Sunflowers, Science and Sexual Politics

These are my Alan Turing Sunflowers. To be more precise, they’re the sunflowers I’ve planted as part of an international science experiment to mark the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth.

Alan Turing was a scientist with a brilliant mind. He’s generally credited with breaking the German’s secret ‘Enigma Code’ during World War Two – an act that was pivotal in turning the tide in our favour.

He’s also held to be one of the forefathers of modern computing, having worked out a lot of the underlying theory in his lifetime.

The current sunflower experiment is an attempt to finish off another piece of work he did – looking for mathematical patterns in nature. One particular pattern he was looking at was the Fibonacci Sequence, which is explained (more or less!) in this clip.

Initiated in March by Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry, ‘Turing’s Sunflowers‘ aimed to persuade members of the public to grow a total of 3,000 sunflowers. It may have seemed like a big ask at the time but the response has been incredible. So much so that they’ve currently got pledges to grow nearly three times that number across 13 different countries!

And somewhere in that 8958 are the five that I’m growing too.

I have to admit my commitment to this experiment isn’t purely scientific. Alan Turing’s genius is widely acknowledged – but he was also gay and subject to intense persecution from the government because of it. So much so that he ended up taking his own life in 1954.

Despite his pivotal role in breaking the Enigma Code during the Second World War he was barred from any post-war security work simply because he was gay. Seeking a more supportive culture he made contact with gay organisations in Norway and had a couple of holidays there. But the British government hounded him throughout this period and left him in no doubt that his movements and his friends were being watched.

In reality, Turing’s ‘real’ crime was being unapologetic. He knew then, as so many of us know now, that there was nothing intrinsically sick or evil about being gay and refused to pander to those who would have us believe otherwise. But he was up against the dark forces of institutional power.

On one occasion he discovered that a young man he had slept with had subsequently robbed him. In consequence he did what all victims of crime are encouraged to do – he called the police. When he explained what had happened the police duly arrested him for his ‘crime’!

When his case came to court the judge decided to be ‘lenient’ because of his accomplishments during the war. ‘Being lenient’ meant giving him an alternative to a jail sentence – chemical castration, which is what Turing reluctantly agreed to.

In the end, the combination of this hideous emasculation and the continuing persecution finally got to him and he committed suicide in 1954, two weeks before his 42nd birthday.

And so, this is why I’m growing Alan Turing’s Sunflowers; as a memorial to a man who was ahead of his time in a social as well as scientific context. A man who was brave enough to be himself in spite of social disapproval and institutional persecution. And a man to whom the world owes so much.

In 2009 Prime Minster Gordon Brown issued a public apology for the treatment Turing received. In 2012 Prime Minister David Cameron announced that it wasn’t possible to issue a formal pardon for his ‘crimes’. This is clearly nonsense and merely highlights this government’s superficial commitment to gay rights.

The campaign for a full pardon continues and the petition can be signed here. There’s also a campaign to have him featured on the new ten pound note. The petition for this can be signed here.

And my own personal campaign is to grow sunflowers every year as a mark of respect and remembrance of a great man who was unafraid to show his love of other men. It would be great if others joined me…and even better if the sunflower becomes permanently associated with Alan Turing.

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S’warm Weather

This long period of cold and wet weather has been an uncertain time in terms of beekeeping. Normally at this time of year the queen is furiously laying eggs to get the colony up to maximum size which, in turn, will ensure maximum productivity.

However, the miserable weather has meant that food is not as abundant as it should be and, where it is, the rain has prevented bees from getting out to collect it. The news from around the Beekeepers Association is that a number of colonies are actually beginning to experience food shortages.

Lack of food means the queen slows down her egg laying and, consequently, the colony grows at a much slower pace too. The knock on effect of this is that there have been fewer swarms – because bees haven’t been forced to look for larger homes to accommodate their growing numbers.

Until Wednesday, that is, when the weather took a sharp turn into summer mode!

Less than an hour after telling a neighbour that it would be a while before we saw any swarms, I heard a loud buzzing in our back garden. And there they were – in their thousands, hovering above the vegetable garden!

My first reaction is to panic – on the grounds that it might be my bees that are swarming. So I went out to check my hive to see if this was the case. Thankfully it wasn’t. I had put swarm management strategies in place a few weeks earlier anyway – specifically, giving them more space to expand – but there’s no telling with these sly buggers. No matter what is says in the beekeeping literature, they’ve all got minds of their own!

