Thursday, 9 September 2010

Filaments of the Dead

Before one can tell the story of Milton Keynes, one must tell the story of Bletchley. The unlovely name means ‘Blaecca’s clearing’. Neighbouring Fenny Stratford is no less prosaic: the Latin strata is the most literary constituent of the name, most likely referring to Watling Road, which stretches from Dover to the Roman city of Chester. Ford refers to a river crossing, and Fenny means that the area was, well, fenny, muddy and flat. Following much the same history of the rest of South West England, Bletchley’s main redeeming feature is that it is roughly halfway between London and Birmingham, Oxford and Cambridge.

For an understanding of Bletchley’s preindustrial history one must consult the modest books that are easily missed next to brassier titles such as Colossus(!) and Station X(!!). Local rector F.W. Bennitt’s prosaically named Bletchley is a gem filled with passages about local industry, entertainment and even a compendium on local dialect. Written in the mid thirties, it relies on personal recollection to describe early Victorian life. What are just as interesting are the elements Bennitt takes for granted as general knowledge that will now have to be explained anew to modern audiences:

“Going round the lacemakers cottages and buying lace was a regular profession, just as an eggler today visits the farm and collects the eggs”
Children were as charming then as they are now, chanting with gusto every  Guy Fawkes:
"Guy Fawkes, Guy,
Stick him in the eye
Hang him on the lamp-post
And there let him die"
 Even further back The History of Fenny Stratford , written by William Bradbrook in 1911, has a prickly, half page-long opening sentence on the nomenclature of Fenny Stratford, “Fenny Stratford is a name the two disyllables of which do not appear capable of much or great variation in spelling; and however diverse may be the same name being intended ….” Thankfully Bradbrook finds his stride by page eight and warms up enough to say “During the 5th and 6th centuries the undesirable alien immigrant had the time of his life, until the 20th century set in.”

 The life of Riley for Johnny Foreigner indeed! Though it is hard not to take Bradbrook’s attitudes to my forebears personally, I cannot resist a curmudgeon. He clearly had no time for Pope Gregory I's "they won't notice" approach  to spreading the word:
"St Martin's  Day, 11 November, is an example of the coincidence of a saint's day  with a pagan festival viz., that of the vinalia or celebration of Bacchus. The coincidence may  be the result of the recommendation of Gregory the Great, that Church festivals should be made to  occur on days of heathen celebrations with a view to obscuring and displacing the latter. As the rites of Bacchus are festive and mundane, it is not surprising that S. Martin has suffered somewhat from the loose companion with  which he is associated."
(Speaking as a heathen-Irish mongrel I know which I'd prefer to celebrate this November.)

Bletchley voices have often been lost in the din of neighbouring London and its attendant modernity. The road brought many things to Bletchley over the years; Romans, Saxons, Londoners, civil war, plague, industry, and yet more Londoners. Caught at the crossroads of much more important places, Bletchley was a transport hub, first the road, then the canal, then the railway. Aside from that Bletchley’s main output was bricks made from the heavy sod at Water Eaton. By 1921 Bletchley was home to the greatest number of brick-workers in the county.

The men who lived and worked in Bletchley’s industrial hub had surprising connections with the sod on which they worked. Des Tunks was a railwayman on the Bletchley to Buckingham line. He recalls:
“Wild flowers! We used to take bets on how many heads you could find on a cowslip. I found a double-stalked one with thirty-two on, but they wouldn’t have that. Bee orchids in June and July were a rare sight. They’re just like bumble bees with pink petals around, looks like a bee going into a flower … You couldn’t beat what we saw along the branch line …” (from Bletchley  Voices compiled by  Robin Cook)
Reg Knapp describes some of the finds the brick-workers made in the clay pits;
 “Another day he came in with a big rock. You could make out this squashed fish, its eye and skeleton. They reckoned it was fifty million years old.” (Voices)
Heat belched forth from many sources and was omnipresent in the lives of many. Sweat streamed off the backs of those who worked in the kilns and engine rooms. In winter the warmth of fire drew men to the forges like moths. Bubbles Field remembers:

