British mathematician Alan Turing went running “to get away from rubbish conversations”

Writer Alan Warner remembers his jogging pal's jokes, suicide and the way the newspapers "revelled in his downfall"

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I first met Alan Turing in 1951. We both lived in Cheshire — he in Wilmslow, me in Alderly Edge — and we bumped into each other one day on a run. In those days joggers didn’t clutter up the roads so it was odd to see someone else out. We fell into conversation easily. For two years, whenever we crossed paths, we’d run and talk. We had things in common — a love of classical music and wordplay. One of the things I remember most about him is his ability to laugh for a long time without losing his breath.

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In other areas we were very different. He was a mathematician and I was a classicist about 20 years his junior. Sometimes he talked to himself. I realised he went running to get away from rubbish conversations. I knew when not to interrupt him. Physically, we were also dissimilar. I was a tall, thin sprinter. He was a barrel-chested marathon runner. I loped along the roads and he thumped. But we found a mutual pace — about 10mph. Usually we’d be out for two hours at a time.

When the media started reporting his trial [for gross indecency], I couldn’t believe it. Was it the same Alan Turing? The way the newspapers revelled in his downfall made me angry. Even now, I find it hard to remain polite if I hear anything homophobic said against him.

When he died the following year, my main feeling was one of guilt. I felt that if I’d picked up on more, I could have helped him. I know that’s irrational. Certain things we didn’t talk about. He never mentioned his role in the war for instance. It was only when the Official Secrets Act was lifted in the 1970s that I realised everything he’d done for our country.

Do I believe that Alan killed himself? It seems obvious to me that it was something he might consider. I came to realise later that he was very naive. If the world didn’t like him, I can see him thinking that he’d just go away.

I’m ambivalent about the recent reinstatement of Alan as genius. Part of me says, “About time too.” Another part feels like it’s the media cashing in on a good story. For me, Alan will always be a witty, lovely, genius of a man. I don’t claim to have known him. But for a short period of time I knew a part of him. 

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As told to Ellie Austin