“Jangling caterwauls”: Muriel Spark and the scrambler telephone

Beatriz Lopez explores Spark’s wartime use of a secure telephone and considers the device’s later disturbing reappearance in her novel The Hothouse by the East River (1973)

Successful wartime propaganda depended on a constant supply of reliable and up-to-date intelligence, information which – to guarantee security – British propagandists often received via a scrambler telephone. The Political Warfare Executive (PWE) most likely used a Secraphone or A-3 Scrambler (above), 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.[1] The PWE’s black propaganda supremo Sefton Delmer 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.’[2] Listen to the scrambler telephone here:

However, the instrument relied on outdated technology and could not guarantee secure speech. Unaware to the Allies, 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.’[3] Simultaneously, the mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing was collaborating with Bell Telephone Laboratories to create Sigsaly, the first digitally-encrypted scrambler; unfortunately Sigsaly was only made available to high command, and most government officials continued using Secraphones or A-3 Scramblers during and after the war.[4]

Muriel Spark worked as a Duty Secretary for the PWE from May to October 1944, a role which required use of the scrambler. In her memoir Curriculum Vitae (1992), she describes how its ‘continual jangling noise made interception difficult’, forcing one ‘to listen “through” the jangle.’[5] Spark operated the scrambler to collect nightly information from 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 her boss Sefton Delmer. Aided by photographs, maps and local knowledge, Delmer’s team would use this information to build a realistic reconstruction of damage, which could then be used to fabricate plausible stories.

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’.[7] 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 what she described as her ‘addiction to the telephone’, and representations of this medium would subsequently loom large in her novels.[8]

While Spark’s fictional treatment of media technologies reflects the modernist preoccupation with the relationship between individuals and machines, representations of the telephone in her fiction are also historically contingent, pointing to anxieties about secure speech and electronic surveillance emerging from Second World War intelligence, Cold War surveillance and the Watergate scandal (1972-4).[9]

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.[10] The Hothouse by the East River (1973), for example, presents telephone scrambling as an intelligible activity deployed to satirise the illusory nature of her characters’ hold on reality.

The Hothouse by the East River is the novel which most closely depicts Spark’s work for the PWE. Its central character Elsa works alongside her husband Paul for a secret propaganda organisation during the Second World War; like Spark, Elsa is tasked with transcribing military intelligence, using ‘a special green telephone […] whose connection [was] heavily jammed with jangling caterwauls to protect the conversation against eavesdropping’.[11]

The novel moves between realistic sections describing the couple’s wartime experiences in England and hallucinatory passages describing their ghostly and unreal lives in post-war New York. 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.

In a twist towards the end of the novel, however, we learn that Paul and Elsa both died during an air raid in 1944, and that their children therefore never existed. Paul’s attempts to negate such a reality have led to their present purgatorial nightmare, which Elsa continuously attempts to disrupt – aided and abetted by a telephone. On the phone to his son Pierre, for example,

Paul’s attention is meanwhile eared to the voice at the other end and his free hand stretches forth with a helpless flutter to hush Elsa’s talk, like the hand of that King Canute who forbade the sea to advance in order merely to illustrate the futility of the attempt. “I can’t hear what you say,” says Paul into the mouthpiece. “Your mother’s talking.”[12]

Elsa here conforms to Avital Ronell’s characterization of the schizophrenic as a scrambled telephone line, which allows her to escape from ‘the puerile, reactionary dragnet of psychiatric wisdom’ through ‘structures of disconnection’.[13] By scrambling Paul’s conversation to his imaginary son, Elsa’s voice severs Paul’s fatherhood and forces him to confront the delusory nature of their New York existence. Her seemingly unintelligible speech, rendered as scrambler noise, exposes the artifactual nature of Paul’s myth-making and gives a voice to Elsa’s previously silenced perspective.

The Hothouse by the East River depicts scrambling as a call for reality in a hallucinatory world, which allows the expression of Elsa’s previously suppressed perspective. While the PWE used telephone scrambling as passive noise to support the secure communication of information, Spark adopts it as a fictional method with radical potential for inverting power relations and challenging the status quo in tightly controlled environments.

Beatriz Lopez discusses Spark’s use of the scrambler telephone further at the  Crossed Lines Telepoetics symposium (27 May 2020) – register for online attendance and listen to a podcast of her talk here

Thanks to the Crypto Museum for permission to reproduce the image and sound of the scrambler telephone.