“One old brickyard worker, ‘Jimmy Dig Deeper’, would choose one of the warm empty kilns to sleep in, he went missing once. They thought he’d been bricked in and burned with a load of new bricks. His job was to tar the walls inside the kilns. A big old colonial boy, no-one knew his age. Nearly sixteen stone he was. Lovely old fellow… Living in the kilns, he said made him better off than king or queen because he has a different room every night.” (Voices)
But not everyone remembers twentieth century Bletchley quite so fondly. Through the eyes of an outsider things looked different:
“Bletchley is now absorbed into Milton Keynes but then it was a railway junction surrounded by brickworks with no redeeming features and populated entirely by railway workers or men who worked in the brickworks. I might as well have found myself in outer Mongolia.” (from  Bletchley Park People by  Marion Hill)
After being called up for mysterious and urgent war service, this Wren had expected to go on to Oxford or Cambridge when her train stopped at Bletchley. She could barely contain her disappointment at finding for some strange reason this was her final destination. Conditions for the many women who worked in this cradle of modern computing was no less dirty or hot than those of the brick workers down the road:
“The cleaners came in about 6am. There was a rush to go to breakfast at 7am as the whole room was a fog of dust which settled on your papers so they always felt gritty”(Bletchley Park People)
“Even now when I smell ionization I am again in that hot, low-ceilinged room in the early hours of the morning, watching the machine in a haze of cigarette smoke trying to keep my eyes open through the interminable runs, half mesmerised by the slow rhythmic clicking as the drums crept round on the spindles. In those days sleep on watch was a greater crime than murder.” (ibid)

Doomed always to be the aggregate of something greater, Bletchley seems an unlikely nursery for the Information Age. Exactly halfway between Oxford and Cambridge, Bletchley drew on the best brains (well those of a certain class, of course) in the country to decipher the German Enigma code at Bletchley. The most famous of these men was Alan Turing, who is often blamed for the idea of the modern computer.

Turing possessed an intelligence that is so unapproachable at times it seems inhuman. He is most famous for the Turing test (and consequentially the hash tag #turingtestfail) and the Turing Machines, the theory of which Turing described in 1936 as:

“ infinite memory capacity obtained in the form of an infinite tape marked out into squares, on each of which a symbol could be printed. At any moment there is one symbol in the machine; it is called the scanned symbol. The machine can alter the scanned symbol and its behavior is in part determined by that symbol, but the symbols on the tape elsewhere do not affect the behavior of the machine. However, the tape can be moved back and forth through the machine, this being one of the elementary operations of the machine. Any symbol on the tape may therefore eventually have an innings” (On computable numbers - available at the Turing Digital Archive)
This paragraph snags in practice ever so slightly on the second word, and possibly the third. No such machine exists, yet. Bogged down in semantics, we are still a long way off. But truly I am glad Turing had such ambitious theories. No really, I am.

In 1950 he wrote further on the topic in Intelligent Machinery in which he advocated for artificial intelligence. The idea that we are not alone in our possession of intelligence is disturbing. The idea of consciousness within machines is even more unnerving. Most know how The Matrix clumsily draws the cybernetic connection between human life-force and machines. Nabokov did it more deftly in his novel Ada where electricity is mysteriously banned and never to be spoken of, its origin too shocking for polite conversation. Clues as to what Nabokov might have been getting at there can be found in John Shade’s poem in Pale Fire:
“The dead, the gentle dead–who knows?–
In tungsten filaments abide,
And on my bedside table glows
Another man's departed bride.
And maybe Shakespeare floods a whole
Town with innumerable lights.”

Whatever the connection, it is unearthly and wrong. This consideration of sentient electricity was not all that distant from Turing’s thinking. At Bletchley Turing noted the new symbiotic relationship had changed the rules of thought:

“Bombes ticked away getting on with the work by themselves – and while the Wrens did their appointed tasks, without knowing what any of it was for. He was fascinated that people could be taking part in something clever in a mindless way. Machines, and people acting like machines, had replaced a good deal of human thought, judgement and recognition. Few knew how the system worked, and for anyone else, it was a mystical oracle, producing an unpredictable judgement.” (from Alan Turing: The Enigma)
This heavily influenced his work in Intelligent Machinery, where he countered the general arguments against the possibility of intelligent machines. Turing later took an interest in morphogenesis, particularly Fibonacci patterns in nature. Andrew Hodges argues Turing had a lifelong fascination, and perhaps dissatisfaction, with explanations given by Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know by Edwin Tenney Brewster. Whether a case of causation or correlation, extracts from the book support this argument well:

