Friday, September 11, 2009

The surreality of apologies

When Monty Python was only a glimmer, there were several BBC Radio programmes experimenting in the same genre of humour.

Malcolm recalls a quick sketchette which went something like this:
[Official newsreader voice] A nuclear device has just eliminated the County of Essex. Will anyone who saw the accident please contact the police on [invented telephone number].
[Military voice] Sorry!
Holy Island

Then, last week, Malcolm saw one even more worthy of a mock.

Hanging by the sanctuary arch at Lindisfarne Parish Church, St Mary the Virgin (above), is a small cast copy of a sculpture and two framed documents. One of the documents is from a Scandinavian bishop. The other is an explanation.

In AD 793 Lindisfarne received the first Viking visitation. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle had it:
In this year terrible portents appeared over Northumbria, which sorely affrighted the inhabitants: there were exceptional flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying through the air. A great famine followed hard upon these signs; and a little later in that same year, on the 8th June, the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God's church by rapine and slaughter.
In 1993 the Scandinavian Bishop wrote his letter of apology, and sent the token of the sculpture as a peace-offering. And so the matter rests.

Haringey hoo-ha

That old war-horse, and Malcolm's fellow-councillor, Bernie Grant (who could never resist a theatrical gesture) once demanded the British Government apologise for slavery, and chuck the Crown Jewels in as compensation. Those who knew him understood Bernie's sense of humour was as grand as his bellowed laugh.

Downing Street does it right

Today we have Gordon Brown saying "sorry" to the ghost of Alan Turing:
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered a posthumous apology for the "inhumane" treatment of Alan Turing, the World War II codebreaker who committed suicide in 1954 after being prosecuted for homosexuality and forcibly treated with female hormones.

The mathematician helped crack Nazi Germany's Enigma encryption machine — a turning point in the war — and is considered a father of modern computing.

In 1952, however, Turing was convicted of gross indecency for having sex with a man and offered a choice between prison and "chemical castration" — the injection of female hormones to suppress his libido. His security clearance was revoked and he was no longer allowed to work for the government.
Allow Malcolm to annotate that:
  • It was the benighted 1950s, for heaven's sake.
  • The Home Secretary (1951-54) in Churchill's Government, presiding over the final persecution of Turing, was Sir David Maxwell Fyfe. That honourable member, and soon to be noble lord, fancied his chances to succeed Churchill as PM. Accordingly he set about ingratiating himself with the Tory Right Wing, by being a hanger-and-flogger. He sent poor David Bentley to the gallows. He led the Tory Lords in homophobic opposition to the Wolfenden Report (having himself set up the Committee as a way of kicking any reform into the long grass).
  • Turing was, in any case, a delicate flower. Check out any history of his work at Bletchley for confirmation. Somewhere near Shenley, just off the M1, are the silver bars he buried there in 1940; and was never again able to relocate.
  • His security clearance was already questioned by the Americans, who had been finding difficulties since 1942. By 1952, when Senator Joe McCarthy was in full rant, Turing (like so many others) didn't stand a chance of a fair hearing, either side of the Atlantic.
Far better than a few words of apology is the manner in which Turing has been celebrated: roads named after him; a blue plaque on his birthplace; statues here and there; a postage stamp ...

Gordon Brown's statement ticks all the boxes, answers each and every realistic demand of the petitioners:
While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.
Watch that space. That apology will not be enough. Sphere: Related Content

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