Therefore I moved into the second phase of my response – panic in case the neighbours were watching all of this! Thankfully they weren’t and the whole episode had concluded before a single neighbour came into sight.

As I walked over to my hive I observed an interesting little interaction going on between ‘my’ bees and the swarmers. I’m guessing the swarmers had decided to check out this wooden space that smelled so strongly of honey to see if it would be a suitable new home. Clearly my girls had seen them off as the swarm moved away from the hive quite quickly.

One of two of my girls seemed to follow them out of curiosity but as the swarm moved further and further away it became clear that the majority were just carrying on with their normal routine: out of the hive and off along the established flight path in search of food.

As for the swarmers, they decided to settle at the top of a tree just outside our garden. They were far too high to reach so I decided to go for Plan B – try and lure them into a spare hive.

And so I set about my devious ways. Firstly I set out a hive filled with frames of wax, some of which had been drawn out into honeycomb (and one or two of which contained some honey). I left the lid off for a while in the hope that the scent might waft up the tree – more an act of desperation than science!  I even wafted a couple of frames around too, just in case.

It attracted one or two interested parties but not enough to make any impact on the larger swarm perched high above. So I put a frame of wax on the roof of the hive…and a container of old honeycomb…and a pot containing some recently melted wax.  If I’d been a bee I would have found it irresistible on looks alone!

But not the swarm, who stayed resolutely up the tree for another half hour or so.  And then, as quickly as they arrived, they flew off en masse over the roof tops and into the distance.

A feast fit for a queen? Apparently not!

Ironically, in the middle of all of it my partner rang to say there was another swarm settling into a tree across the road from his office. Clearly a lot of colonies have been waiting for the weather to change so they can go off in search of pastures new.

As long as my colony doesn’t decide to join them.

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Gay in the 80s

ImagePerhaps it’s a sign of my advancing years but I’m taking an increasing interest in gay history. What’s more (and slightly worrying) is the realisation that I was actually involved in some of it!

ImageThe bit that I was most involved in was the Eighties which, in my view, was quite a pivotal period in gay history. It was the decade when people really started pushing for things we now take for granted, such as equal rights in areas such as employment, education and housing. Of course some of it was still a long way off (and we still need to keep fighting battles to maintain those things we have won so far) but for me it was the decade that gay issues moved into the mainstream.

Sadly, I do also think that one of the reasons we became increasingly vocal was because of the emergence of HIV/AIDS. Our very existence was under threat and we had to fight tooth and nail to get politicians to take Imageit seriously. It really was a ‘sink or swim’ moment. And despite the pressures, the homophobia and the bereavement that most of us experienced, we managed to swim – ever more strongly.

So I’m now documenting my experience of that decade in my new blog Gay in the 80s. It’s very much a combination of the personal and the political, which also means there’ll be some ‘up’ stuff and there’ll be some ‘down’ stuff.  It won’t be a perpetual happy hour but it will, hopefully, be informative and entertaining.

Let the good (and/or bad) times roll!

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The extraordinary art of Roberto Ferri

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Elvis and me

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Noddy and me

Some years ago, while working as a freelance journalist in Australia, I met a man called Robert Tyndall. He’s not a household name by any stretch of the imagination but he did do a lot of work on developing a character who is – Enid Blyton’s Noddy.

For some reason I expected him to be quite arrogant; perhaps because he was, in many ways, a big star in his field. Indeed, I was surprised that he even agreed to meet with me as there clearly wasn’t any incentive for him: he wasn’t being paid and I obviously wasn’t a big name journalist who could do anything for him.

Nonetheless, we did meet up – in a Sydney art gallery, where some of his early artwork had been on sale – and he couldn’t have been a nicer. We talked for nearly two hours and he even let me take a series of photos of him with my one piece of Noddy memorabilia – and eggcup – perched on his shoulder and his head!

At the time I met him his original Noddy artwork – from the 1950’s – had just sold for considerable sums of money at an Enid Blyton centenary sale at Sotheby’s in London. Ironically, he didn’t get any of the money because the illustrations had been owned by the Enid Blyton Company, not him.

He did own a number of others, and some of them were on sale in Sydney. But Noddy seemed less popular in Australia, the pictures had gone unsold and Robert had come over to take them back home.

