“Doctored in mathematics I could have been a don
I can programme a computer choose the perfect time
If you’ve got the inclination I have got the crime.”
Was it cracking the code? It’s a bit more that, actually. It’s no exaggeration to say that Alan Mathison Turing was one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, yet his work continues to permeate modern life in the 21st century too.
Regarded as the father of computer science and artificial intelligence, the pioneering polymath also made ground-breaking contributions to the fields of mathematics, chemistry, and biology. Most famously, during World War II, he played a crucial role in cracking the Nazi’s Enigma code. Celebrating the anniversary of his birth one hundred and eight years ago today this is a potted guide to Turing and the Codebreakers by your very own home-grown gay Bletchley boy.
Date stamp 9 November 1989: The day the Berlin Wall fell and inadvertently announced that the Soviet Union’s days were numbered, I happened to be working at Bletchley Park. In retrospect, working on the site steeped in world history seems freakily apt, having been the principal nerve centre for Alan Turing’s courageous codebreakers in the Second World War, which helped defeat the Nazi’s Enigma machine and shorten the war by at least a couple of years. Now, in the last dying months of the 1980s, something extraordinary was happening 1200 kilometres away at the other end of the European continent.
Freaky eh? Though I should make it clear that my connection to British intelligence was more Brooke Bond than James Bond: during a few months of 1989 I was merely temping at Bletchley Park for British Telecom, in the kitchens as a temporary chef, having trained for two years at Milton Keynes College right next door. Whereas the Codebreakers quite literally had saved our collective bacon I merely cooked it.
After the war, the site of such assiduous history was used as a Regional Training Centre for all departments of BT’s forerunner the General Post Office, especially telephone engineers who learnt about phone equipment, planting lines and climbing poles, I kid you not.
We moved to Bletchley the week after I turned three. Our local Labour MP had just lost his seat when the country went Tory under the short-lived Edward Heath, though he’d console himself with buying himself the Daily Mirror and fathering every pedophile’s bestie; yup he was the crooked publisher that was Robert Maxwell, dad to Jeffrey Epstein’s pervy procurer Ghislaine.
Secrecy abounded. To anyone brought up in the age of social media and the need to tweet their every mundane thought or activity (you eat dinner? Pat yourself on the back!), the cloak of silence which surrounded Bletchley Park for decades will probably come as a surprise.
There were thousands of people who worked there in wartime, but due to their signing of the Official Secrets Act had taken their secrets to the gave. With the publication of F. W. Winterbotham’s The Ultra Secret in 1974 public discussion of Bletchley’s work finally became possible, though even today some former staff still consider themselves bound to silence. Indeed, such was their loyalty that Prime Minister Winston Churchill referred to the Bletchley staff as “the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled.”
And yes, I can honestly say that in the 1970s and into the 1980s Bletchley Park was rarely if ever talked about, though being a Bletchley boy I and many locals knew someone who had an association with the site. That included notable names such as James Bond creator Ian Fleming, the future politicians Roy Jenkins, Baroness Trumpington, and of course, the genius mathematician and head of the Naval Enigma Team that was Alan Turing.
To briefly summarise both his tragic life and his profound accomplishments (which are far better documented in detail elsewhere), in 1936 Alan Turing published an academic paper that laid the basic foundations for computer science, proving that—though only a theoretical possibility at the time—a machine could solve any mathematical problem expressed as an algorithm. His later publications built upon and expanded this concept, establishing basic tenets of electronic computation that remain valid today.
During World War II he led successful efforts to crack various German military codes—most famously the supposedly indecipherable Enigma code—thereby contributing greatly to the Allied victory, saving countless lives in the process. Following the war he resumed his academic work in the fields of mathematics and computer science, including pioneering work in the area of artificial intelligence. He also branched out into the new field of mathematical biology, observing how mathematical formulae underlie the development of patterns in living creatures, from the veins of a leaf to the stripes on a tiger’s coat.
