My first lunch after lockdown took place in the attractive surroundings of the Ognisko Polskie restaurant in South Kensington. The sun was shining and the railways weren’t working, all of which signalled something close to a return to normal. The occasion was a special one: I was being granted the honour of the ‘Krzyżem Kawalerskim Orderu Zasługi Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej’, which for anyone not in the know means the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland. I haven’t been given anything like that before, so in every sense the occasion was extraordinary.
A few years ago I wrote a book about the breaking of the Enigma cipher, which tells the back-story of what happened before Bletchley Park. The cipher was originally broken by Polish codebreakers in the early 1930s, and it was only because of their generous gift of information and know-how that the Enigma team at Bletchley – famously including Alan Turing – were able to make such rapid progress in the early days of World War II. It was for bringing the story of the Polish effort in breaking Enigma to a wider public that the honour was given. Writing a book is something which hardly merits something like a Knight’s Cross though. What I did is a tiny thing and insignificant when measured against the successes and travails of the codebreakers themselves. They not only broke the most difficult cipher of its age, but then through their generosity of spirit, the unlocking of the Enigma secret was shared with Poland’s Allies; and through their bravery under interrogation the success was kept secret for the duration of the war. So I reckon that to accept the honour given by the Republic of Poland is more a tribute to them than to me.
It was generous of the Polish Embassy staff not only to put the process for the award in motion but also to take time out for the small ceremony at Ognisko Polskie. The timing was difficult because the Embassy was in the throes of managing the run-off of the recent Polish presidential election, which meant they were all rushed off their feet dealing with the ballots of the large Polish population in Britain. Within a few days, it was announced that Andrzej Duda had won a second term as president.
Some people have suggested that accepting an award, like my Knight’s Cross, of which the authentication certificate is signed by Mr Duda, is wrong because the policies of the current Polish Government are illiberal. Whatever your views on those policies (and my own are no secret) this idea is itself wrong. In the first place, I don’t think it appropriate to interfere (even if such a thing were anything other than laughable) in current Polish politics. My book has only one modern-era political sentiment, which is that international cooperation is a good thing. But perhaps more importantly the suggestion that the award is tainted misses the point altogether. It’s like Alan Turing’s ‘Royal Pardon granted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’: the role of the Head of State in these things is ceremonial, not political or personal. I’m not ashamed of receiving something from the Republic of Poland, a country in which I have many friends and for which I have much affection, and Mr Duda is its duly elected Head of State. On the contrary, I’m highly conscious of the honour done to me, and grateful to all those who thought of nominating me for it.
At the end of World War II, various senior people from Bletchley Park were given awards by the United Kingdom. They included Alan Turing, who was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Recognising that he was but a small cog in a large machine, and that bigger gongs went to the bigger guys, he didn’t think the award was particularly important, and he is said to have kept his medal in his tool-box. These days worthy people receive OBEs happily even though the ‘British Empire’ is an anachronistic and somewhat embarrassing subject. We can over-think the symbology; personally, I won’t keep my Knight’s Cross in my tool-box.