“For of course the body is a machine. It is a vastly complex machine, many times more complicated than any machine ever made with hands; but it is still after all a machine.”
And Brewster explains mitosis as such:
“So we are not built like a cement or wooden house, but like a brick one. We are made of little living bricks. When we grow it is because these living bricks divide into half bricks, and then grow into whole ones again. But how the find out when and where to grow fast, and when and where to grow slowly, and when and where not to grow at all, is precisely what nobody has yet made the smallest beginning at finding out”
Not everyone believes that electricity immortalises. Some argue that computers have poisoned that well. For years we have become accustomed to working with objects that have bested human life spans. Virtual time travellers, they have an advantage over us, of having had the same position in the time space continuum events in the past that we call history. Touching such an object can make the hair stand on the back of one’s neck. Caroline Steedman best describes this in Something She Called a Fever, as she daily visits archives and breathes in and is sickened by the particulate of the author. The new conduits, however, do not play by the rule “for dust you are, and to dust shall you return”. And they do not even lend themselves as hosts to carry tiny specs of our remains into the future.

Yet words like rot and decay have entered the daily parlance of modern recordkeeping In a short time our digital creations have proved more fragile than the corporeal world. Turing’s theoretical machines may have inadvertently robbed historians of the future of the experience of inhaling the dust and smut of the past in more ways than one. Some think there may be little primary for future historians to build histories from at all. Although I’d argue that some of this anxiety is ill-founded. It is these blotches however that provide that which tantalises, which makes history attractive.

Most mysterious are the circumstances surrounding Turing’s death. There’s an urban legend that the bite from the apple in the Apple computer logo is a tribute to Alan Turing. Ahead of his time in more ways than one, Turing saw no reason to be apologetic about his homosexuality. It was this that eventually got him into trouble, for homosexual activity was criminal in Great Britain until 1967. After being found guilty of ‘indecent acts’ in 1952, he was ‘chemically castrated’, by having to take large doses of female hormones. Two years after this sentence was passed he committed suicide by eating an apple dipped in arsenic. There is much debate about the meaning of the choice of poison by apple, whether he was inspired by the apple-poisoning scene in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, whether it represents knowledge or innocence, even whether the poisoning was accidental. It was Turing’s daily habit to have an apple each night before bedtime and this begs the question of how remote the thought of suicide was in his mind, or worse, how frequent.

The truth behind the Apple logo is more prosaic however. At the time the apple logo was designed no one knew about Turing or Bletchley, the secret was tightly sealed for many years. Designer Rob Janoff explains:

“Anyway, when I explain the real reason why I did the bite it's kind of a let down. But I'll tell you. I designed it with a bite for scale, so people get that it was an apple not a cherry. Also it was kind of iconic about taking a bite out of an apple. Something that everyone can experience.”

I gather the men who created popular computing sleep soundly at night.

It is a shame that such a beautiful word as enigma is so common in Bletchley. An enigma should be intricate, diaphanous, incandescent, not a great emblazoned green blotch haphazardly planted by every other dual carriageway. Brilliant, unknowable, intellectually self-contained, and in possession of a halting and high-pitched voice, Turing must have stood in sharp contrast to claggy Bletchley. Indeed he did strike an odd figure, especially in summer:

"Near the beginning of June he would suffer from hayfever, which blinded him as he cycled to work, so he would use a gas mask to keep the pollen out, regardless of how he looked. The bicycle itself was unique, since it required the counting of revolutions until a certain spoke touched a certain link (rather like a cipher machine), when action would have to be taken to prevent the chain coming off.” (from Alan Turing: The Enigma)

Now when I go out cycling on the lonelier roads of Milton Keynes I will forever wonder not if, but when I will be swiftly overtaken by a clattering, wheezing vision, left coughing on the dust of its wake.

Enigma comes from the Greek ainigma meaning to speak in riddles or fables, though I think the explanation that it is “a truth nature will never relinquish” is more fitting, for despite the sophistication Turing has bequeathed us, omniscience continues to ever recede into the distance.


  1. Delighted to stumble upon your blog - welcome to Milton Keynes.

    If you can get hold of a copy (WHSmith has it online) you should read 'Henry Mundy - A Young Austalian Pioneer' - or at least the first section - because it will give you a picture of the area that is now Milton Keynes as it was in the first part of the 19th century.

    Henry did the reverse journey - he went from here to the antipodes. I get the feeling from your writing, you'd enjoy it.

    Details are here

  2. Cheers. Yes thank you, I would be interested. I see there's a copy at the BL so I might chase it down.

    (And Bow Brickhill is on my list of places to go on the bike. I'm intrigued by the hills on the southern horizon)