I was born in Coventry, England, as a happy by-product of my parents’ studies at the University of Warwick. My parents brought me back to Hong Kong at the age of three and with the imperative of learning Chinese and reconnecting with my Chinese roots. It is perhaps not surprising that, with rosy retrospection, I remember my time in Coventry warmly. To my annoyance, however, whenever I meet exchange students from Warwick, they invariably express disgust at the city of my birth. I do not have any credible counter-argument to their points about the dullness and the security concern in Coventry as I have not visited her in years. The time has come, however, for me to bring a towering figure to stand with me in defence of my beloved Coventry.
Well, sort of.
(Cumberbatch in his role as Holmes, in Sherlock)
Sherlock – The Coventry Conundrum
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: obligatory spoilers alert.
In the first episode of the second series of Sherlock aired in early 2012, Cumberbatch, in the character of Holmes, once again utilized his jaw-dropping brain power to decipher a code, only to later realise that he unwittingly helped his arch-rival Moriarty in foiling the government’s plan to prevent a terrorist attack. More relevant for our immediate purpose, however, was the conversation between Holmes and Irene Adler when he compared the situation to the “Coventry Conundrum”
Irene Adler: “What’s Coventry got to do with anything?”
Sherlock Holmes: “It’s a story, probably not true. In the Second World War the Allies knew that Coventry was going to be bombed because they’d broken the German code but they didn’t want the Germans to know that they’d broken the code, so they let it happen anyway.”
A bit of context here:
Coventry has historically been an important industrial hub in England, from clothing and textiles in the Middle Ages, clocks and watches during the Industrial Revolution, to the bicycle and motor in 19th & 20th century. The latter is of capital importance in informing us as to the German’s decision to bomb the city so decisively and so thoroughly in order to remove the British industrial capacity to continue the warfare, most obviously, by manufacturing military vehicles, not to mention its demoralising effect to the British public. To date, the Coventry Blitz in November 1940 remains one of the most serious assault on British soil by the German Luftwaffe. The Third Reich propaganda machine back then spoke cynically of ‘Coventrising’ other British cities.
Hence, the Coventry Conundrum constitutes one of the most compelling conspiracy theory in modern British history. It must have been a dreadful decision to be made, considering on the one hand, after you decode the attack plan and stand pat to allow it to go forward; and on the other, contemplating the disastrous consequence of intervening and giving the German suspicions as to the security of their encryption which you spent uncalculatable time and effort breaking.
(The climactic scene in The Imitation Game)
The Imitation Game
Fascinatingly, Sherlock was not Cumberbatch’s only encounter with the Coventry Conundrum. In the 2014 historical drama ‘The Imitation Game’, Benedict was no longer restricted to the role of a detached narrator of this captivating tale, he was very much the heart and mind behind it, albeit in a more cryptic manner. This time around, he played Alan Turing, an English mathematical genius who somehow became a WWII hero for leading the effort to decode the supposedly impregnable German Code of ‘Enigma’. During the climax of the movie, Turing and his team, having decoded ‘Enigma’, intercepted a German communication in relation to an imminent U-boat attack. However, to prevent the Germans from realising that Enigma had been broken, Turing persuaded his team to refrain from reporting this to the British government and they subsequently developed a statistical model to decide on which attacks to report and which not, walking the tightrope between minimising casualty and avoiding German suspicion. Essentially, they were the brains behind ‘The Coventry Conundrum.’
Hence, it was said in a Buzzfeed article that Benedict Cumberbatch has been preparing for his role as Alan Turing since Series 2 (of Sherlock).
Full disclosure: I was quite late to the Sherlock bandwagon so I only started watching the TV series after seeing the movie. When Cumberbatch, as Holmes, explained the Coventry Conundrum, I was first intrigued by the mention of my hometown and subsequently a curious sense started developing within me. It is as if I have heard those words from Big Ben himself before. After a bit of digging in the Mind Palace (hello there if you get the reference), I recall The Imitation Game and confirmed my theory through an online search which led me to the Buzzfeed article. Therefore, I shall not accept any accusation of content-farming, ironically, repackaging material from one of the more notorious sites.
But I digress.
(The ruins of the Cathedral after the bombing)
The Coventry Cathedral in the Blitz
The devastating Blitz erased large parts of the city centre, including the cathedral from the 14th century. Miraculously, the outer walls remained standing. A month after the bombing, however, church leaders called for reconciliation in the Christmas Day radio broadcast from the ruins of St Michael’s Cathedral, carving the words “Father forgive” onto the smoke-blackened wall. Three medieval carpenter’s nails were rescued from the rubbles and fastened into the Cross of Nails, later becoming a symbol for peace and reconciliation.
In 1974 the Community of the Cross of Nails was founded and crosses of nails were taken to Kiel, Dresden, Berlin and many other cities destroyed by war, as a symbol of peace. I was on a European trip in the summer of 2012 and visited the Dachau concentration camp memorial near Munich with a friend. After the sobering walk through the relics of atrocities of extremism, we went to the chapel to cleanse our hearts. By chance, I took note of the cross of nails sent all the way from my hometown. I was profoundly moved and awestruck. I have never been more proud to be a boy from Coventry.
(Dachau concentration camp memorial)
I have sought the help of Benedict Cumberbatch and the popular culture to bring my hometown into the conversation. But if you are to take away anything from this monograph, I hope it will be something from the 2 paragraphs immediately above, of hope, forgiveness, reconciliation and peace, given the dark times we find ourselves in.
Good day and peace be upon you.
(The Coventry Cathedral as it now stands)
Alex Leung is a student from the University of Hong Kong desperately looking for a way out of law school. Through community services and English debating and coaching, he has travelled extensively across the Greater China Region, Southeast Asia and various parts of Europe. He is also very passionate about mental health and personal wellbeing issues while taking a pessimistically declining interest in world affairs, 2016 definitely did not help.