COMMUNITY LEDGE #4: Alan Turing
This month we are honouring Alan Turing as our Community Ledge. Although he has won many plaudits, including BBC2’s ‘Greatest man of the 20th Century’, fewer people are aware of his early life in St Leonards.
The interview is of course imagined, but the facts are real.
If anyone is wondering what he did for the community of Hastings, he did for us what he did for the whole country including: helping to win the war (a huge impact on our world today), inventing the computer (for good or ill) and helping to change social attitudes, not only to homosexuality but towards all difference in society.
Hastings Pride returned to the town only two weeks ago and as one of the support team said at the time: “Hastings Pride is about equality in the local community of Hastings. It’s not just about the day, but the days that follow. Support for the day is support for the whole community.” (Hastings Pride, Hastings Heroes, HIP edition 133).
As usual, we thank the Albion for their support (though this time they won’t be providing the Community Ledge with one of their famous pie meals).
How did you come to live in St Leonards?
My father was in the Indian civil service and my parents only came back to the UK for my birth. When I was about one, they went back to India and left me and my elder brother John with foster parents who lived in St Leonards.
Whereabouts was that exactly?
The Wards, our foster parents, lived in a house in Upper Maze Hill called Baston Lodge, just above the entrance to St Leonards Gardens. The house received a blue plaque in 2012 – which was rather good because I was only given a pardon by the Queen in 2013!
But you had already got one for your birthplace in 1998.
True enough. Times were changing.
How long did you live in St Leonards?
I went to St Michael’s school just around the corner in Charles Road until I was ten; but my mother was worried I wasn’t learning anything, so I was then sent to Hazlehurst, a boarding school in Frant. And then in the summer holidays we stayed with different foster parents in Hertfordshire. After that my father retired from the Indian Civil Service and they went to live in France. So we went there in the holidays.
How do you remember the place?
Walks along the promenade with the Wards and picnics on the beach. I also remember enjoying tea in front of the fire in the winter. I suppose I felt safe, though not inspired.
How did you amuse yourself?
Apparently I taught myself to read in three weeks – so that was something I could do on my own. Mrs Ward used to complain that I was a bookworm. But reading taught me a lot. My grandfather gave me a simplified version of Einstein’s book on relativity, when I was 15. I think I got the gist! When I went to boarding school, I was interested in paper folding – origami. I showed other boys at the school and it became very popular.
An what about the words you used to make up?
Many words. My favourite was ‘quockling’. The Sound made by seagulls when fighting over food. Very St Leonards. And ‘greasicle’ for the rivulet of wax running down the side of a candle …
How did you get on with people?
I didn’t do typical children’s play even though I was surrounded by them – the Wards had four daughters and fostered another boy. And then my three cousins also came to be looked after by them. When I was small, I was quite friendly – people said I was precocious – but also wilful and naughty. As I got older, I must have realised this didn’t go down well. By the time I was nine my mother described me as having become “unsociable and dreamy”. I think my teacher understood what was happening. She said she’d had clever boys and hard-working boys, but that “Alan is a genius”. But I didn’t learn much at that school. That’s why I was sent to Hazlehurst.
What about your family?
Some of them have fond memories. My eldest niece, Inagh Payne, had this to say: “I can remember Uncle Alan as very, very kind, very generous, untidy, rather unkempt. He had a stammer. He had a very high-pitched voice with a sort of whinnying type laugh, but he was always very generous and used to give us lovely presents.”
Yes. You were even described as one of the first hippies.
Ah, that would be because I was very informal in my dress. I didn’t put much store in dressing up. Perhaps it was all those sailor suits when I was a young boy.
It is said you had a scientific mind when you were still young.
Yes, there is a famous sketch of me as a boy “watching the daisies grow” while the other children at Hazlehurst play hockey. I don’t know what I was thinking but people say it led me to develop a completely new field of mathematical biology, a mathematical explanation of how things grow. Schools still don’t understand the power of idle thoughts.
What about the importance of chess?
I became very interested in chess when I went to Hazelhust. I spent hours working out complex chess problems. Excellent for developing the mind.
Did anyone else recognise your talent early on?
Well there was a gypsy fortune teller at a village fete in Hertfordshire who also said I’d be a genius. But I didn’t do so well at school. I went to Sherbourne school after Hazlehurst; when I was 17 one of the teachers said in a school report that I “would never amount to anything” with my “vague ideas”, though the maths teacher did say I had “distinct promise”. My English teacher criticised me for my grandiose ideas! The headmaster described me as: “the sort of boy who is bound to be a problem for any school”. So I think the answer was no! It’s a bit different now. I think I would have fitted in well in St Leonards as it is now. I gather it’s full of creative people.
You have been described as a “shy, gay, witty, grumpy, courageous, unassuming and wildly successful genius”. What do you think is the most applicable adjective?
Well certainly not gay, I’m far to austere! Perhaps grumpy. It describes how I liked to be me rather than what people wanted me to be.
Can you comment on what Chris Smith MP said of you at the Blue Plaque ceremony in 1998.
“Alan Turing spoke the then unspeakable and showed no shame, although the hurt lay deep; and for that reason his suicide two years later fitted no stereotype of the defeated. He was a marathon runner, not given to giving up. But time has partly revealed his secret song of innocence and experience, and given significance to the veiled image of the poisoned apple. Being a free-thinking free-living and open homosexual could not, at the height of Cold War panic, be consistent with his chosen duty, of knowing innermost secrets of the security state. True, he ridiculed his surveillance by policemen he called ‘the poor sweeties,’ but it does not amaze me that eventually he found existence self-contradictory and life unliveable, on that tenth anniversary of the invasion made possible by his work.”
I think he shows a lot of insight. It’s very interesting to see one’s life summed up by another.
What about the famous Apple logo? Was it a homage to you?
I loved the fact that to many it remains an enigma. But the facts were clarified by Steve Jobs when asked by Stephen Fry if the logo was based on the circumstances of my death. He replied, “God, we wish it were.”
And the circumstances of your death?
That will remain an enigma.
What do you think of being named ‘greatest icon of the 20th Century?Obviously I’m honoured. They named three things I had achieved. It’s mind blowing … but difficult to say which I’m most proud of: inventing the computer, helping win the war or helping change social attitudes. It would have been difficult at the time to see them in perspective. But it’s humbling to see the way each of them has left such a legacy.
And if you could pick one?
Perhaps the last. It’s tough being an outsider and I always hated the hypocrisy of Edwardian society, the kind of society where it was OK to be homosexual as long as you didn’t talk about it or get involved in any scandal. That’s why I so value being the face of the fifty-pound note. It means who I am and what I stand for has been fully accepted.
• And read what it takes to be a Community Ledge here
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