Imitation Game

Last night I went to see “The Imitation Game”, the film about Alan Turing and the Bletchley code-breakers.  It was OK in a sort of “Foyle’s War” way, but I wonder whether the reviewers were a little dazzled by the Cumberbatch reputation so that they did not see the weaknesses of the film.  The story of the code-breakers is well-known now, and it is truly extraordinary.  By 1945, we were reading German messages more quickly than the German recipients were reading them.  The Turing breakthrough of using a machine to cut through all the options of Enigma was clearly vital, but the achievements of Bletchley were a team effort by a vast army of service people, administrators, mathematicians and other academics, many of them women.  I guess it is good for the drama to have a few people – usually arguing and occasionally punching each other in a very un-English, very un-1940s sort of way – because group work is not very cinematic.  But still …

The film had a few easily eliminated anachronisms.  I’m not talking about the right vintage of buses or trains (though there were no King George V class battleships in 1939), nor the claim that the real Joan Clarke wasn’t as pretty as Keira Knightley (who bloody is ?), as much as the dialogue.  The use of the word “smart” rather than “clever” is American, and is even now not used a lot in UK conversation except in technology applications.  Did Turing ever use the word ‘digital computer’ ?  In passing, the programmable computer was built by one of his colleagues, a Post Office engineer called Tommy Flowers.  The practice of throwing arms around another man in joy is (see above) not very British, and not very upper-class 1940s.  To describe Turing’s hormone treatment in the 1950s as ‘government-mandated’ is a stretch (the court offered it to him as a way of avoiding imprisonment for indecency. Crap, but not a government plot).  The end credits, which spoke of Turing being regarded with ‘honor’ (rather than honour) maybe gives a clue to the crudeness of the storylines that does not need to be expertly decrypted.

I’m not sure if there were any other historical inaccuracies in the film, but the emphasis on the Battle of the Atlantic missed the other uses of Ultra – outstandingly El Alamein (which was not mentioned, though Stalingrad was – eh ?).  There was indeed a dilemma about how much of the information could be used before the Germans knew we were reading their codes, but (unlike in the film) convoys were routinely steered away from U-boat packs.  And the soap opera scene when one code-breaker’s brother was on a ship being knowingly sent into danger was, well, soap opera.  And whilst the accusation that the film skated over Turing’s sexuality – it did not – Turing’s homosexuality was treated in a way that was so restrained and dignified that it missed the real anguish that must have been there.

So, go to the film if you want a well-acted drama with great sets and costumes, but not if you want more insight into the Ultra puzzle.  Or,  I suspect, the real world Alan Turing.

Footnote. One argument against conspiracy theory asks whether it is plausible that vast numbers of people can keep a secret (about 9/11, or the moon landings etc.) without it ever leaking out.  I don’t know of a single justified conspiracy theory (do you ?), but this particular rebuttal is weaker now we know that thousands – literally thousands – of people kept the Ultra secret for twenty or thirty years (from 1945 till the publication of  F.W. Winterbotham’s “The Ultra Secret” in 1974).

Innovation

When I worked in north Manchester, I had a great friend from a local family of Irish extraction.  She explained to me the origin of the expression “the greatest thing since sliced bread”, which was as follows.  In large families with plenty of sons doing manual labour, the women of the household had to prepare the packed lunch.  The availability of consistent, wrapped, sliced bread removed much of the drudgery that had to be done late at night or first thing in the morning.  A great thing, for sure, for sure.

What modern inventions have matched this ?  Non-stick pans, of course – what an innovation for the lover of scrambled eggs !  Worth the cost of flying to the moon for that alone.  Another one that struck me the other day – wading through the Christmas cards for friends that are still alive and in touch – was the peel-off postage stamps.  No more foul glue sticking tongue and lips together.  Marvellous.

But now I’m scratching.  I was struck by recent articles that ask why the pace of innovation is so slow these days (even if Bill Gates disagrees).  It’s true.  Brainless executives and politicians talk about the unprecedented pace of change, but it is as nothing compared to my grandmother’s time.  She was born in 1870 and died in the 1960s. Forget Queen Victoria and the Wild West, she was alive to see the first aeroplanes, two world wars, the first antibiotics, the first artificial fibres, manufactures in stainless steel, telephones, machine guns, central heating for the masses, the first motor cars.  Beside this, the internet and the jet engine are comparatively slight matters.  And so much of our current innovation is of no moment.  What exactly are automatic wipers on cars for ?  And keyless ignition – the innovation that thieves like more than customers ?  If we concede that the ability to play Candy Crush on the 8.17 from Paddington is not a breakthrough for humanity, we can note that until smart phones came along, mobile phones just replaced phone boxes, and Uber minicabs.  Drip-dry shirts have come and gone, as have nylon sheets (thank goodness).