(If I’d been a week earlier – and a lot more savvy about the ‘Enid Blyton market’ – I could have bought his illustrated map of Toyland for $800 Australian (around 400 English pounds at that time). When he took it back to England, he sold it Enid Blyton’s daughter for 7,000 pounds – and would have got nearer 20,000 had it gone to auction!)

Anyway, rather than repeat the rest of the story, I’m reproducing the article I wrote- Trouble in Toyland – here.  There has been some ‘progress’ since I wrote it more than ten years ago. Robert hadn’t really done particularly well from his association with Noddy at that time. He was paid a fixed fee for each illustration and received no more, irrespective of the number of Noddy products sold (including 26 million Noddy books).

About a year ago, Noddy was re-launched to mark his 60th birthday – and Robert was appointed as Art Director for the whole project. Almost a fairytale ending!

Trouble in Toyland

Not many people know this man yet millions around the world have admired his work. In 1997 his art sold for three times its estimated value at Sotheby’s in London. But he did not receive a penny of it.

He is a gentle and unassuming man.  Yet he has the ability to reduce the sternest of executives and the sturdiest of men to a state of child-like awe.

Robert Tyndall is the man who drew Noddy.

From 1953 until 1968 he worked tirelessly to illustrate the prodigious output of Enid Blyton. As well as Noddy books there was also a weekly cartoon strip, illustrations for Noddy products and endorsements, and set designs for a Noddy pantomime. If Blyton wanted it drawn, Tyndall drew it. There were no exclusion clauses in his contract.

He was not the first person to draw the character. That honour fell to Dutch artist Harmsen Van Der Beek in 1949.

Van Der Beek developed Noddy from a series of figures he had produced for a jam company promotion. At the time Blyton’s publisher was seeking inspiration for a ‘Disney-style’ character. He was entranced by Van Der Beek’s drawings of the little people who inhabited a world of brightly coloured shops and houses. These little people were used to illustrate booklets given away by the jam manufacturer.

It was the Dutch artist who first drew up Noddy and the other members of Toyland like Big Ears the Pixie and teddy bears Mr. and Mrs. Tubby. Their clothes and homes were based on Dutch rather than English style and it was this colourful continental look that first appealed to Blyton’s publisher David White.

And ‘Little Noddy’ – as he was originally called – got his name from the fact that he was a perpetually nodding wooden puppet.

But Van Der Beek’s health began to fail shortly after he began work on Noddy and he died in 1953. Tyndall still wonders whether the pressure of work contributed to his death.

“There was an enormous amount of work to do,” he says. “Noddy was extremely popular and it was necessary to work very long hours to keep up with the demand.”

As Van Der Beek became increasingly unwell Blyton’s publishers started to look around for a replacement. They chose Tyndall because they had seen some posters he had drawn promoting coach tours in Britain. He had adopted a particularly colourful style and the publishers felt that it was sufficiently similar to Van Der Beek’s to warrant giving him the job.

Tyndall was 23 years old at the time. His age and the fact that he had a young family to support ensured that he kept up with the demands of the job. Even his agent had advised him “Behave yourself and you could do very well.”

Behaving himself meant doing as he was told. Every week he would be sent copy from Enid Blyton and he would dutifully illustrate it and return it. As well as illustrating her stories he would also design everything from Noddy eggcups and slippers through to promotional material and snow domes. When Noddy’s face was to appear on cereal packets, biscuit boxes and other products Tyndall was expected to draw that too.

In 1954, when Blyton wrote a Noddy pantomime, Tyndall was required to design the sets.

“It was a most peculiar experience,” he recalls. “They just gave me a sheet of paper listing the things that they wanted me to design.

There were all sorts of crazy things; the Faraway Tree, an aerial ballet – none of which had anything to do with Noddy but they were in there anyway! When I asked about dimensions and the size of the stage they told me not to worry about it.

‘Your drawings will be handed to a company that does all that sort of thing’ they said.”

The end result disappointed Tyndall, yet no one else seemed concerned.

“When I went to see the panto it was also the first time that I met Enid Blyton,” says Tyndall. “It really was quite strange. Everything was out of scale. The set for Big Ears’ house, for example, included a huge table and chair. There was no way that Noddy or Big Ears could have climbed onto those things!

I couldn’t get over it but nobody else seemed to notice.”

