Reading on the train – and weightier matters

Commuting days until retirement: 523

If you have to sit on a train for any amount of time (an hour or so each day in my case) there is the decision as to how to spend it. From observation, here is a list of the most common ways, in rough order of popularity:

  1. Fiddle with your smartphone
  2. Read the Metro or Standard (free newspapers) – or do Sudoku on the puzzles page
  3. Look out of the window.
  4. Stare straight ahead, avoiding of course any eye contact with the people opposite you
  5. Read something, or play a game, on your tablet computer
  6. Read a book or e-reader
  7. (If male) take a friend with you and talk incessantly about football

Well, I go for 6, and seem to get more reading in on commuting days than other ones. (You can probably tell that you wouldn’t find me involved in 7). And that gives me an opening into what I’ve been reading recently – a book on Alan Turing, published at the time of his recent centenary. And there’s also a link with something that’s currently topical.

Turing

If you don’t know about Alan Turing, here’s a brief description: born in 1912, he quickly showed himself to be a mathematician and thinker of genius, becoming a Fellow of Kings College Cambridge at the age of 22. He’s famous in the first place for his pre-war paper On Computable Numbers which not only offered one solution to a long-standing problem in mathematics, but also laid for the first time down the basic theory of operation of the modern computer. This of was of course before his work on code-breaking at Bletchley, where in complete secrecy at the time, not revealed until the 1970s, he played a central role in saving Britain from being starved into submission by Hitler’s U-boats. After the war he continued to work on embryonic computers. Another famous paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, in which he speculated on the ability of machines to ‘think’, and proposed the much-discussed Turing Test, appeared in 1950.

He was homosexual, and in 1952 rather artlessly reported to the police a theft from his house by an overnight partner. The police immediately became more interested in the possibility of what was then the crime of “gross indecency” than the burglary. He was subsequently prosecuted, and sentenced to be chemically castrated by taking an oestrogen substitute, as an alternative to prison. In 1954 he was found dead, having half-eaten an apple contaminated with cyanide, a chemical that he had been using in experiments. The inquest verdict was one of suicide, and this is widely believed to be correct. However it’s also thought that he carefully devised the means of his suicide so that his death could be believed – especially by his mother – to have been an accident.

And the interest of the book I have been reading is that it mostly consists of a biography of him written in the late 1950s by his mother, which has long been out of print. And she does indeed strongly defend the accident theory, and manages never once to refer to his homosexuality. She would of course have known about it, having attended the inquest, and almost certainly knew earlier – but of course at the time she wrote it would have been especially bad form to have mentioned, after anyone’s death (let alone one’s own son), what would have been thought of as a shameful secret.

His personality

turing1

Alan Turing in 1934

What does emerge very strongly from her account is his exceptionally attractive personality. This is not just her own assessment, but supported by letters from friends and colleagues who wrote to her after his death. Many acts of generosity are recorded, and it is noted by many how he would take great pains to help the understanding of those less talented than himself, without any sense of talking down to them. He could be eccentric, unpredictable and often scatty – but entirely without side or pretension. I particularly like a story relating to the OBE awarded to him for his war work. (It doesn’t seem much of a recognition, given the magnitude of the achievement – people have been knighted for far less – but I suppose that had something to do with the secrecy.)  He was certainly proud of the award, but friends noticed that when, in the course of his many practical experiments, he opened a tin full of bolts, screws and metal components, there was the OBE medal, knocking about among them.

In the second part of the book is a shorter account by his older brother John, apparently written some time in the 1980s. This repeats much of the material in his mother’s account, but is viewed through the very different lens of John’s personality – not such an attractive one, you feel. He does indeed acknowledge his brother’s genius as well as his human qualities, but we are very soon aware of a curmudgeonly streak being on display. He announces at the start that in his mother’s work

a false note has been struck somewhere: could Alan have been quite that paragon of virtue that my mother describes? Yet, if an elder brother ventures to suggest the contrary, it can easily be suggested that he is jealous and sour. This is a risk I must accept. My only concern is to put the record straight, however hazardous the enterprise.