[1] Sheila Mair, ‘Scrambled Phones’, Science Museum Blog, 8th December 2019. https://blog.sciencemuseum.org.uk/scrambled-phones/ (accessed 18/05/2020).

[2] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang: An Autobiography: Volume Two (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), 81.

[3] 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.

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

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

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

[7] Spark, Curriculum Vitae, 153.

[8] Spark, Curriculum Vitae, 163.

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

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

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

[12] Spark, The Hothouse, 46.

[13] Avital Ronnell, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 110.

Discarding history for mythology: Muriel Spark’s mythologizers

Beatriz Lopez explores how Muriel Spark’s foremost mythologizers employ WWII myth-making techniques to impose their delusional understandings of the world on reality.

Sefton Delmer’s second volume of autobiography Black Boomerang (1962) begins in a Frankfurt cinema in 1960. Delmer is watching a wartime thriller which shows the German army arduously fighting both the Allies and the Nazi party, implying that most Germans were really against Hitler. This myth of ‘the good upright patriotic Germans of the Wehrmacht being the bitter enemies of the Nazi Party and the Gestapo’, concocted by the PWE during the Second World War, continued to haunt post-war Germany.[1] Originally designed to destroy Hitler, the myth had been ironically transformed into a vindication of German righteousness, showing the perilous ‘boomerang’ effect resulting from plausible narratives becoming naturalized and accepted as absolute truths.

PWE’s Sefton Delmer

Although myth-making is a practice most often associated with totalitarian regimes, Delmer’s cinematic anecdote demonstrates that this was by no means the case. In fact, the PWE was instrumental in the creation of myths to further the Allied cause, some of which became enacted or tested in reality. The PWE’s black radio station Soldatensender Calais, for example, exploited the feelings of those German officers’ corps leaders who were becoming disenchanted with Hitler’s thirst for war and longed for the establishment of peace with the West: ‘We had been seeking to suggest to them that all they had to do was to overthrow Hitler for us to be ready to start peace negotiations’.[2] To Delmer’s surprise, this offer was taken up by the officers in what became known as the ‘Peace Putsch’, an unsuccessful revolt against Hitler which cost them their lives.[3] Otto John, a survivor of the operation who was later employed by Delmer, reported ‘that [their] broadcasts had indeed been heard by the conspirators, and interpreted in precisely the sense [Delmer] had hoped.’[4]

Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark was part of a generation of post-war novelists who explored the magnetic influence of myth-makers and the ways in which they can lead others to enact dangerous myths in reality. Iris Murdoch’s The Flight from the Enchanter (1956) and John Fowles’ The Magus (1965) exemplify this trend. Yet Spark’s PWE experience informs the myth-making techniques that pervades her oeuvre, particularly in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), The Abbess of Crewe (1974) and The Takeover (1976).

In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, charismatic teacher Miss Brodie embraces an aesthetic understanding of the world, illustrated by her belief that ‘Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first [than Safety]’ and that ‘Art comes first and then science.’[5] Her mythological method of ‘making patterns with facts’[6] resembles that of totalitarian leaders who ‘choose[s] those elements from existing ideologies which are best fitted to become the fundaments of another, entirely fictitious world.’[7] For example, Miss Brodie first introduces her ex-lover as a Robert Burns-like poet before endowing him with the attributes of her new love interests, the art teacher Mr. Lloyd and the music teacher Mr. Lowther: ‘Sometimes Hugh would sing, he had a rich tenor voice. At other times he fell silent and would set up his easel and paint.’[8] Miss Brodie has elected herself to grace as ‘the God of Calvin’ who ‘sees the beginning and the end’[9] and therefore pays no attention to morals when exercising her sense of predestination. Yet Sandy Stranger soon recognizes the failures of her omniscience and the problematic nature of her myth-making.