And what did Enid Blyton think of it?

“She wasn’t in the slightest bit concerned,” says Tyndall. “Didn’t mind at all!”

Whilst the design company was credited for its work Tyndall received no acknowledgment for his contribution. It was to become a familiar pattern over the years.

It was also to be one of the few times he met or even spoke with Enid Blyton.

“Our agents discouraged any contact,” he says. “I think that they were a bit concerned that we might by-pass them and they’d lose their commission.”

The next time that Blyton was to communicate directly with Tyndall would be under more strained circumstances.

In 1962 the Daily Mail ran an article entitled Crisis in Toyland. Columnist Paul Tanfield claimed to have met and talked with Tyndall.

During the alleged conversation the artist had said that he was unhappy with the payment he was receiving. At that time Tyndall was paid a total of seven guineas for each illustration even though book sales had reached twenty six million copies.

The artist denies both the conversation and the complaint. But he remembers the difficulties the article created.

Enid Blyton was clearly not impressed and rang him immediately for further details. Tyndall describes her tone as very much like a schoolteacher.

“She took a carrot and stick approach,” he says. “On the one hand she was very nice but there was a very big stick in the other hand to ensure she got what she wanted.”

After their discussion she took the artist’s side and wrote a long letter stating as much. Then the matter was considered closed and they had little direct contact again.

Blyton’s approach to this issue summed up her approach to life in general. She was very clear and focused about what she wanted and had little time for matters that distracted her from this. Even her family life was structured around her work.

According to her biographer, Barbara Stoney, she hated interruptions and disturbances – even from her own children.

Blyton’s own daughter Imogen Smallwood confirmed this in her 1989 autobiography A Childhood at Green Hedges. In it she describes her sense of isolation from her mother and Blyton’s pre-occupation with her work. From the earliest days of her life her care was assigned to someone else.

“…not only did my mother not want to feed me herself, but she did not want to be involved with any baby care; she simply wanted to get back to her writing.” wrote Smallwood.

Blyton retained such a distance from her daughters that for a number of years Imogen did not even realise who the woman was. Describing her weekly routine of collecting her pocket money Smallwood wrote:

“It was on one of these occasions, when I was on my way to collect my sixpence, that I came upon a new piece of knowledge. Something that one of the staff said to me made me realise that this woman with dark curly hair and brown eyes, so different from my own mouse-like appearance, who paid me just as she paid the other staff, who was in fact the absolute ruler of our household, was also my mother.

By this time I had met mothers in stories that were read to me, Enid Blyton stories included, and I knew that a mother bore a special relationship to her child… There was no special relationship. There was scarcely a relationship at all.”

Yet despite these harsh words, Tyndall believes that Imogen has now overcome many of those negative feelings.

“Although Imogen was very critical of her mother she is also very proud of her,” he says.

So much so that Imogen established the Enid Blyton Trust for Children in 1982 in memory of her mother.

Blyton’s other daughter, Gillian, has remained circumspect about life with her mother and today acts as an advisor to the Enid Blyton Company.

Gillian’s involvement is the only influence the family has over the management of Blyton’s works. Blyton and her husband effectively lost control in the 1960’s.

At that time the Tax Office discovered that Blyton was paying very little tax on the huge sums she was earning. This was not deliberate tax evasion but simply financial naiveté on the part of the writer.

To avoid a potentially huge tax bill Blyton’s advisors suggested the establishment of a company. This was duly enacted and Blyton’s financial problems were resolved – or so they thought.

In the years following Blyton’s death the family has become less and less involved in the management of the company.

At one point newspaper magnate Robert Maxwell bought the rights to Noddy. He wanted to re-issue the books and extend their appeal to a global market. But to do this he needed to change the image of the books.

Tyndall was approached to add and amend the Toyland characters. The golliwogs were the first to go. Decried earlier as negative racial stereotypes they risked offending Maxwell’s new global audience. They were removed and replaced with monkeys and goblins. Asian characters were also drawn and added to the background.

But then Tyndall began to re-consider.

Already feeling short-changed from his first involvement with Noddy he was determined to be adequately reimbursed this time. At the beginning of the project Maxwell’s company had given the artist a number of verbal assurances about payment. But as the work progressed they were slow to confirm the financial details.

Tyndall decided to withdraw. No one realised at the time but his departure marked not only the loss of an artist but also the last contact with anyone who understood the history and development of Noddy.

