Yesterday marked the anniversary of the death of Alan Turing. Turing is the father of modern artificial intelligence, the famous lead of the war time Allied code breaking effort. He was a difficult, eccentric, brilliant genius who died in ignominy following a period of disgrace after a conviction for homosexuality. His school career makes grim reading and he was the despair of his tutors, in particular he received many a telling-off for his poor handwriting, I know that feeling all too well.
Turing’s anniversary and the anniversary of any passing leaves us with questions about what we remember and how we remember it. In the short years after the end of the Second World War, Turing’s contribution slipped from popular view, his role was obscured by his trial. In like manner, Wilde is synonymous with a legacy of social disgrace as much as that of literary genius. Social attitudes change and an enlightened reflection recovers reputations. Turing is the celebrated hero of modern computing, while both men share the plaudits afforded by success on stage and screen, if posthumously.
But what of the philosophical point to ponder in all of this? What of the past do we remember and memorialise? It is said that history is written by the victors, if so what happens to the memory of the losing side? To be honest, the concept of winning and losing in the context of war seems highly suspect. Is it possible to think of winning in conflict in the same way or with the same sense as winning in sport? I would argue that they are very different realities, the depth of which is obscured by the language used to describe them.
History illuminates our understanding of the past, but it is told through a narrative that has a life of its own and changes, flexes to the accommodation of the prevailing social norms and through the revisionist re-reading and interpretation of events. History is not the past, it is the story we tell about the past. The “lions led by donkeys” narrative of the command of the First World War parodied by Rowan Atkinson is challenged by the reality of revisionism that looks beyond this view to a more granular truth. Chamberlain’s piece of paper “…signed by Mr Hitler…” resulted in his almost universal condemnation and the condemnation of the process of appeasement, itself under renewed scrutiny as Chamberlain’s tactics receive a more forensic analysis. The lionising of Churchill is in receipt of a more thoughtful interpretation which reveals a retinue of human frailty that makes him all too human, something which he never sought to be anything other.
I touch on this subject particularly because next week we begin in school a process of memorial with the children that will culminate in our collective shared remembrance of the 100 year anniversary of the end of World War One. Mr Chinnock is leading on an endeavour that will see every member of our community fashion a poppy which we will plant in front of the Prep School. In a process that will see our students reflect on the nature of conflict and the need to memorialise the authenticity of human experience, we will be creating a memorial in the grounds that shares all of Florence Nightingale’s concern for those who suffer the ravages of war. I write this very deliberately, Primo Levi makes the observation that those who survived the horror of holocaust were themselves “damned”, no one involved in conflict leaves it unmarked and anyone involved in conflict is marked by its legacy.
We will be inviting parents and family to join us in this memorial by coming in to school to create their own poppy. More comprehensive detail of this will follow in a more targeted fashion around the logistics and timings in due course. It may seem a long way off, but the scale of the project we are creating requires a lengthy lead-in. Our community at school has a wonderful international dimension, our cohesion makes us an authentic model of united nations and our memorial will recognise that no one of us and no specific cultural or national group has a monopoly on suffering or sacrifice. The world we live in needs more than ever the voice of reasoned reflection on how better we are when we share concerns openly and when dialogue directs the resolution of dispute.
My compatriot had a point when he suggested that to ignore the past is to be doomed to repeat it, it goes for history as well. Our memorial will be a testament to what we have learned, to our mission to make the world a better place and this is not only worthy of Horace but much closer to what Owen was getting at when he wrote “Dulce et decorum est..”
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley