Blacker, Carmen Elizabeth, 1924-2009

by James McMullen

14 Apr 2016

Elected Fellow of the British Academy 1989.

Extract relating to military intelligence work:

For Carmen’s father [Carlos Paton ‘Pip’ Blacker], able to rejoin his old battalion, the war brought ‘one of the happiest periods in my life’.[11] For his elder daughter, it meant entry into the adult world through work in intelligence and a career commitment to the study of Japan. But the war also brought lasting resentment at what she perceived as undervaluation by unimaginative and obstinate men. In 1942, she joined the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and was soon transferred to a special accelerated course in Japanese with a ‘highly secret’ but undisclosed job in view.[12] She was then seconded to Bletchley, the government intelligence institution. Her pay was a paltry £2 a week, explained to her as ‘partly due to my age, 18, and partly due to my being a woman’. Her task was to compile a card index of vocabulary of ‘any words likely to turn up in a decoded message’ from Japanese captured documents and other sources. She remained convinced that she served no useful purpose in the war effort. This ‘uncongenial employment’, it was observed at SOAS, imposed much stress on her.[13] By the beginning of 1945, she had become ‘utterly bored with the work ... and my morale began to weaken’. In February, she ‘contracted an old-fashioned red-flanellist complaint known as a quinsy’ [sc. tonsilitis] and was allowed to go home to recover. Meanwhile, confidential but successful efforts were made to transfer her back to SOAS as Special Lecturer to teach intensive Japanese courses to servicemen. She gave up her Bletchley pass with ‘relief and jubilation’.

Yet this period of her life was not altogether barren. Towards the end of the war through the diplomat John Pilcher (later British ambassador in Tokyo), she met Arthur Waley, already a famous but also notoriously difficult man, of whom it has been commented that ‘[h]is public persona was of extreme shyness that became abrupt rudeness’.[14] Carmen, by her own account,[15] was a girl herself ‘still paralyzed with shyness’ and ‘tongue tied’, when she first met him at his office in the Ministry of Information. Nonetheless, they formed a friendship. Waley encouraged her to learn Chinese. This she did, with texts supplied by Waley, surreptitiously while on duty at Bletchley.

11. C. P. Blacker, Have You Forgotten Yet?, ed. John Blacker (Barnsley, 2000), p. 287. His battalion was now commanded ‘by my old friend Colonel Lionel Bootle-Wilbraham, D.S.O., M.C. (later Lord Skelmersdale)’.
12. This and the following autobiographical quotations regarding Bletchley are from ‘Recollections of temps perdu at Bletchley Park’, in F. H. Hinsley and Alan Stripp (eds.), Code Breakers: the Inside Story of Bletchley Park (Oxford, 1994), pp. 300-5.
13. E. D. Edwards, ‘Letter of Reference’; Somerville College Archive.
14. David Holloway, ‘Waley and his women’ [review of Alison Waley, A Half of Two Lives], The Daily Telegraph, 8 Sept. 1982, p. 14.
15. Quotations from ‘Intent of courtesy: a recollection of Arthur Waley’, first published in Ivan Morris (ed.), Madly Singing in the Mountains: an Appreciation and Anthology (London, 1970); CWCB, pp. 204–9.

(See: List of humanities scholars who worked in military intelligence in the Second World War)

Sign up to our email newsletters