“There’s no one in the Company that understands the character now,” he says “They don’t have an Art Department so there are no guidelines on the way characters should be drawn. There are lots of Noddys coming out that don’t look like the original Noddy – there are lots of basic mistakes in the details.”

In the rush to capitalise on Noddy’s name the character and his friends have been transformed repeatedly. Many of the alterations are now done by computer. In some cases, says the artist, Noddy’s face “had the appearance of a Dutch cheese or pixilated peach”.

The expansion into the overseas market has also brought about many changes.

“The rights have been sold to an American company,” says Tyndall. “Apparently it is a big success but Noddy and Big Ears are nothing at all like the English originals. And all sorts of new characters that don’t sound Toytown-like at all have been introduced.

The same is true for the Japanese versions – it’s all quite strange really.”

Tyndall is saddened more by the current revisions of Noddy than by the poor recompense he has received for the vast amount of work he has done. It seems that no one really knows or cares about Noddy and that the driving force now is purely a financial one.

As if to rub salt into the wound he received little acknowledgment and no money when Sotheby’s auctioned a collection of his Noddy illustrations in October 1997. His works had become the property of the Enid Blyton Company and his name had been omitted from the auction catalogue. It was even more upsetting when they sold for more than three times their estimated value.

He remains philosophical.

“At least it afforded Blyton’s daughters the opportunity to buy some of the works,” he says.

And the prices that his work fetched have now encouraged him to put his own collection on the market. This time he will get to keep the money.

But whilst the ‘Noddy market’ is so hot in England it has not taken off in Australia. His works have been available at Sydney’s Seasons gallery for some time yet there have been few takers.

In one case a detailed map of Toytown surrounded by drawings of all its inhabitants remained unsold at $800. Tyndall took it back to England where he sold it to Enid Blyton’s daughter at the heavily discounted price of seven thousand pounds. Had it gone to auction it could have fetched upwards of twenty thousand pounds.

The only real interest in buying his works came from an over-zealous English collector. She had been in England when Sotheby’s had auctioned the other illustrations and therefore knew of their increased value. That news had yet to reach the Australian gallery, which still had them priced at pre-auction levels.

But instead of buying them quietly (and profitably) at those prices she asked if she could have a discount if she bought them all. It was not a decision that gallery owner Lerida Harrison could make. So Harrison rang Tyndall in England for advice.

He had completely forgotten about the illustrations in Australia and ordered their immediate withdrawal from sale pending further notice.

Now Harrison now finds herself in a dilemma. Noddy simply is not selling in Australia.

“The English are very nostalgic about Enid Blyton and that influences the prices they will pay,” she says. “But she means much less to Australians. We were raised on Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and Blinky Bill.”

So Tyndall’s works may not fetch the same prices here as in England. That being the case, Harrison is currently thinking about sending them back over there.

“Robert hasn’t really benefited from Noddy’s popularity in the past,” she says “Perhaps now it’s time that he did.”

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Back in the USSR

It’s 34 years to the day that I flew to what was then the USSR as part of a study tour for my Politics degree. I’ve recently unearthed the photos I took during that time and will post them in a separate blog (which I intend to call ‘Back in the USSR, surprisingly!).

In the meantime, a couple of pictures to set the scene.

The first one was taken in Novgorod, looking across the frozen river to the old town. But look at the foreground – just above the shed – and you’ll see a man wearing nothing more than a pair of bathers climbing into a hole in the ice for a bit of a dip in the water! It was around -7 degrees at the time!

The second photo is a scene that will, undoubtedly, have changed since 1978.This is Red Square (albeit in black and white!).

On the far left (for want of a better expression!) is the Kremlin and immediately in front of that Lenin’s tomb. Then there’s St Basil’s cathedral in the centre and along the right-hand side is GUM (pronounced ‘Goom’) department store.  (It really was the case that, if you wanted to buy something in GUM, you had to get a slip of paper from the person behind the relevant counter, take it to another desk where you paid and were issued with another slip. You then took that slip to a third counter to exchange it for another one, which you then took back to the original counter to collect your goods!)

I’ve not been back since ’78 but I’m guessing that there’ll be far more cars in the square now and that the buildings will all be plastered with adverts. (There’s probably a funeral director advertising over Lenin’s tomb!).

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