A Culture’s Heroes

by David Pryce-Jones

How a society makes its heroes is a fascinating process, and a good example of it involves Alan Turing. No doubt he was exceptionally brilliant, a pioneer of computers. In the war he worked at Bletchley, the secret center where German codes were broken. It seems generally agreed that his contribution was important, even vital. A homosexual, after the war he was prosecuted, chemically castrated, and in 1952 committed suicide.

Chris Grayling, justice minister in the present British government, has just issued an apology for Turing’s tragic fate. Of course Grayling bears no responsibility, he was not even alive at the time. Too late to be in any sense a reparation, it is just a gesture. Apologies of the kind are now common everywhere, for instance for the Crusades, for Empire, for famines, for slavery, and so on. Obviously the apologists are making use of the past to support the very different values of the present. The assumption that present values are moral absolutes falsifies history and in the end is demoralizing. Our forebears are made to look irredeemably cruel and there is nothing to done about it except abase ourselves in penance. The cruelty done to Turing certifies his status as a hero.

Eight thousand people worked at Bletchley, my father was one of them, and so was a lady called Pamela Egremont. Her husband John had been personal assistant to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. She knew everybody who was anybody, among them Alan Turing. According to her, people in the know at Bletchley forecast that after the war the price of silver would soar. Turing, she told me, got together as much money as he could, bought physical silver and buried it in the grounds of Bletchley. After the war, the price of silver indeed rose as predicted. When Turing went to dig up his investment, he found that housing had been built over his plot. A few weeks ago, Pamela Egremont died, so this story can no longer be checked; maybe it is urban myth, or a fantasy arising from a persisting sense that Turing was after all his own victim.

David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.