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Neil Cameron

Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian. He served as a member of Quebec's National Assembly from 1989 to 1994.

Alan Turing & the triumphs of British wartime science

The current wave of public interest in Alan Turing and the code-breakers of Bletchley Hall, caused by the film, The Imitation Game, revives for me an ancient sorrow, a memory of how history is written and re-written. In early 1973, I was just about to leave England after two years of Ph.D. research on the British scientific elite in World War II. I had read all available government and private papers, all the relevant published memoirs and monographs that had already appeared, and interviewed a dozen surviving scientists. I had used up my fellowship money, and was leaving with my wife and children for a cegep teaching job in Montreal. But then, an elderly wartime intelligence officer published The Ultra Secret, the first book revealing the code-breaking done at Bletchley Hall. It would be followed over the next decade by more scholarly accounts, culminating in the fine 1983 biography by Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma. It would later be followed by several TV documentaries, novels, and stage plays. But Turing's wartime achievements were as astonishing news to me in 1973 as they still are being to younger moviegoers now. I knew a great deal about the Cambridge environment that formed Turing and his scientific contemporaries, and knew his name as a computer pioneer. But I had not learned of the very existence of Bletchley Hall in all the months I had spent reading and talking to nuclear physicists, radar designers, and operational researchers. Most of them, I realized, had known as little of it as I did. While I was one of many aspiring historians taking advantage of a recent British government decision to open previously secret World War II files, I knew this access had not been completely open. In particular, I had found that files on chemical… Read More

Social Tedium – A Christmas Carol

[Sing to the air 'The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring', with apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan.]     From Apple new wonders still spring, tra-la, replacing last year's as old hat; We grapple again with their bling, tra-la, though feeling like brains in a vat; Yes, feeling like brains in a vat. Which leads us at times to gloomily wonder if what Jobs hath wrought was a terrible blunder.   Tra-la-la-la-la-la, Tra-la-la-la-la-la, Tra-la-la-la, Tra-la.   The friends found on Facebook we ring, tra-la, are not souls we really divine; But to them we're bound and we bring, tra-la, our i-phones along as we dine, Yes, our i-phones along as we dine. We're ready all times to answer their call, but unfriend some friends for no reason at all;   Tra-la-la-la-la-la, Tra--la-la-la-la-la, Tra-la-la-la, Tra-la.   We Twitter our Tweets without cease, tra-la, and so all our memories drown; And litter the streets with the grease, tra-la, of accidents caused by eyes down. Yes, of accidents caused by eyes down. A Tweet may look sweet, but the aftertaste's bitter; best lift up our eyes and miss the odd Twitter;   Tra-la-la-la-la-la, Tra--la-la-la-la-la, Tra-la-la-la, Tra-la.   Now Instagrams offer more news, tra-la, and viral new hashtags galore; Busy webcams take numerous views, tra-la, of cuddly cat gags by the score; Yes, of cuddly cat gags by the score. A banquet of sights in the palm of our hand, from models in tights to the latest boy band;   Tra-la-la-la-la-la, Tra--la-la-la-la-la, Tra-la-la-la, Tra-la.   The selfie's becoming a drug, tra-la, now rivalling pot and cocaine; Smug and snug as a bug in a rug, tra-la, we've found a new way to be vain. Yes, found a new way to be vain. We're still bound to guess that the rage for the selfie may… Read More