What improves lives is better quality things.  We have made great progress here – motorways are no longer littered with the open bonnets of steaming cars – but not as much as we would like.  Washing machines don’t last as long as they used to, because of the fierce price competition that drives down quality of white goods.  But if you try to buy one, you will be dazzled by the micro-chip operated wizardry that you are offered (and don’t need).  My roll of honour of great quality purchases includes:

  • My golf trolley by GoKart is superb, and the after-sales service (the only component I needed was provided free by next-day service) faultless.
  • I bought some stainless steel saucepans from Alders in Eltham when I moved to London in 1992.  I still have them, and they are spotless.  They are still going strong, which is more than can be said of Alders in Eltham.
  • Clark’s leather trainers.  Wear them almost daily, and they are comfortable and last and last.  Mind you, I had some Rockports that did the same.
  • The teapots on Brittany Ferries, which seem to be the only small metallic teapots that can dispense two cups of tea without drenching the table and the paper you’re reading

I then get into a debate about whether paying more gets you better quality.  In the case of washing machines, it seems you do.  Another recent discovery from your big-spending confidante: I pushed the boat out and bought some Ralph Lauren socks last week, and they are great.  However, in the case of golf trolleys and saucepans, it seems price is not always a guide to quality.  I can taste how much nicer a posh port is, but haven’t noticed this in wine.  Some Bordeauxs are so full of oak that they seem to come from a carpenter’s not a vintner.  Before you buy an expensive Burgundy white, try a Bourgogne Aligoté – cheaper and just as nice.  When it comes to cars, my most expensive purchase – a brand new Jaguar XJ – had endless faults, and couldn’t go anywhere safely in the snow.  Whilst my daughter’s 12 year old Ford Focus zoomed by.  Rats !

Saving the language. Again.

I sometimes think that my campaigns for the authenticity of the English language are a lost cause, and cast myself in the role of a dying warrior defending the old order, a sort of Hereward the Wake of grammar and meaning.  There is a rearguard action to save ‘literally’ which gives commentators a giggle now and again. But this is not the general picture.  Some things have gone already – I think Arthur Scargill killed off ‘refute’ so that it now means ‘unconvincingly deny’ rather than its proper meaning, to provide evidence that disproves a contention.  ‘Incredible’ and ‘unbelievable’ go their appalling way, now meaning ‘vaguely interesting’.  I got some fans when I described Stephen Twigg MP calling the achievements of academies as ‘unbelievable’ (others agreed he was unknowingly using the word in its original meaning), and protested when David Cameron wanted to make the Imperial War Museum ‘more incredible than ever’ – which struck me as not perhaps the right thing to say about a museum.  But generally, it seems a battle that has been lost, and maybe a war.

Where I think the tide may have turned is in respect of the emotionally incontinent word used routinely by politicians and business leaders.  Some years ago, if a friend said they had a passion, you would wait to get over it.  If they had an obsession, you would seek help.  And if they saw visions, then a session as an in-patient was called for.

No longer.  Every sports commentator describes a team’s ‘passion’.  David Cameron is passionate about …well … high speed trains, the union with Scotland, public safety, renewable energy, the environment, minimizing EU legislation, overseas aid goals, and … well, I could go on.   I remember Ruth Kelly coming to a college conference when she had been made Education Secretary, telling of her ‘passion for education’, a passion she had concealed in her previous careers as journalist, civil servant and politician, and her subsequent time as a banker.  Any crummy company with an MBA in charge will tell you of their obsession with quality.  Every plan for a public or private body has to have a ‘vision’ – just doing things better or cheaper doesn’t hit the spot.  And to deliver – or worse, ‘deliver on’ – these emotions, you have to be determined, with no ifs and no buts, rather as the Tory cabinet is determined to reduce immigration or the national debt (but fails).  But now, now we are beginning to get a backlash.  Journalists are noticing the nonsense.   It’s even getting as far as ‘awesome’, that bastard child of a Californian high school that slipped in whilst everyone else was saying ”Oh, my God !”.

One of George Orwell’s most memorable essays was “Politics and the English Language”, which he started by saying the language was in a bad way.  He described the meaning of phrases being hidden as phrases fell on the landscape like snow, first obscuring and then hiding reality.  He actually took the mickey out of ‘radical transformation’ sixty years ago, and politicians and CEOs are still bloody doing it.  What we need is a new Orwell to expose the rubbish.  I will do it when I have a moment.