How come England produces so many geniuses in so many fields? From Isaac Newton to William Shakespeare, Lennon & McCartney to Stephen Hawking, John Cleese to Dorothy Hodgkin (first female UK Nobel Laureate, 1964, Chemistry) there’s just no end to it. And while German genius Albert Einstein may have discovered that the space/time continuum bends, there’s no one who bends it like Beckham!
Breaking Bad at Bletchley Park
Enter Alan Turing and his Enigma code breakers, a World War II story that gives me the chills to this day. I was an Army cryptographer many moons ago which gave me the tiniest of inklings about just how stunningly brilliant Turing and his team were. We were still using the same Enigma-type machines decades later, rotors clicking away in my little locked Signal Corps coding room! America had its Navajo “Windtalkers”, saving lives on the other side of the world, made into a big name movie, albeit with mixed reviews. The story however is awesome, and remained a national secret until 1968. Britain set Turing against the dark Nazi genius behind Enigma. Unstoppable force against immovable object. So the unstoppable force took the object apart, found out what made it immovable and cracked it. Modest yet incredible people and brilliant thinking, fighting brutal regimes on a scale the world had never seen, saving countless lives. Mathematician Alan Turing may well have been the best of them all.
Alan and Benedict
Until recently, Turing wasn’t all that widely known. The gripping portrayal of his life by Benedict Cumberbatch (genius Brit actor in his own right!) in “The Imitation Game” of 2014 changed all that, and man is that recognition well-deserved! Seven million deaths and 2-4 additional years of war is what experts estimate Turing prevented, working in secrecy with his team at Bletchley Park near London. For his troubles, he was prosecuted and chemically treated in 1952 for his then-illegal gay orientation, and committed suicide in 1954. I personally don’t believe a word of the accidental cyanide poisoning theory. It’s a rare genius that would make such a mistake – and Turing was about as mistake-proof as one can get.
A Bit of Background
Turing was born in a house on Warrington Crescent, London’s Maida vale area, not far from Lord’s Cricket Ground and Abbey Road Studios. A hospital at the time, it later became the Colonnade Hotel and is now marked with one of those famous Blue Plaques indicating famous people and origins. We did the London Walks tour that tied in this house. Travel tip: the London Walks tours often include a short Tube hop. Be prepared, bring cash or your Oyster Card, best combined with a London Pass. One of their fantastic Blue Badge certified guides (we had Peter) will tell you Turing’s story. Be prepared for more chills.
Recognized early on as a genius thinker, at age 16 understanding the aforementioned Einstein’s work and commenting on it, Turing finished his undergraduate studies at King’s College in Cambridge. He then went to the USA and obtained a PhD at Princeton University. Turing returned to Britain just in time to save the world from prolonged misery and more death.
Churchill Actions a Colossal Undertaking
At Bletchley, Turing developed a way to break the Nazi’s “Enigma” code by building the Bombe and then Colossus. The team was strapped for resources and in desperation, breaking rules instead of codes, wrote directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself. Unlike the generals in charge, the great man immediately grasped the enormity of Turing’s potential and instructed the Army to provide what they asked for immediately, issuing an “Action This Day!” order.
The codebreakers worked away in tiny offices known as “huts”. Turing’s famous “Hut 8” still has his English Channel and North Atlantic maps on the walls, showing convoy routes under attack from U-Boats. It looks like he just stepped out, his coffee cup chained to the radiator so his cheeky colleagues wouldn’t “borrow” it. Yes, resources were scarce indeed. Have a look at the slideshow from my visit, showing you the inside of Hut 8, with Turing’s desk and typewriter (!) as well as some of the housing and complex surroundings.
Remember, Turing did all this before there were calculators let alone computers. He in fact invented them, becoming the “Father of the modern computer”, as a way to break the codes! He kept extensive notes – that were destroyed later by order of the same Churchill so they would never fall in the wrong hands (Churchill was fearing Russian spies at the time). Turing was so brilliant that even today, the scientists recreating Colossus, despite all their modern day technology, can’t figure out exactly how he did it with just a notepad and pencil. They did manage to build a working model of Colossus, more or less, and you can see that during your day trip. It’s awesome. Take the tour and hear the story from docents who look like they may have been there during the war.
All staff employed at Bletchley, from codebreakers to cleaners, were sworn to complete secrecy under Britain’s “Official Secrets Act”. They took this very seriously. There’s the anecdote, my version, of how 50 years after the war, Britain finally lifted some of the secrecy and invited all surviving employees to a special event by sending out letters via Royal Mail. An elderly couple, married for years, picked up their mail from the doormat, and found a letter for him – and one for her! They stared at each other, started smiling and said “You too??” Married for that long and they kept their word and their secrets. Now that’s a true Brit of the War generation for you. Puts a lump in your throat and a smile on your face at the same time, doesn’t it?
A Day Trip to Bletchley
It is easy to visit Bletchley Park from London as a day trip. Take the train from London Euston non-stop, only about 35-50 minutes, then a short stroll. The Bletchley Park Trust manages the site and they have an excellent website providing all kinds of information on how to get there and what to see and do. Stop by the famous Bletchley Park Post Office, the undercover mailroom in the War, link to the outside world, or step in the red phone booth and pretend you’re a spy making a secret call!
The memory of Alan Turing deserves to live on. We in the free world and in fact the whole world owe him that in gratitude for what he accomplished. His too-short a life was not the triumph it should have been. Today, most if not all of us are appalled about how he was treated after the War. As Roman orator and politician Cicero once said: “O tempora o mores”. The times and morals of the 50s are long gone but; what a tragic waste of an incredible mind; what an inhuman way to treat his body. Huddling in Hut 8, Turing fought the War with the best weapon he could contribute: his brain, rather than holding a rifle in his hands and storming the beaches. In doing so, he saved the lives of countless brothers and sisters in (different) arms who risked their lives, on ships being torpedoed and shores under fire.
Bear with me
To end on an upbeat note, it is good to know that England finally paid official tribute to Turing: late is better than never. After a strong Internet campaign, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology in 2009, followed by a Royal Pardon in 2013. Also in 2013, London finally honored Turing with a sculpture in town: not at Westminster but, part of the “Portrait Bench” series at Saint Mary’s Square in Paddington.
OK then, alright, for a lighter note, I guess one can’t say “Paddington” without thinking “Bear”! Paddington Bear is a children’s favorite, based on the stories by Bond, Michael Bond…. So, London thought, do let’s “Please Take Care of This Bear” and got Michael Bond and Paddington a sculpture right there too, with Turing. There’s also a Paddington statue inside Paddington Station. Have a look at it when you take the non-stop Heathrow Express between the Airport and Paddington Station, to or from the London hotel we’ve booked you in as part of your UK trip…
Princeton, the President and the Codebreaker
Meanwhile, back in the USA at Princeton, Turing was named their second most significant alumnus, with number one being US President James Madison. Impressive company indeed. For both.
A Memorial Day Note of Thanks
So, as we’re reaching the end of my story, you’ll agree this is not your average superficial “ooh aah” travel story. I hope you found it educational and interesting though. Travel should be enriching and there’s nothing wrong with a sobering moment and learning something while on a trip. I timed this on purpose for the USA’s Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of the summer travel season, intended to honor those who sacrificed. So much. For us.
Rest in peace, Mr. Turing: a peace you helped deliver by putting your brilliant mind to it. A happy yet introspective Memorial Day to all in the USA, and my eternal gratitude to Alan Turing and all who gave all.
DISCLAIMER: My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My opinions and views are not necessarily shared by the company. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine too except where credited as noted, as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch….Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.