All the best adventure stories have a catalyst - the defining moment that provides the spark that ignites the fuse that blows the plot wide open. For my adventure, the turning point was 3rd February 2009.
It began on the social networking site Twitter, which had been around for about 2½ years at this point, and was rapidly gaining in popularity. The magic tweet came from the British actor Stephen Fry - he was trapped in a lift (or an elevator, if you’re on the other side of the pond) at Centrepoint in London, and posted a photo of himself and his fellow captives in the hope that Twitter would help to rescue them. If you’ve never used Twitter, this is the kind of thing that makes it all kinds of wonderful.
Since July 2008 I had been campaigning to save Bletchley Park, the site north of London where secret codebreakers did their mysterious work during World War II. Mine was only the most recent campaign to save it – hundreds of other enthusiasts and veterans had been working for nearly twenty years to prevent it being bulldozed to make way for housing estates and supermarkets. Yet despite the historical significance of the site and the extraordinary work that took place here, lack of funding was leaving its future hanging perilously in the balance.
The secret to any campaign is raising awareness, and I was always looking for opportunities to find people who could help me spread the word about Bletchley Park’s situation – essentially operating on a financial knife edge with no government funding. So when I saw the picture of poor Stephen stuck in a lift, no doubt hoping none of his fellow detainees had eaten cabbage today, my first question was “Does Stephen Fry care about Bletchley Park?”
So I Googled:
Several hits appeared revealing a quote from a few months previously:
Fabulous! Stephen Fry knew and cared about Bletchley Park. It was definitely a spark, and one worth pursuing. After all, he was trapped in a lift. What better way to avoid uncomfortably polite conversation with strangers than to check his Twitter feed?
I’d quite recently discovered Twitter and was beginning to appreciate its potential for campaigning and spreading the word. I went to www.twitter.com on my PC, searched for @StephenFry, and sent him a direct message (DM).
There is a limit of 140 characters on a tweet or a DM, which isn’t very many when you’re trying to catch the attention of a celebrity stuck in a lift. He also had 220,000 followers at this point, so what was the chance he would spot my message in amongst the messages of sympathy and fart jokes? But I figured it was worth a try, so I split my message into three DMs and crossed my fingers that he would see them:
Hi Stephen, I’m campaigning to save Bletchley Park. It would be really wonderful if you could tweet about them to raise awareness of their plight.
The work down there by 10k people shortened WW2 by 2 years, possibly saving 22mill lives. They have no govt funding and need money.
Please help by drawing attention to them, I’m sure that if you tweeted it would make a real difference. Thank you so much.
If Stephen tweeted about Bletchley Park, it would show in the Twitter timeline of 220,000 people. A bigger spark, and one that could make all the difference.
It was getting late, so I went to bed wondering whether Stephen would see my messages – he must get so many requests every day, would he see mine? And if he did, would he respond? I knew he was interested in and cared about Bletchley Park, and had spoken to the press about their situation. Would he lend his support to my campaign? *
*I confess his unfortunate lift predicament wasn’t foremost in my mind, but I’m reliably informed he was freed shortly thereafter.
The next morning I packed my daughter off to school and checked by emails. No response, until around 11am when I received an email from Twitter:
@StephenFry has DMed you
@StephenFry has mentioned you in a tweet
The message from Stephen read:
“Have posted link and so forth. Hope it does some good!”
So I checked my @Dr_Black mentions on Twitter:
It was all incredibly exciting - Stephen had tweeted about my savingbletchleypark.org blog, and pointed people to the petition to save Bletchley Park on the UK Government’s e-petition website. It was more than I could ever have hoped for.
Within minutes, hundreds of people had retweeted his message, and my Twitter ID @Dr_Black had trended on Twitter. I found out the next day that I had 8,000 hits on my Save Bletchley Park blog that day, instead of the usual 50. On that day, @Dr_Black was the most retweeted ID on Twitter, followed by Stephen Fry.
After I had had a cup of tea and calmed down a bit, I checked my email again. It was full of emails from people all over the world asking me about my campaign to save Bletchley Park and offering their support.
So the fuse that would ignite this particular leg of the Bletchley Park story was lit, by a very kind actor and author trapped in a lift in London on a chilly night in February 2009. The story begins, however, 70 years beforehand, when Alan Turing and his fellow codebreakers moved into Bletchley Park. Their extraordinary work would be the biggest catalyst to the one of the most important stories ever told.
Over the past 21 years, the battle to save Bletchley Park has been long and hard fought, by some of the most remarkable and dedicated people I have ever met. This is their story, my story, and the story of the extraordinary people who helped Britain to win the war.