John Bishop was one of the few hundred young men specially selected post-war by the Royal Navy to do their National Service as Coders (Special), a group trained as Russian linguists and employed in northern Germany to listen to Soviet radio circuits. His reminiscences here take the form of a long (33 pp) and very personal poem, originally composed in the early 2000s and in part triggered by finding various memorabilia tucked away in a drawer.
"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there", wrote LP Hartley in ‘The Go-Between’. Published in 1953, he was referring to the world half a century earlier. Pretty much the same time gap is reflected in P/M940872: the 1950s were indeed another country, with the Cold War, National Service, Rosebay Willow Herb on the bomb sites, steam trains, smog, and, by our standards, general dowdiness. This poem brilliantly captures this. Its echoes of that time will stir anyone of that age, by no means confined to the author’s immediate naval experience. It certainly worked for me, bringing up bizarre memories of the RN’s Home Fleet’s visit to Leningrad which was the precursor to the Ordzhonikidze’s trip to Portsmouth which took place during Bishop’s watch, and which introduced me to the general paranoid ghastliness of the Soviet system, itself a quarter of a century receded into history.
The whole eavesdropping operation was very secret and not the business of the rest of the Navy. Not until quite recently did I discover that I had twice, briefly, served with an officer who had carried out tip and run trips in the Baltic so that Bishop and his colleagues should have something to listen to.
The ode itself is presented and topped with an introduction, and tailed with a glossary of explanations, by Tony Cash whose ‘The Coder Special Archive’, which I reviewed in 2013, covers the Coder Specials’ work and experiences in detail.
I enjoyed this enormously; for those later born, here is a time machine.