the guided tour himself as I’ve taken him there so many times!

To celebrate the fact that March is Women’s History Month, I have a secret to share: One of the most exciting and dramatic reveals about Audrey’s story is on its way! Unfortunately, any further details are classified, (imagine I have signed the Official Secrets Act) but watch this space for another Bletchley Park Mystery!

Our thanks to Rhian Tracey, Bonnier Publicist Pippa Poole and Rhian's great aunt Audrey for inspiring I Spy and Hide and Seek, two amazing stories which you can buy from all good bookshops.


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