Thursday, 8 January 2015

Around the World in 80 Gays : Part 1 - A Quest

Here we go on our round the world tour of lgbt heritage. As I said in the introduction a few days ago this will be a continuous journey bringing us back to this our starting point. The problem with that is where is our starting point? Where do we start? In a continuous circle of names there is no start, so I have to decide which person will lead off the journey.

I’ve decided to start with someone who is a topical subject at the moment in the UK because of the up-and-coming Oscar and Bafta awards. One of the leading films of late 2014 was “The Imitation Game”, starring Benedict Cumberbatch in a fictionalised life story of the code-breaker (1) Alan Turing (1912-1954).

The film was inspired by one of the first major biographies of Turing that tackled the subject of his homosexuality non-judgementally. That biography was called “Alan Turing: The Enigma” and was written by (2) Dr. Andrew Hodges (b.1949).

Andrew is a mathematician and senior research fellow at the Mathematical Institute. In 1972 he began working with the eminent physicist Roger Penrose (now Sir Roger Penrose) on twistors. I won’t claim to understand twistor mathematics or how it relates to physics and quantum theory, but Andrew has been working on this enigmatic subject for over thirty years.

Speaking of “enigmatic” brings me back to (1) Alan Turing and Andrew’s biography. Andrew learnt about the fate and Turing at about the same time he began working on twistor theory. As a gay man in the 1970s Andrew also played a part in the gay liberation movement. In 1977 Andrew wanted to make the story and tragedy of Turing’s life more widely known, so he began researching for the biography which was published in 1983.

Very few people had heard of (1) Alan Turing before  (2) Andrew Hodges’ biography of him came out, and even fewer people realised what a significant part Turing had played in the World War II and, later, in the development of the computer. This is hardly surprising. All of Turing’s work, and that of everyone else at Bletchley Park, was still top secret in the 1980s. Gradually, through the 80s the work of these Bletchley Park code-breakers was revealed and many of them who were still alive began to speak of their secret wartime careers. To most historians Turing was a mathematician who came up with theories of artificial intelligence and computers. Since the 1980s, and Hodges’ biography, Turing’s work at breaking the Nazi Enigma codes gained recognition.

Also working at Bletchley Park, and responsible for breaking one of the other Nazi codes, was (3) Noel Currer-Briggs (1919-2004), one of my “Twelve Noels of Christmas” last month. Noel later became a genealogist and leading authority on the Turin Shroud. In his book “The Shroud and the Grail” (1987) Noel wrote about his research into the period between 1204 and 1353 when the Holy Grail and the Turin Shroud were “lost”, disappearing from written records after the sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders.

Using his code-breaking mind Noel followed a whole series of clues and believed that, if it existed, the Grail passed through several families until it came into the possession of a Christian sect called the Cathars in the 14th century. From that point the Grail disappears from history all together.

The Shroud, however, was taken to Greece and passed into the family of one of the last Templar Knights. Noel looked at the genealogical descent of this family back to Crusaders who sacked Constantinople in 1204. That family gave the Shroud to the Duke of Milan in Turin, and it has remained there ever since.

(3) Noel Currer-Briggs admitted that his theories were mostly circumstantial, but he believed the Shroud and the Grail were once inextricably linked. Unlike the Shroud, the Holy Grail had long been the subject of medieval romance poetry. Unlike the Grail, the Shroud was a proven historical object, regardless of who and why is was created.

During his research Noel followed most of the theories on the Holy Grail put forward before World War II by a German historian who said that the link between the Grail and the Templars came through one of the earliest medieval romance poems. A Templar knight called Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote a poem called “Parzival” in which the Grail featured. Wolfram located the Grail in the mystical mountain retreat called Munsalvaesche. Noel agreed that this was very probably the very real Monts├ęgur, a retreat of the Cathars. There’s no actual connection between the Templars and the Cathars, but a modern novelist has helped to confuse the two in the popular mind.

“Parzival” was the poem which first inspired that German Grail historian to pursue his quest. His name was (4) Otto Rahn, and I’ll begin Part 2 of “Around the World in 80 Gays” with Otto Rahn.

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