Well, pomposity appears to be another quality we can ascribe to John. But re-reading his account I am finding it difficult to see that Alan’s supposed faults are really anything more than unconventional behaviour seen from the standpoint of a rather stiffly conventional onlooker. Examples are his habit of turning up at the houses of friends or family, with short notice, at unsocial hours, or writing many more letters to professional colleagues than to his family. Irritating, perhaps, but hardly heinous. ”Worst of all”, he laments later, “was the unsightly condition of his hands, with every finger picked raw in a dozen places… I felt sicker and sicker until I devised a special system to prevent me from looking at them at all.”

His mother’s failure to mention the homosexuality he puts down to “Edwardian reticence” – but continues, unconscious of any irony, “I am trying to make this memoir as truthful as I can, so I will not go to the length of pretending that I like homosexuals.” (I suppose we can excuse prejudice on the part of someone born in 1908). He mentions the testimony of Alan to a psychiatrist, passed to John after Alan’s death, that Alan “loathed” his mother. I’m not sure what to make of this – I imagine that, as psychiatric testimony is likely to be, it could have been very ambivalent. But I suspect that John Turing did not do subtlety.

Gay marriage

I’m writing this at the beginning of a week in which there will be a vote on gay marriage in the House of Commons. It’s tempting to wonder how Alan Turing’s life might have differed in such an age as ours.  Well, it would have been longer, but otherwise there’s probably no meaningful answer. His personality was formed as a highly intelligent gay man in a society which he knew couldn’t cope with the notion of anyone being gay.

The same malady, in an attenuated form, still exists today. It’s among straight people that controversy mostly flares when it comes to the question of gay marriage. Individual gay couples (like anyone else) may be either keen on marriage, or not bothered about it. But for many straight people, the gay version “undermines the institution of marriage, which should be between a man and a woman.”

This is piffle. To me, it’s a no-brainer. If you feel, as many do, that marriage is a valuable institution, you can hardly be upbeat about its state today, when a big proportion of those marrying eventually divorce, and others feel they can dispense with it altogether. How can the inclusion of many gay people who are anxious to marry do anything but strengthen it?

Engagement

So would Alan Turing have wanted to marry? An even more meaningless question, I think. In fact, he was at one time engaged, in the conventional sense, to Joan Clarke, who was a fellow codebreaker at Bletchley and no mean mathematician herself, by all accounts. John Turing met her on visits home and evidently thought little of her – an “unpromising female” whom he compared unfavourably with his own girl friends. In his account, she was “safe” (i.e. unattractive), and he prides himself on his ability, which Alan lacks, to deal with women who are not “safe”. It becomes fairly clear that his real problem was an inability to cope with an intellectual woman: he does speak explicitly of his distaste for Alan’s lack of small talk, and keenness on intellectual debate.

Turing Memorial in Manchester

Turing Memorial in Manchester

According to Andrew Hodges’ biography (recommended – see below) Alan warned Joan, a little disingenuously, that he had “homosexual tendencies”, but found that this did not discourage her. Eventually, he ended the engagement altogether, evidently feeling that it could not work in the long run. The relationship had lasted through the summer of 1941, fuelled by many shared enthusiasms, and was not the cursory and “farcical affair” which Alan’s brother attempts to portray. One imagines Alan caught between his own nature and the crushing conventions of his society, unsure of how far he could compromise.

If we have made progress since then, I think it has to do with the dawning realisation that the goodness in human nature doesn’t need a monolithic structure of social dogma to ratify it – it will flower anyway, whether conventional or not. Alan Turing was a good man who lived outside that structure, and paid a penalty for doing so. Unlike his older brother, he was ahead of his time, in more ways than one.


The book I read was :
Turing, Sara, Alan M. Turing: Centenary Edition. Cambridge University Press 2012

An excellent biography:
Hodges, Andrew, Alan Turing: The Enigma.  First pub. 1984, Vintage Paperback 2012

Andrew Hodges maintains a Turing website at http://www.turing.org.uk

If you can it’s well worth seeing the stage play by Hugh Whitemore, Breaking the Code, which has also been produced for BBC TV – and is now, I have discovered, on YouTube.

14 thoughts on “Reading on the train – and weightier matters

  1. Thanks for an interesting and thoughtful post. I have to tell you, I laughed out loud when I got to point #7 in your list above. Some things are the same all over the world!! Thanks for re-blogging my post about walking.

  2. Just realized I may have you confused with someone else who posted at JavMode – if so, excuse the mistake – I’m glad I found your post through that site!

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