Beatriz Lopez

Muriel Spark’s Wireless Imagination: Propaganda Broadcasting and the Muddled Voices of Fiction

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. At Milton Bryan, Spark learnt to operate a scrambler telephone to collect intelligence, which would then be used for crafting plausible stories to be broadcasted to the enemy over the air. Assisted by the Aspidistra radio transmitter, PWE propagandists would intrude on the frequencies of German radio stations in order to disguise their transmissions as German even though they originated from Britain. Drawing on the history of PWE broadcasting (including archival sources from the PWE Papers and the Imperial War Museum) and Spark’s biographical accounts, this paper explores the legacy of PWE broadcasting on Spark’s fictional engagement with wireless technology, using examples from The Girls of Slender Means (1963) and ‘The First Year of My Life’ (1975). I argue that Spark adopts the fictional equivalent of wireless intrusion as an epistemological tool that helps characters see hitherto concealed aspects of experience and turn towards ethical understanding of others. PWE broadcasting provided German citizens with suggestive material to help them rethink their entanglement with autocratic mass communications at a time when the freedom to think independently was gravely at risk. I suggest that Spark’s fictional deployment of wireless intrusion constitutes a similar Brechtian-like ‘alienation effect’ for the encouragement of scepticism and critical thinking.

Beatriz Lopez, Durham University, United Kingdom