Good Night, Sweet Prince

Days to Centenary: 245

Today’s video is outstanding — simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious. Ignore the video quality (it’s clearly a digitized videotape) — watch it!

Why?  Because even if you know plenty about Alan Turing’s wartime work, which is estimated to have shortened the war by several years (and perhaps even won it), and even if you know about him as the genius father of the computer and artificial intelligence, you can read about him and study him quite a bit without ever seeing certain of his traits as a man that are as impressive as anything he did militarily or intellectually.

This fragment of a documentary recounts the events leading up to Turing’s death, but in doing so it manages to highlight his wit, his poetic flourishes, and his incredible good humour, all of which appear to have persisted right up to the point where he ate the poison apple.

Behind the interview subjects, coming through in their anecdotes and their obvious love for him, you can almost see Turing himself: worrying, working, loving, and cackling with laughter (there’s a reason I chose a picture of Turing smiling, on the verge of laughter, to illustrate this site).

So, impressive trait number one:  he was a good-humoured and almost absurdly nice guy, even when persecuted, even when the chemical castration that was forced upon him made him sprout breasts.

Beyond his pleasan good nature, Turing also refused to lie about being gay in virtually all circumstances.  Certainly he didn’t advertise it (given that it was illegal), but by all accounts he was nontheless truthful about it, even (as we see here) when asked about it by police.

As hard as it can be to be honest about one’s sexuality even in 21st century Britain or America — especially in certain milieus, like corporate heirarchies or the military — I can’t quite imagine what it must have taken to live like that in the Britain of the 1940s and early 1950s, although the phrase “cojones of titanium” comes to mind.

So, impressive trait number two: even if a homophobic society sometimes depressed him, or even scared him, he refused to be cowed by it.

Unlike Turing’s achievements, these qualities — his good nature and his refusal to submit — are not unique to him.  These are characteristics that he shares with many LGBT folks (and members of other oppressed groups) throughout history, both great and ordinary.  But that doesn’t diminish these aspects of his personality.  What it does is include him in the long line of people who refused to allow the attitudes of others toward their orientation (or their sex, or their skin colour, or their religion) to stop them from getting on with their lives with pride, humour, love (and lust), and dignity.

If Turing’s intellectual achievements show us that he was an exceptional man, these other qualities show us that he was also a great example of the best in all men.

Two quick notes to give context to the video, then it’s time to watch:

Note one: Not everyone who’s interviewed is identified.  The jaunty fellow in the bowtie at the beginning is Norman Routledge, who was featured in a previous post.  Here we actually see and hear him reading the letter mentioned in that post, in which Turing announces that he’ll soon be pleading guilty to having had gay sex with a lover.  The letter ends with Turing’s worry that the following terrible syllogism would find support once he was publicly identified as gay:

  • Turing believes machines think
  • Turing lies with men
  • Therefore machines do not think

Note two:  The guy in the black leather jacket and moustache is Andrew Hodges, the outstanding biographer who has done so much to help resurrect Turing’s life and work and to rehabilitate his reputation in the mind of the general public after it was buried under secrecy, scandal, and ugly prejudice.  Hodges now serves on the Alan Turing Year Advisory Committee and maintains several web sites related to Turing, gay rights, and Hodges’ own work in physics.

Okay, enough from me — just watch.

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