Archive for November 13, 2011

Remembered Heroes

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, Cricket, History with tags , on November 13, 2011 by telescoper

Two things have come up recently that I’d like to mention here. They’re both, in their different ways, about heroes, but the remembrance that’s called for is different to that normally observed on this day.

First, I couldn’t resist passing on a link to a short but intensely moving piece by Alan Garner in yesterday’s Guardian about Alan Turing, in the My Hero series.

I suppose most readers of this blog will know of Turing’s pioneering work on computer science and his crucial contribution to the war effort in cracking the German Enigma codes. I also suppose most know about the circumstances of his death; he took is own life in 1954 after being forced to endure a form of chemical castration after being found guilty of homosexuality, in case you didn’t already know. Many of you will also have read some (or in my case many) of the various books about his life and work. (If not I recommend Andrew Hodges’ excellent The Enigma of Intelligence, which I read when I was an undergraduate, over 25 years ago.)

But what those of us who never met Alan Turing will never know is what he was really like as a man, and that is why pieces like the one by Alan Garner are so moving. Turing comes across as eccentric (I think we all know what was the case), but also as a very amusing character who was excellent company and a bit of a chatterbox, despite suffering from a stammer. The circumstances of his arrest and subsequent conviction for the “crime” of being gay also confirm the impression that he had an almost childlike innocence about the world outside academe. In other words, he was a very easy target. We like to think we live in more enlightened times nowadays – and I suppose in many ways we do – but I think Alan Turing would be as much, or even more of, a misfit in today’s world than he was in the 1950s. Although he was undoubtedly a genius, he rarely bothered to publish academic papers so I dread to think how he would fare in the present university system!

Anyway, I’d just like to say thank you to Alan Garner (who knew Turing well as a friend) for sharing his thoughts and experiences. I may have never met Alan Turing, but he’s my hero too…

And that brings me to another sad story. I only learned this morning that former cricketer Peter Roebuck died yesterday, at the age of 55, having taken his own life in a hotel room in Cape Town. Peter Roebuck always seemed to me an unlikely figure for a sportsman, with his spectacles, cerebral air, and rather stooped gait he looked more like an academic than an athlete, but he was a fine cricketer. I remember him very well from the time I was a schoolboy mad keen about cricket, and I liked him particularly because he wasn’t – or didn’t seem to be – someone blessed with prodigious natural skill. He made it in the professional game because he worked hard. People like that are always heroes to those, like me, who love sport but don’t have any innate talent for it.

After retiring from cricket Roebuck went to live in Australia and took up a career as writer and commentator on the sport, a role at which he excelled, as much for his lucid prose as for his deep technical knowledge. Although he mainly covered Australian cricket, I often read his articles and admired his writing enormously. I have no idea what caused him to commit suicide, and I wouldn’t wish to speculate about that, let alone presume to judge. All I can say is that it’s the saddest thing when someone takes their own life, whatever the circumstances.

UPDTATE: 14/11/2011 There’s a lot of traffic coming to this post via Google searches of “Was Peter Roebuck gay” or suchlike. I have no idea whether he was or wasn’t and I’m not going to indulge in gossip, so I’m afraid that if that’s the reason you’re here you’re going to be disappointed.

Rest in peace, Peter Roebuck.