Sunday, 27 February 2011

It wasn't always safe outside the closet

You have to be satisfied with small achievements if you have only middling strength and the truly great is beyond your grasp.

So in this country we take great satisfaction whenever we can prevent some small piece of our national heritage being sold abroad.

We believe its cultural heritage is essential to a nation and must be preserved for it, which is why we take such pleasure in visiting the British Museum and admiring the Rosetta stone from Northern Egypt or the gallery decorated with what we still like to think of as the ‘Elgin Marbles’, from the Parthenon in Athens.

Just last week, a desperate campaign to raise funds saved Alan Turing’s wartime papers for the country. They will go to the museum at Bletchley Park which housed Britain’s Second World War code-breaking centre, where reading the German Enigma code provided inaluable, high-quality intelligence to the Allies. As the ‘Curveball’ story recently revealed, these days we like to go to war on the basis of a single obscure opportunist’s fabrications, so it’s comforting to remember that intelligence was once something that we collected intelligently.

Turing was a central figure at Bletchley Park, where he applied the theoretical principles of his ‘Turing Engine’ to automate the massively time-consuming task of breaking codes. Today, those principles drive computers everywhere.

Persecuted in his lifetime, still not sufficiently regarded today
It’s fitting that Turing’s homeland is making this small tribute to his towering genius. It goes a little way towards atoning for having chemically castrated him in 1952, for the then crime of a love affair with another man. The persecution didn’t stop with the castration and two years later he was driven to suicide at the age of 41.

In 2009, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology for Turing’s treatment. Better than nothing I suppose. And now we have his papers.

This reminds me that I recently heard David Hockney talking, as part of the BBC series A History of the World in a Hundred Objects, about his 1966 engraving In the Dull Village.

The picture of two young men in bed was part of series of twelve that Hockney produced not just as art for art’s sake but as propaganda against the continued criminalisation of homosexuality. When Hockney made the engraving the legislation that killed Turing was still on the statute book, though by the time the picture went on the display in 1967, the law had at last been repealed.

Progress, though, is never even.

‘In those days, homosexuality was illegal but you could smoke anywhere,' pointed out Hockney who is a heavy smoker. 'Today it’s the other way round. Story of my life.’

Illegal propaganda in 1966
Still, I suppose at least a smoking ban wouldn’t have driven Turing to a sad and premature death.

Completely unrelated postscript. There’s a Starbuck’s downstairs from my office. I find the chain's use of English entertaining. For instance, the first sentence of this post, rendered into Starbuckian, would read ‘You have to be satisfied with tall achievements if you have only grande strength and the truly venti is beyond your grasp.’

Amusing perhaps but hardly limpid.

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