For instance, Miss Brodie’s plot of Rose sleeping with Mr. Lloyd backfires when Sandy becomes Mr. Lloyd’s lover, leading Sandy to feel ‘more affection for her in her later years […] when she thought upon Miss Brodie as silly.’[10] Miss Brodie also imposes dangerous ‘heroic futures’ on her students; trying ‘to inspire Eunice to become at least a pioneer missionary in some deadly and dangerous zone of the earth’, encouraging Rose to become Mr. Lloyd’s lover on her behalf, and, most alarmingly, ‘urging young Joyce Emily to go to Spain to fight for Franco’ with deadly consequences.[11] On realizing that the end result of Miss Brodie’s plotting is the enactment of the imagination upon reality, Sandy ends up reporting Miss Brodie’s fascism to the headmistress, thereby ‘putting a stop to Miss Brodie.’[12]

Another of Spark’s mythologizers, Sister Alexandra in The Abbess of Crewe, believes that her destiny is to become Abbess. In her attempts to persuade her fellow nuns to support her claim, she propagandistically discards history for mythology:

Here, in the Abbey of Crewe, we have discarded history. We have entered the sphere, dear Sisters, of mythology. My nuns love it. Who doesn’t yearn to be part of a myth at whatever the price in comfort? The monastic system is in revolt throughout the rest of the world, thanks to historical development. Here, within the ambience of mythology, we have consummate satisfaction, we have peace.[13]

In this mythological realm, truth is no longer subject to referential claims. In order to get elected as Abbess and direct attention away from the scandal of Sister Felicity sleeping with a Jesuit, Abbess Alexandra selects those ‘facts’ which are relevant to her point of view in order to craft plausible narratives to suit the occasion. Like Miss Brodie, Abbess Alexandra is a myth-maker who imposes her imagination on others. For example, she forces Sister Gertrude to cope with the story of her having been sent on a mission by the Abbey because ‘[s]he fits the rhetoric of the occasion’[14] and nastily misrepresents Sister Felicity’s ideas of freedom and love when arguing that Felicity ‘wants an open audit of all the dowries and she advocates indiscreet sex.’[15] In doing so, Abbess Alexandra embraces an aesthetic understanding of faith which clashes with Felicity’s down-to-each approach: ‘Felicity will never see the point of faith unless it visible benefits mankind.’[16] Her inability to face reality eventually leads to her potential excommunication by Rome. As Sister Gertrude warns her, mythological garble may suit the media, but ‘[i]n Rome, they deal with realities.’[17] In a final flight from history, Abbess Alexandra is aesthetically rendered as a tape of her selected transcripts, entitled The Abbess of Crewe. She has become ‘an object of art, the end of which is to give pleasure.’[18]

The Takeover opens with Hubert Mallindaine living in a beautiful house by Lake Nemi, property of wealthy American Maggie Radcliffe. In order to gain prestige and power, Hubert has unproblematically accepted his eccentric aunts’ claim that they are in fact the descendants of Goddess Diana of Nemi. Like Abbess Alexandra, Hubert’s belief in the subjectivity of reality leads him to manufacture it for his benefit. Reacting against the ontological realism of the Jesuit priests he encounters, Hubert claims that absolute truths do not exist and therefore ‘[a]ppearances are reality’.[19] Following this principle, Hubert uses his ancestral claim to create a religious cult of Diana and establish himself as high priest. However, when his secretary Pauline inopportunely unearths ‘evidence that his aunts, infatuated by Sir James Frazer and his Golden Bough […] had been in correspondence with the quack genealogist [and] instructed him in the plainest terms to establish their descent from the goddess Diana’, Hubert tenaciously evades this documentary evidence. In doing so, he emphasises the importance of self-confidence in the practice of deception because ‘it frequently over-rides with an orgulous scorn any small blatant contradictory facts which might lead a simple mind to feel a reasonable perplexity and a sharp mind to feel definite suspicion.’[20]

This belief mirrors Hitler’s idea of the ‘big lie’, a falsity so colossal that the masses ‘will not be able to believe in the possibility of such monstrous effrontery and infamous misrepresentation in others.’[21] Hubert’s mythological lineage is blatantly fake, yet it has such aesthetic power that it enchants not only his neighbours, many of which become members of the flock, but the myth-maker himself:

‘[H]e had got into a habit of false assumptions by the imperceptible encroachment of his new cult; so ardently had he been preaching the efficacy of prayer that he now, without thinking, silently invoked the name of Diana for every desire that passed through his head, wildly believing that her will not only existed but would certainly come to pass.’[22]


[1] Sefton Delmer, Black Boomerang: An Autobiography: Volume Two (London: Secker & Warburg, 1962), 11.