In 1952, however, he was arrested and found guilty of homosexual acts illegal in Britain (as well as most of the rest of the world) at the time. Not only did he lose his government security clearance, but he was given a choice between prison and “treatment” to inhibit his libido that constituted, in effect, chemical castration. He chose the latter, but soon became deeply depressed at the physical, mental, and emotional effects it was having on him. In June 1954 he was found dead of cyanide poisoning with a half-eaten apple—the presumed method of administering the fatal dose—at his side. The subsequent inquest ruled that he had committed suicide. For those visualists, this YouTube clip is an excellent summary:
British Telecom would vacate Bletchley Park in the early 1990s, with the buildings (the majority simple wooden or prefabricated huts of the sort that went up as a temporary fix on bomb-damaged sites after the war) at risk of demolition before Milton Keynes Borough Council sought to save the site from housing developers, giving it protection as a conservation area in 1992, the year I moved back to London.
Eventually, Bletchley Park became a heritage museum, opening to the public and housing interpretive exhibits and rebuilt huts as they would have appeared during their wartime operations. It receives hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, while the separate National Museum of Computing, which includes a working replica Bombe machine and a rebuilt Colossus computer, is housed in Block H on the campus.
Bletchley Park is a massive site and ideally needs a full day to begin to do it justice. The huts and larger reinforced concrete blocks are scattered round the grounds, which are dominated by beautiful Buckinghamshire parkland with a large lake with a fountain and the Victorian Gothic mansion beyond, which had been built as the country estate for the financier, politician and local MP Sir Herbert Samuel Leon in the 1880s.
(Incidentally, had my parents not moved from Bletchley, in the 1980s Leon, the local High School named after him would have had me as as pupil, instead by virtue of the catchment area the Milton Keynes education authority forced me to attend the shiny and Sir Frank Markham, much to my parents’ displeasure, and so named after yet another local constituency MP, Sir Sydney Frank Markham, who made way for the dreaded Maxwell in 1964.)
The Buckinghamshire estate of Bletchley Park was the wartime home of the Government Code and Cipher School (GC & CS), the forerunner of today’s GCHQ spy centre. Formed after the First World War from the codebreaking facilities at the Admiralty and the War Office, by 1939 GC & CS was part of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6), itself within the Foreign Office.
At the outbreak of war there were no more than 200 people working at Bletchley Park. Of these, only a handful were employed on Enigma, the cipher machine employed by various elements of the German war effort, such as the army and navy. Within those services, Enigma was employed by scores of different ‘user groups’, many of which were decoded at Bletchley from 1940 onwards.
The exhibition in block B is probably the most important part of the site and this needs at least an hour if not two hours to do properly. The Enigma machine and a reconstruction of a Bombe machine which was used to decipher the Enigma messages stand proudly in the basement and are quite a sight to savour.
As well as deciphering German messages, Bletchley Park also deciphered Japanese messages and there is information about that vital work there, along with an Oriental Enigma machine, copies of Japanese phrase books and a transceiver used to send out false information from the British. There is also information how the British military tricked the Nazi into thinking the D Day landings would not take place in Normandy.
There is, of course, ample information about Turing, the brilliant mathematician who was head of the Naval Enigma Team in Hut 8 and designed the first Bombe. Turing revolutionised the field of cryptography, conceived the computer as we know it today, and literally invented the academic discipline of computer science, The small display showing some of his personal belongings such as his teddy bear sourced from his family was a lovely touch and reinforces what a human tragedy was to befall him.
One of the earliest openly gay figures in 20th Century Britain, the post-war story of Turing is a terribly sad and cruel one, and a damning indictment of the pervasive attitudes to homosexuality at the time. Despite his essential contributions to the allied victory against Nazi Germany, his country repaid him with a prosecution for gross indecency that led to his apparent suicide in 1954 at the age of 41.
The homophobic offence of gross indecency was introduced in 1885 and used to prosecute adult men for a whole range of “consensual, private homosexual acts” when it could not be proven they’d engaged in buggery. This meant that any sexual contact between men—including mere touching and kissing—was deemed illegal.
The famously flamboyant playwright Oscar Wilde was charged and convicted of gross indecency in 1895 and spent two long hard years in Reading Gaol as a result. Turing pleaded guilty to the same crime in 1952, and sentenced to chemical castration, the shame and consequences of which led to his alleged suicide from cyanide poisoning in 1954.
