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More interviews with Turing's relatives

Susan Watts | 17:13 UK time, Monday, 7 September 2009


... and here, as promised in my last entry, are some excerpts from those interviews about Alan Turing, with surviving family members Janet Robinson and Inagh Payne (daughters of his brother John - with first wife Joan) and Dermot Turing (son of his brother John - with second wife, Beryl).

First, Janet Robinson - the youngest of Alan's three nieces. She made me laugh when I asked if any of her family had followed in his footsteps:

"Absolutely not - on my side of the family the brains definitely skipped our generation. My eldest daughter Lisa studied computational maths at university, but then decided she had a vocation with children, and went on to be a primary school teacher ."

Earlier she had mentioned that Lisa's maths teacher apparently sometimes had to go home and work out how she had got the right answer, often by a route that was different to the rest of her class.

Janet was 7-years-old when Alan Turing died, and she recalled the day of his funeral :

"I remember my father in his dressing room getting ready. Obviously it was a very important occasion, every fleck of dust and everything was brushed away. I found this to be an exciting experience. It was like getting ready for a party. I sort of danced around. I had some inkling that it was a sad occasion, but being a particularly thick child I didn't respond quite as one would expect. "

She would like to see wider recognition of his contribution: "A lot of people haven't heard of him."

So, I asked, is this a timely moment to reflect on the man, and his work at Bletchley Park?

"This generation is obviously moving on and the next generation, they need to know what happened in the war, and how all these people at Bletchley brought things together and how the computer came about. Quite a lot of time has gone by and if any more time slips away the people who were around at that time won't be here to remember him."

I asked what she thinks lies at the root of this lack of recognition - the need to keep secret the work at Bletchley Park, or official attitudes at the time to his homosexuality?

"I think it was more the need to keep the work of Bletchley Park secret, because basically during those thirty post-war years we had not any inkling. We knew he did war work, but that was it, we didn't know anything else."

Alan Turing's nephew, Dermot Turing, told Newsnight producer Sam McAlister how he felt about his family connections, and the latest calls for public recognition of his legacy:

"We're always very proud to have been related to Alan Turing. It's part of the family folklore, and you can't get away from it. In a strange sort of way I think we're touched and honoured by it. It's not our personal achievements, but it's still very nice to be associated with it in some way."

He supports the aims of the petition.

"Yes I do, though to an extent I've got slightly mixed feelings about it. Certainly I think what was done to Alan Turing was absolutely disgraceful, but I'm measuring that against early 21st Century values - and I think that at the time it may not have seemed so extraordinary.

"But I think that things move on, and for example we've seen some apologies given for treatment of soldiers in the First World War and if you put it in that kind of context I think a re-evaluation is appropriate and therefore I'd support it."

"I can't see why the UK government would not wish to treat Alan Turing as one of the citizens that they are willing to laud and see as a true representative of Britain... certainly a patriotic individual who did his best for the country and was prosecuted for something that frankly doesn't seem to have any modern relevance, and I think it would be good, in a modern world, to reflect that."

Dermot did not meet Alan Turing himself, but talked about the family stories.

"Well there are plenty of stories about how eccentric he was and I think sometimes that gets a bit blown out of proportion. I mean obviously he was a very unusual person. But talking to people who met him and worked with him you get a feeling of a very human person as well somebody who really wasn't anything as eccentric or difficult to get along with as perhaps some of the stories might imply.

"Therefore I think to see him as a family member, as a human being, is probably a bit easier for us than maybe it is for people who read the books or see the films or who have come across him, for example as mathematicians or computer scientists do in the classroom... he can possibly seem a bit remote and a bit strange if that's your only encounter."

I asked him how the family feels now about the attitude of the establishment at the time.

"I think we have just sort of accepted it as what happened, rather than trying to be too judgemental about it. I think it's easier for me personally to say that because I didn't have to go through all the trauma of it when it was going on. My father and Alan's mother were obviously very upset about the whole business - I'm not sure that she ever really understood it properly.

"It's been something that has always been there in the background. We've never really talked about it very deeply because it's the sort of thing that would have upset the people who were personally involved at the time."

Alan Turing's eldest niece, Inagh Payne, was 18-years-old when he died and has clear memories of him :

"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.

"I remember once when I was about eight he gave me this parcel and it was an iron. When I opened it I burst out laughing, and I felt so remorseful after that because I think I must have hurt his feelings. But it was very unusual. I was very undomesticated at any rate. But to be given an iron at that age. "

One of the lesser known aspects of his life was Alan Turing's fondness for running - narrowly missing out on representing his country at the Olympics because of a knee injury, Janet told me. Inagh recalls an outing by way of compensation:

"He took my sister Shuna and myself to the Olympic games when we were very little, and we watched all these runners and everything... but the highlight for me, and for Shuna I think as well, was going out to have mushrooms on toast afterwards. That was great."

So what does she think of the petition?

"I think definitely that he should be given all the recognition for what he did during the war. It's so sad that he was persecuted and hounded at the end of his life. I'm sure it must have absolutely ruined his life. It was absolutely miserable. They injected him with hormones and goodness knows what."

I asked her if the family thought that this experience had contributed to his untimely death.

"Well we don't really talk about it, though I'm sure most of the family would think that yes it did, though my grandmother always maintained that it wasn't suicide - that it was a complete accident."

I asked Janet what it was about Alan Turing that future generations should remember, and why?

"Alan had the most amazing brain. There are wonderful stories about things he did as a child which were totally off the wall and unusual, and this brain was used to the greater good. But also he was a very deserving person. He was very, very kind, very truthful and quiet and unassuming. I think he was somebody special."

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