Truth and Deception

Commuting days until retirement: 94

My very first post on this blog, nearly two years ago, was about Alan Turing, and in the intervening time his public profile has continued to grow. That post still appears to be one of my most frequently read ones (which isn’t saying much) – probably because there are so many searches for his name now.  You may be aware that a dramatised film of his life was recently released – The Imitation Game – so of course I went to see it.

Warning: some spoilers follow. If you don’t want to read on, then I recommend seeing the film, but also taking a monster pinch of salt with you.

Cumberbatch as Turing

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing (still from film)

My expectations weren’t too high after seeing the trailer, and the words splashed across the screen: ‘It took a man with secrets to break the biggest one.’  This suggests elements of the Hollywood-style schlocky mindset that we are all familiar with. However it looked as if Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Turing had some studied integrity, as indeed I found it did when I saw the film. But I suspect the celluloid Turing had far more exaggerated autistic traits than the real one: there’s no doubt that he was shy and socially awkward, but hardly quite as indifferent to the emotions of others as he was made to appear.

As I wrote in that earlier post, his impulses were more often generous and considerate; perhaps an example of this was his breaking off of his engagement with Joan Clarke, his fellow cryptographer at Bletchley, feeling that as a gay man he wouldn’t be able to maintain an adequate marriage. What private conversation took place we will of course never know,  but the film version made it more abrupt and brutal than I would have imagined it to be.

Knightley as Clarke

Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke (still from film)

The real Joan Clarke

Joan Clarke from a contemporary photo

Turing’s biographer,  Andrew Hodges, has criticised the film on the portrayal of Joan – played sweetly and demurely by the willowy Keira Knightley. I thought it was a good performance, given her brief (but should someone have told her that a double-first Cambridge maths graduate is not likely to pronounce the name of the great Swiss mathematician Euler as “Yooler” rather than “Oiler”?) I’m getting pedantic – but one of Hodges’ points was that Joan Clarke was stocky and bespectacled – not the ideal of femininity, but as such someone whom Turing would have found a congenial and comfortable companion, as he undoubtedly did. There’s some insight into their relationship in an interview she gave to BBC Horizon in 1992, four years before her death (see video clip at the bottom of this post).

I did enjoy the film, although the beautifully realised period settings were marred – as so often – by a cloth ear for the language and idioms of the time. Would a fairly patrician Englishman in the 1940s (Commander Denniston/Charles Dance) have said “You’re fired” rather than something like “I’m sacking you”? And would Joan Clarke have talked about “fixing” Turing’s lamb in an imagined future marriage, rather than “cooking” it?

I seem to be turning into one of those people who get their biggest kicks from looking for mistakes in movies; but what the hell – it’s fun, and these are the sorts of things that irritate me. And indeed I became increasingly impatient with the more serious departures from reality. For a start, there’s no evidence at all that anyone attempted to fire Turing – this was just a ladle of dramatic tension clumsily poured in to spice things up. And so it went on.

“Based on a true story”, we were told at the start. So there’s an expectation of some invented scenes and dialogue, and minor deviations from fact to help the story work as a film. If I had known nothing about Turing or his Bletchley work before seeing film I would now believe that:

  • Apart from some clerical help by the Wrens, the entire wartime decryption operation was down to four men,  one woman and a single machine which Turing built almost single-handed as well as designing it.
  • He named the machine ‘Christopher’ after his close school friend who had died, and that the machine was a sort of emotional substitute after this loss (as was a computer he later designed in Manchester).
  • Turing was effectively blackmailed by the Soviet spy John Cairncross into keeping quiet about Cairncross’s activities.
  • At the time of his arrest for gross indecency in 1951 he threw the Official Secrets Act to the wind and told the interrogating officer all about his wartime work. (This is used in the narrative as a framing device.)

These range from the absurd, through the highly improbable, to the patently false; and I have only picked out a few of the most egregious examples. Just to examine one of them: it’s true that the spy Cairncross was at Bletchley and passed details of decrypts to Stalin’s Russia. But these were not Enigma decrypts, but those of the later, more complex naval code known as ‘Tunny’, broken by Bill Tutte and decrypted by the ‘Colossus’ computer designed by Tommy Flowers – an operation which of course owed much to Turing. It’s unlikely that Cairncross would have met Turing or had any significant contact with him; but how the thought of livening up the dull old truth with a bonus spy gets those film writers’ pulses racing! According to the film, the good old Brits of course know what Cairncross is up to, and only let him release the material that suits their purposes. (How on earth they manage this without his knowledge, given that the character in the film has full access to the Enigma decrypts, is never explained.) In reality, Cairncross’s activities were not discovered until the 1950s.

Rebuilt Turing Bombe

The replica bombe in the Bletchley museum (Ted Coles / Wikimedia)

And of course there wasn’t just one machine (they were actually known as ‘bombes’) but eventually some 200 of them were installed, at Bletchley and elsewhere, to get through all the work. I don’t think any of them was called ‘Christopher’.

As is customary with fictionalised true stories,  we get the ‘what happened afterwards’  follow-up facts on the screen before the credits – but even these are sloppily inaccurate: the Bletchley code breaking activities, we are told, were kept secret for more than 50 years. The makers have apparently failed to notice that the Hodges biography on which they claim to base the film, and which describes Enigma in great detail, was published in 1983, less than 40 years after the war. And the existence of the Bletchley code breaking operation was in fact made public in the 1970s, nearly a decade before that.

There I go again; but the point at issue is whether all the distortions of the truth can be justified. The film’s producer Teddy Schwartzman has been quoted as saying that, while the makers did not want to fabricate events, there are some ‘creative liberties’. Well, that’s one way of putting it. More, I would say, that many important truths were distorted in the hope of pushing up box office receipts. I haven’t attempted to count the fabricated events,  but I doubt whether the fingers of both hands would be sufficient.

I don’t imagine that Turing himself, with his mathematician’s love of detail, would have been very happy with this portrayal. The truth of Turing’s life contained drama enough – it was unnecessary to daub the picture with splotches of gaudy dramatic invention and make such clumsy attempts to drag in a spurious emotional subtext. In a different way,  the film was as disobliging to his memory as the account by his prejudiced brother John which I described in my first blog post.

The Bletchley operation was one of the greatest examples in history of overcoming barriers to discovering the truth, as well as in helping to deceive an enemy. Unfortunately what we were given here was too little truth, and a generous helping of deception

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.


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


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?


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

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.