Under the government of Tony Blair, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 finally repealed gross indecency and buggery and they were deleted from the statutes. As a result, for the first time in 470 years, England and Wales had a criminal code that did not penalise gay sexuality.
In Northern Ireland, the ban on anal sex was not finally repealed until 2008. Scotland’s anti-gay laws were repealed in 2009 but, in the case of sodomy, did not take effect until 2013.
It seems barely believable, but gay sex ceased to be a crime in the UK only seven years ago. The same year, after notable public figures such as Stephen Fry and the Pet Shop Boys personally lobbied Prime Minister David Cameron, the Queen issued a pardon for his ‘crime’, finally wiping clean his record.
Actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who played Turing the film The Imitation Game, was one celebrity that went on record to argue that it wasn’t enough. “Alan Turing was not only prosecuted, but quite arguably persuaded to end his own life early, by a society who called him a criminal for simply seeking out the love he deserved, as all human beings do,” he wrote to the Hollywood Reporter.
“Sixty years later, that same government claimed to ‘forgive’ him by pardoning him. I find this deplorable, because Turing’s actions did not warrant forgiveness — theirs did — and the 49,000 other prosecuted men deserve the same.”
In fact, nearly 100,000 men had been arrested for same-sex acts from 1885 and 2013, and in 2017, under the Alan Turing law, all men convicted of gross indecency due to consensual, private sexual acts were pardoned.
Once the overlooked forgotten hero, Turing was of great renown among a small band of computer scientists, but in recent years his stature as a culture icon has steadily grown. nNow millions of people know him because of the Oscar-nominated movie, which was based on the 1983 book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges. There are now statues, memorials and even roads named after him, not only in Britain but as far flung as Argentina.
Alan Turing has also been embraced as a hero by the gay community, and it’s obviously a story that resonates deeply with me. He is not only a national hero and a war hero, but a local hero and a personal hero in so many ways. Not to mention a few interesting parallels.
Turing was born in Maida Vale, where I studied media at the City of Westminster. Tick.
Turing worked at Bletchley Park, where I studied catering. Tick.
Turing was a June Cancerian. Tick.
Turing was most certainly autistic “on the spectrum”. Tick.
Turing was gay and didn’t care who knew it. Tick.
Turning inadvertently inspired work by fellow national treasures the Pet Shop Boys. Tick.
Turing died in Wilmslow, where I had family until recently. Tick.
Cremated at Woking Crematorium, where I have family. Tick.
But finally in the 21st Century Turing’s legacy has been become the stuff of legend, of posthumous pardon and soon, he will be honoured as the new face of the £50 note, the highest value bank note in Britain. Very apt.
In February 2019, Turing was crowned the Greatest Person of the 20th Century in a BBC poll voted by the public, beating off stuff competition from heavyweight icons like Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Pablo Picasso and David Bowie.
And talking of Team PSB, there’s also their impressively ambitious A Man From The Future, an orchestral pop biography in eight parts for electronics, orchestra, choir, and narrator, that focuses on key episodes of Turing’s life and work. Of course, the irony is that had Turing lived in the future, that part of his story would not have had such a tragic outcome.
Turing‘s impact on the world we live in today is colossal. Computers have become ubiquitous, integral parts of our nearly all of our lives. The world today would be all but unimaginable and unrecognisable without them. (Consider, for instance, that you wouldn’t even be reading this right now if it weren’t for computers.) And every single one of those computers is based fundamentally on concepts that originated in the mind of Alan Turing.
In a very real sense, back in the late 1930s, he created the future: the world we live in today, but which he himself would not reach except in his mind. In that sense, then, perhaps he was indeed a man from the future.
As yet unreleased, I witnessed the song-cycle’s live premiere at the BBC Proms at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2014, which had a lovely circular thing about it as I can recall as it if it was yesterday nipping out of Bletchley Park during college lunch hour to buy a brand new single called West End Girls by this shiny and new gay pop duo called Pet Shop Boys. Ironically, I had no idea they were gay at the time nor who Alan Turing even was. Gee, this life’s a funny thing.
I’d like to extend my gratitude to Rosie Burke and everyone at the Bletchley Park Trust press office for their hospitality and generosity.