Philip Hensher: The best way to apologise to Alan Turing

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The Alan Turing case has come to seem horrifying over the years. Once the government was asked directly what it thought about it, then some kind of statement of regret would only be human. In January 1952, Turing, the

great cryptographer and founding father of computer science, picked up a young man, who subsequently burgled Turing's house. Turing reported the crime, and the sexual relationship came to mind. Turing was arrested for

gross indecency. At the time, "expert opinion" tended to think that homosexuality was either a criminal matter or a medical one. The court offered Turing the choice between imprisonment and chemical castration. He took the latter choice. Two years later, Turing, who had lost his security clearance as well as his sexual desires, committed suicide by biting into a cyanide-laced apple.

Gordon Brown's apology for these long-ago events might seem unnecessary. It was a very long time ago. Governments have subsequently made reparation in the most meaningful way, by decriminalising homosexuality and ensuring that subsequent Turings could never be treated like this. And, in any case, the official behaviour in Turing's case, and, no doubt, in other less celebrated cases, was and remains completely unforgivable.

But I think he was right to apologise. If none of this could ever happen again in the United Kingdom, there are other people who might still evoke the medical precedent when faced with their own homosexuals. Or, worse, might skip straight to the poisoned-apple stage. Interestingly, the World Health Organization went on classifying homosexuality as a mental illness until 1993; the national psychiatric organisations of Japan and China didso until later still. Only the other day, the Bishop of Rochester was telling homosexuals that "we want [homosexuals] to repent and be changed." His religious colleagues elsewhere in the world have taken more drastic action. Iran offers homosexuals, when prosecuted, the choice of being executed or a sex-change operation.

Or there is the mob rule in Jamaica, much of Africa, Russia and places like Iraq, where the forces of law either turn a blind eye to lynch mobs or even join in quite happily with the killing of homosexuals. Gordon Brown's apology ought not to be viewed as a matter of historical curiosity, and he should have made this clear; what happened to Alan Turing, and worse, is happening all the time in every part of the world, to people to whom no government will ever apologise.

If Gordon Brown is determined to ensure that Turing's fate will never be considered as normal, he could do worse than think about the United Nation's approach to human rights. Article 2 of the 1948 Declaration on Human Rights specifies non-discrimination on the grounds of "race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status". That "other status" ought to include sexual orientation, though the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the Vatican See and some Catholic countries, all members or with observer status at the UN, have argued against this.

The official opinion of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, is that discrimination and criminalisation is impossible to justify either as a matter of law or of morality. Getting this opinion enshrined as legally binding is still a substantial challenge, however. If Gordon Brown is serious about apologizing for what was done to Alan Turing, he can lead a move to stop castrations by the knife, the needle, or the blunt machete of the mob. They are still happening in large parts of the world.

The passing of the tattoo generation

Kelly Osbourne has said that she regrets getting tattoos when younger, and is planning to have them removed. All of 24 years old, she says: "Don't gettattoos, please, because you hate them when you get older."

Drawing attention to the tattoo of a keyboard on her arm, she says: "I can't play the piano and I have a keyboard because I went through this weird 1980s phase and I was really drunk."

No one ever thought that getting a tattoo was a matter of mature judgement and sober reflection. All the same, there was a point, about 10 or 12 years ago, when getting a tattoo seemed like rather a cool thing to do, and I have to admit to thinking quite seriously about it. Thank God the impulse passed, and the most permanent reminders of my own past drunkenness are some dear old friends and a couple of humiliating anecdotes.

Have you got one of those Celtic bands, a snake up the arm, or one of those lower-back adornments charmingly known in the trade as "arse-antlers"? The day is fast approaching when the young will point, cover their mouths, and titter.

Wedding lists – such a grubby tradition

Lord Frederick Windsor, 32nd in line to the throne, married a lady who was in Peep Show. And why shouldn't we take an interest? After all, when George I came to the throne, he was 52nd in the line of succession. Stranger things have happened. But what interests me is their wonderful Selfridges wedding list, including such delights as the £31 teaspoon, two butter spreaders at £16, frog-shaped place-card holders and four wine coasters at £82.95.

But why should people like Lord and Lady Frederick Windsor put up a wedding list at all? He works for a merchant bank; she is a successful actress. I can see the point of a wedding list for young people who are leaving their parental home, but it seems a little surprising that a 30-year-old merchant banker has been stirring his tea with his little finger until now. When we married earlier this year, we didn't dare to put up a wedding list; we would have been the subject of ridicule. "Anyway," as a friend of mine said, "if you marry after the age of 30, what you get is four dozen bowls, whether you ask for them or not". So we asked guests to give something to charity instead. Now that the average age to get married in the UK is 31 for men, 29 for women, isn't it time to consider calling a halt to this grubby tradition?

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