Beatriz Lopez

Muriel Spark and the Scrambler Telephone

Analogue Scrambled Speech © Crypto Museum

WWII Scrambler Phone (SA5063/1 unit) © Crypto Museum

Keywords: Muriel Spark, scrambler telephone, Second World War, intelligence, The Hothouse by the East River, The Abbess of Crewe

[Presentation script]

Full transcripts appearing online for the duration of Telepoetics (27 May – 5 June 2020) have been reduced to excerpts of approx. 750 words.

My name is Beatriz Lopez and I’m a PhD Candidate in English Literature at Durham University. My paper is entitled ‘Muriel Spark and the Scrambler Telephone’.

From May to October 1944, Muriel Spark was employed by the Political Warfare Executive (PWE), a secret service created by Britain during the Second World War with the mission of spreading propaganda to enemy and enemy-occupied countries. PWE propagandists cunningly mixed real facts with believable lies to create ‘disruptive and disturbing news among the Germans which will induce them to distrust their government and to disobey it.’[1] This news was incorporated into radio broadcasts and printed materials which disguised themselves as German even though they originated from Britain. Successful propaganda required reliable and up-to-date intelligence, which often came via a scrambler telephone.

The PWE most likely had access to a Secraphone or A-3 Scrambler, a green painted telephone which used ‘Frequency Domain Scrambling’ – a technique which inverted the frequency of telephone signals – in order to conceal the speakers’ voices.[2] Sefton Delmer, Spark’s boss at the PWE, trusted the scrambler to allow conversation ‘in complete confidence of secrecy, knowing that anyone trying to listen in would hear nothing but a meaningless jumble.’[3] However, the instrument relied on outdated technology and could not guarantee secure speech. In fact, the Allies were unaware that the Germans had already managed ‘to eavesdrop on A-3 using a site on the Dutch coast, and by 1940 had begun to intercept calls between Roosevelt and Churchill that used this system.’[4] Simultaneously, Alan Turing was collaborating with Bell Telephone Laboratories to create Sigsaly, the first digitally-encrypted scrambler; unfortunately, it was only made available to high command and most government officials continued using Secraphones or A-3 Scramblers during and after the war.[5] 

Spark worked as ‘Duty Secretary’ for the PWE, a role which required use of the scrambler. In her autobiography Curriculum Vitae (1992), she describes how its ‘continual jangling noise made interception difficult’, forcing one ‘to listen “through” the jangle.’[6] Spark operated the scrambler to collect nightly information from the returning Allied bombers – ‘the details of the bombing, the number of planes that had gone out and those (not always all) that had returned’ – which she would then pass on to Delmer. Aided by photographs, maps and local knowledge, Delmer’s team would use this information to build a realistic reconstruction of the damage, which could then be used to fabricate a plausible story.[7] Spark was also in charge of picking up another nightly call from the newsroom of the Foreign Office, which provided ‘general news not yet released for the next day’s newspapers’.[8] While the armed forces call remained businesslike, the Foreign Office call ‘would often lapse into the personal’ and soon led to Spark’s friendship with her interlocutor, Colin Methven. Spark’s PWE work arguably triggered her ‘addiction to the telephone’ and representations of this medium would subsequently loom large in her novels.[9]

While Spark’s fictional treatment of media technologies builds on the modernist preoccupation with the relationship between individuals and machines, I argue that her representation of the scrambler telephone is historically contingent, pointing to anxieties about secure speech and electronic surveillance emerging from Second World War intelligence, Cold War surveillance and the Watergate scandal (1972-1974).[10]Unlike modernist fiction, which ‘highlighted the malfunction of telephone as medium’, Spark’s ‘scrambler novels’ of the 1970s draw attention to the ways in which ‘the human factor’ hinders direct voice communication.[11] Through an analysis of The Hothouse by the East River (1973) and The Abbess of Crewe (1974), I suggest that Spark regards telephone scrambling as an intelligible activity deployed to satirise the illusory or absurd nature of her characters’ hold on reality and provide alternative perspectives.

The Hothouse by the East River is the novel which most closely and literally depicts Spark’s work for the PWE. Its central character Elsa, like Spark, was tasked with writing down military intelligence when working in secret propaganda alongside her husband Paul during the Second World War. Her role also involved the use of ‘a special green telephone […] whose connection [was] heavily jammed with jangling caterwauls to protect the conversation against eavesdropping’.[12]The novel moves between the couple’s realistic wartime experiences in England and their hallucinatory lives in post-war New York, which remain shrouded in secrecy. Elsa, whose shadow points in the wrong direction, is described as a cunning schizophrenic whose thinking and behaviour must be policed by her husband and her psychiatrist Garven. However, towards the end of the novel, we learn that Paul and Elsa are mere ghostly presences whose children never existed because they died in a bombed train during the Second World War.

[1] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang: An Autobiography: Volume Two (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), 108.

[2] Sheila Mair, ‘Scrambled Phones’, Science Museum Blog, 8th December 2019. (accessed 18/05/2020).

[3] Delmer, Black Boomerang, 81.

[4] Robert Aldrich, ‘Whitehall Wiring: The Communications-Electronics Security Group and the Struggle for Secure Speech’, Public Policy and Administration 28.2 (2012): 178–95, 185.

[5] Aldrich, ‘Whitehall Wiring’, 185-6.

[6] Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae: A Volume of Autobiography (Manchester: Carcanet, 2009), 152.

[7] Martin Stannard, Muriel Spark: The Biography (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009), 65.

[8] Spark, Curriculum Vitae, 153.

[9] Spark, Curriculum Vitae, 163.

[10] Amy Woodbury Tease, ‘Call and Answer: Muriel Spark and Media Culture’, MFS Modern Fiction Studies 62.1 (2016): 70-91, 72.

[11] David Trotter, Literature in the First Media Age: Britain between the Wars (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 46.

[12] Spark, The Hothouse by the East River (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018), 50.