A PKP Christmas Carol

A VISION: Pierre-Karl Peladeau, after a hard day of phoning wavering PQ members, fighting off a horde of his media underlings, and having quarrelled with Julie, had a bit too much to drink before retiring, and had a nightmare, which he described in detail to his anglo psychiatrist, who took a stenographic record of it, translating everything into English. In it, he was haunted by the British media baron Robert Maxwell, who died in 1991, either by drowning, heart attack, or assassination by Mossad or another intelligence service. PKP dramatized the conversation exactly as he recalled it. Pierre-Karl Peladeau: Holy blue! Host of the tabernacle of chalice! Who the Hell are you, and how in Hell did you get in here? Why are you naked and soaking wet? Loud noises of splashing water, crackling sounds as water caused short circuits in PKP'S bedroom lights. Then a deep booming voice, recognizably that of Robert Maxwell. RM: Do you not know me, Pierre-Karl? In life, I was your father's business partner, Robert Maxwell. I was almost an uncle to you. I have returned to warn you! PKP: Wait a minute. You're dead. In fact, you've been dead for over a decade. Why are you showing up now? Chalice! Host! Is this going to be some damned update of the Christmas Carol, with you doing Marley and me stuck as Scrooge? RM: That's the general idea... PKP: Never liked the story. Anglo sentimentality. Scrooge was a perfectly good businessman who became delusional. I won't do the same. Ask the journalists' union. And I'm a busy man. I don't have time for this nonsense. Is this some kind of joke from Julie? I'm giving up most of my business, anyway. I want to make Quebec a country - More loud splashing and crackling sounds.… Read More

Why Orwell Remains Indispensable

In a recent BBC broadcast, Will Self, a well-known English writer, described George Orwell as 'a supreme mediocrity', and claimed also that 1984 had 'little originality' and was full of 'obvious didacticism'. The attack was not well-received. Few listeners or readers agreed with the substance of the criticism, and were also likely to add the accurate observation that it was Self who was the real mediocrity, and a pompous ass as well. I agreed, but still thought this attack significant, as Self is far more representative of most English novelists and critics of recent decades than Orwell is; probably more representative of almost the whole Anglosphere literary world in recent years. Furthermore, contrary to what younger readers may assume, that was almost as true in the years in which Orwell was writing, which coincided with the most dangerous and ideologically intense years of the Cold War. He died in 1950, only two years after completing 1984. Already ill with tuberculosis, he had written the book with desperate speed. Animal Farm, written in the closing years of World War II, was more finely executed, but the later book was more spectacularly successful, selling 20 million copies in the first year after publication, and it has become a classic. But he found his literary friends largely among disillusioned ex-Marxist intellectuals. Even then, there were plenty of literary establishment figures who were as anti-Orwell as Self. Still, both of the Orwell dystopias have remained common assignments for high school students, throughout the Anglosphere. So is his essay on Politics and the English language, but I doubt that general readers are now familiar with his earlier novels, or with the four volumes of his splendid Collected Essays, Journals, and Letters. The narrower contemporary idea of Orwell has not been a very satisfactory way of… Read More

Tribal fantasies and the terror of individual uniqueness

When I was about nine years old, an old Scottish lady I knew told me, only half in jest, that “There are two kinds of people in the world, those who are Scots, and those who are not.” I later asked my mother, a model of sceptical common sense, what she thought of this pronouncement, and she responded, “There are two kinds of people in the world, those who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who do not.” This exchange launched a lifelong fascination with the way people make generalizations and use collective groupings. I observed, for example, a tendency among many people to attribute qualities to other individuals or groups that revealed more about themselves than about those they were attempting to describe. I later also concluded that academic studies in history, philosophy, and literature are not so much beneficial for the specific knowledge that they imperfectly impart, but can, if well-taught, at least partially free us from the array of prejudices with which we enter adult existence. Conversely, what I think is wrong with many college and university courses today is that they instead reinforce bad received ideas, often refined to new levels of self-deception and social confusion. A fine demonstration of this latter is offered by Matt Labash, in an article, 'Among the Palefaces', in the current Weekly Standard Magazine. It is a spoof, but the laughter has an echo that is grim. He begins:   'As a lifelong white person – or Person without Color, for the more sensitively inclined – I have nothing against white people. I mean...I'm all too aware of the dubious and disheartening white-people statistics. Nearly all Prius owners, Vineyard Vines wearers, and girls named 'Addison' are white. Almost 8 out of 10 Canadians are white.… Read More
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