Between Two Worlds: On Visiting the Statue of Alan Turing

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I love him like I love the light that comes through the window. I have never touched him, but during certain times of the day he fills the room.

On my recent trip to England, I took the train to Manchester for the day to visit his statue. At the feet of the statue are these words: “Alan Mathison Turing, 1912-1954. Father of Computer Science, Mathematician, Logician, Wartime Codebreaker, Victim of Prejudice.”

When I was twenty-seven, I promised myself that I would write a novel about Turing. I knew that it would take many years. I’ve written passages: chains of numbers mixed with poems, lists of poisons, alchemy. Long passages about a man who was once a boy who made up beautiful, strange words. The sounds of seagulls fighting was “quockling.” This same boy grew up and danced with men in Norway in clubs not known to the public. I see him there under dim lights between bodies whose skin smells like fog over the sea. He carries himself across the dance floor like a ship with its mast on fire.

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I have read everything I can about him, but this was not close enough. And so I sat across from the statue for a long time, trying to read the shape of his face and memorize the width of shadows.

It was in England that I rediscovered a love of black and white photography. All of my photos are full of unabashed contrast between shadows and light.

When I was sitting there across from the statue, an old man who was passing through the park stopped and spoke to me. His name was Oliver. Oliver had the kindest eyes I have ever seen. His hair was the colour of the pavement in my photographs: sky grey, grey of memory. He stayed with me for about a half an hour. He told me about how he had known Turing many, many years before. It didn’t occur to me until much later how incredible it was that two people who loved the same man from a distance would meet by chance in a small park in the same hour more than fifty years after this man had died.

Both Oliver and Turing had been marathon runners. Both of them frequented what Oliver called the ‘notorious’ clubs of Manchester. This was his confession: the word notorious. From medieval Latin notorius, “commonly known.” A place where language has a slippage: these clubs were in fact delicate secrets. Places where shadows came together, unloosening their tight shirt collars.

The statue of Turing is in a park midway between Manchester University and Manchester’s gay district. One space was Turing’s public life, the other his private life. I don’t know if the same clubs Oliver once knew still existed. I don’t think anyone would call them notorious anymore. But Oliver’s stories were histories. He said that he and Turing were part of a species that was once dying, and he is one of very few left. I didn’t ask him what he meant. I was somewhere in my mind, contemplating lost places where bodies press against each other in black and white. But when I open my eyes, the buildings and sky have become vivid colours.

It occurred to me when Oliver walked on that I don’t know the colour of Turing’s eyes. I know about his first love: a boy named Christopher Morcom whose family once took young Turing to the seaside. And I know the colour of the smudges on his skin: Alan, sixteen years old, would get ink stains on his shirts and his skin at school. Other boys would laugh. I imagine small constellations of pores spread out amidst grey-black nebulas.

I know that, only about a year after Alan met Christopher, Alan looked out his window at the moon rising one night and saw the white light that split the sky as it rose like an old man parting the sea as he walks. Alan knew that the moon meant something, even though he did not know that Christopher had tuberculosis. Christopher left the world that night.

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The statue of Turing is cast bronze. Oliver told me it is a striking likeness, though some people have said the statue should be taller. Oliver believes it is only an illusion that Turing was tall. His runner’s body suggested height, but he wasn’t a tall man. Oliver knows men who have measured the inseam of the statue’s legs, the shadows of heavy watches and steady hands resting gently against Turing’s thighs. These men measured to be certain that every detail was correct. And these men were satisfied.

Turing’s statue sits with an apple held in one hand. The significance of the apple is this: Turing loved the story of Snow White. He was fascinated by the image of the apple: one side which is harmless, the other side, vivid green, poisoned. The girl with pale skin does not know.

During World War II, Turing worked at Bletchey Park, the Government Code and Cypher School, which was Britain’s codebreaking centre. There, he was seminal in devising a machine that could decode the ever-changing codes of the German Enigma Machine. This act is credited with helping to end the war and allow the Allies victory.

In 1952, Turing’s homosexuality led to a criminal conviction. At this point in time, homosexuality was still illegal in the UK. Rather than face prison time, Turing accepted chemical castration to “neutralize” his libido. The estrogen he was forced to take changed his body. He grew breasts: two apples growing from the branches of ribs.

On June 8 of 1954, he was found dead. An apple sat beside him, bitten. The accepted story is that Turing laced the apple with cyanide. His mother believed another story: that her son had been working with chemicals and forgotten to wash his hands. Some believe that Turing staged his death in this way to allow his mother to believe in the sweetness of an accident.

I have always known Turing in black and white. I know him from words written about him and words that he wrote himself. In one of his final letters, he wrote this syllogism: Turing believes machines think, Turing lies with men, Therefore machines do not think.

At the base of the statue of Turing there is a collection of coloured stones that form a rainbow. The green seems faded. The red is vivid. I am used to red fading. Red: the colour of apples, blood, and the ribbon Snow White wore in her hair. This is the image that I leave with as I walk back toward the train.

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