[2] Ibid., 120.

[3] Ibid., 121.

[4] Ibid., 121.

[5] Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018), 7; 22.

[6] Ibid., 71.

[7] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Cleveland and New York: Meridian Books, 1958), 361-2.

[8] Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 71.

[9] Ibid., 121.

[10] Ibid., 112.

[11] Ibid., 61; 124.

[12] Ibid., 125.

[13] Muriel Spark, The Abbess of Crewe (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018), 9.

[14] Ibid., 19.

[15] Ibid., 33.

[16] Ibid., 26.

[17] Ibid., 86.

[18] Ibid., 86.

[19]Muriel Spark, The Takeover (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2018), 90.

[20] Ibid., 131-2.

[21] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf [My Struggle] (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1943), 231-2.

[22] Spark, The Takeover, 182-3.

‘L’Entente Cordiale’: D-Day and the literary magazine

Documents of the month: FO 898/521 / FO 898/522

Guy Woodward

As many recollections aired this week have testified, the D-Day landings – which took place exactly seventy-five years ago today – required an enormously technically sophisticated military operation. Aside from the Mulberry Harbours and the Pluto Pipeline however, it is worth remembering that the Allied conquest of Northern France was accompanied and supported by a colossal propaganda campaign – many documents in the PWE archive refer to plans for D-Day and post D-Day propaganda. The archive also contains several examples of leaflets and other printed propaganda for distribution in France after liberation.

British and US propagandists worked closely together on the campaign, which was coordinated by the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) Psychological Warfare Division. According to Caroline Reed over nine million leaflets were dropped on France on 6-7 June 1944 – together with radio broadcasts these brought news of the landings to the occupied and the occupiers, and advised French civilians to leave towns and cities and seek safety in the countryside.

Aside from this operational propaganda however, the PWE and their US counterparts at the Office of War Information (OWI) were working busily on a supplementary programme of cultural publications, including a cluster of little magazines and literary digests intended to foster cultural connections between the Allies and the French.

The archive contains several copies of La Revue du Monde Libre, for example – a little magazine measuring just 11 x 14 cm, which was produced in 1943-44. This carried literary works, essays and reviews by a range of prominent British and French writers including T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, André Gide, Harold Nicolson, and Stephen Spender.

This edition from April 1943 features ‘Un Seule Pensée’, a poem by Paul Eluard, and an essay by Rebecca West on the attitude of the Nazis towards women. The cover features the legend ‘Apportée par la R.A.F.’ – ‘Brought by the RAF’.

By the time of D-Day the magazine had increased in size and the quality of the paper had improved – as mentioned in a previous post, the use of high quality materials, colour and design in printed propaganda was an important means of demonstrating that the Allies were well-resourced at a time of extreme scarcity. Here is La Revue du Monde Libre from July 1944:

This begins with an article reprinted from the British magazine The Economist describing the events of 6 June 1944 – it also features an essay by the Germanophobic diplomat, writer and propagandist Lord Vansittart entitled ‘L’Entente Cordiale’, clearly aimed at fostering friendly Anglo-French relations, and an essay by the historian Christopher Dawson promoting international collaboration to aid post-war reconstruction – this was originally published in the Dublin Review.

So successful was La Revue du Monde Libre that PWE and OWI moved to produce a series of like-minded review digests for European countries which had been liberated. The digest Choix was produced for France from 1944-45 – the cover of the first issue shows how serious-minded a publication it was, featuring a translation of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ by André Gide and other contributions by W.H. Auden, Ernest Hemingway and Federico Garcia Lorca.

As the official historian of the PWE David Garnett observed, these publications aimed to dispel an intellectual and cultural black out resulting from the occupation.[1] Harnessing the writings of some of the most prominent figures in mid-century modernism, La Revue du Monde Libre and Choix also appear to be designed to foster enthusiasm in France for British and American high culture – in this respect these publications perhaps prepared the ground for the later weaponisation of the literary magazine during the Cold War.[2]

Images by kind permission of The National Archives


[1] David Garnett, The Secret History of PWE: The Political Warfare Executive 1939-1945, (London: St Ermin’s Press, 2002), p. 185.

[2] The scandal surrounding covert CIA funding of the literary magazine Encounter (initially edited by Stephen Spender) is addressed by Frances Stonor Saunders in Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London: Granta Books, 2000).