17.45, A Coincidence, A. J. Alan, BBC, BBC Wireless, Book review., Books, Death, Destiny, Dreams, E. F. Benson, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Good Evening Everyone, John Reith, Literary criticism, My Adventure in Jermyn Street, My Adventure in Norfolk, Percy the Prawn, Premonition, Premonitory Dreams, Premonitory Tales, The B.B.I., The Diver, The Dream, The Voice, The White Bungalow, Wireless Telegraphy
#1: Dickens’ “The Signalman.”
#2: “Lord Dufferin’s Ghost” and “The Bus-Conductor.”
#3: Algernon Blackwood.
#4. E. F. Benson.
#5. W. F. Harvey’s “August Heat” and E. F. Benson’s “The Room in the Tower.”
Leslie Harrison Lambert delivered his first radio talk on January 31st 1924, under the pseudonym A. J. Alan, and his flair for broadcasting and ease before the microphone would prove a runaway success. One may be even justified in claiming that Alan ultimately helped to reconcile an undecided public with the new British Broadcasting Company. Alan would ostensibly rattle off a spontaneous fifteen-minute “talk,” and historians of the English language should today treasure the unusual colloquialisms which are found throughout his tales, but these broadcasts were in reality carefully scripted and painstakingly rehearsed. Transcripts of Alan’s talks were collected in two volumes: Good Evening, Everyone!, which contained broadcasts from between 1924 and 1928, and A. J. Alan’s Second Book, which contained his broadcasts up to 1933. Anything broadcast between 1933 and his death in 1940 remains lost, aside from two rare recordings which are shared on the Stars of the Wireless website.
Alan would give the traditional English ghost story a further and altogether more playful turn of the screw, but there was more to this wily raconteur than just spooks. Indeed, it is not clear whether Alan was yet fully in-character when beginning his tale “The Diver” with the gripe that,“the BBC are always asking me to tell a ghost story… Any kind you like, so long as it’s a personal experience and perfectly true.” Alan always adhered to M. R. James’ model of an “amateur” writer and he filled a senior and very shadowy position in the Foreign Office throughout his broadcasting career, withstanding his celebrity with a stoicism which may seem inconceivable today. Unlike James, however, Alan disdained the easy thrills of the fireside ghost story. Excluding his fantasy pieces and tales for children, only ten of Alan’s thirty four published stories describe supernatural events, and a mere three of those feature regular hauntings (“The Voice,” “My Adventure in Norfolk” and “The Photograph”).
Alan was not aloof from popular entertainment, but his eye for the unexploited potential of broadcasting, and his particular preoccupation with its quality, renders him a ready subscriber to John Reith’s ambitions for the BBC. Indeed, the great man can be himself found bestowing a few generous words upon Good Evening, Everyone! It is hard to imagine the stuffy, churchy Reith approving of Alan’s “The Dream,” in which the tale’s lady of the night is implicitly likened to a high class hooker, or “The B.B. I.” in which a group of vigilantes ransack the homes of “war profiteers, white collar bandits, and so on.” But in a simultaneously idealistic and perceptive forward, the architect of the BBC observes that, “It is no exaggeration to say that A. J. Alan has been a pioneer. No story-teller before him ever had so many listeners; no listeners a better story-teller.”
Rarely has a narrative form been so mindful and so declarative of its own materiality. If BBC license payers could receive an impression of the whole nation in their homes – its news, sport, culture, and religion – then the character of A. J. Alan is sent forth into the nation, a heralding angel of the BBC, to investigate and report upon national life, like an early version of Mass Observation. Most of his narratives offer variations upon the same idea: the hapless and obscurely cantankerous Alan gatecrashes a party (“An Impromptu Dance,” “A Foggy Evening,” “The First of April”); he invades a stranger’s home (“My Adventure in Jermyn Street,” “The B.B.I.” “A Tale of Four Cocktails,” “H2, Etc,” “1745,” “A Joy Ride”); he is privilege to a clandestine gathering (“A Foggy Evening,” “Mr Pappas”); he listens in on a marriage proposal (“An Impromptu Evening”); he infiltrates a surveillance mission (“The Suitcase,” “Mr Warbeck”); and he generally intrudes into every corner of life and every man’s affairs.
In Alan’s first story, “My Adventure in Jermyn Street,” the machinations of a mysterious female transport him into an arbitrary suburban home. Confronting his tormentor, Alan finds the spotlight turning quickly upon his own anonymity. “… are you quite certain that you are not mistaking me for anyone else?” Alan inquires, although in broadcasting pseudonymously, he presumably wishes his listeners to do just that. The lady verifies that “I know all about you,” she proceeds to reel off Lambert’s year of birth and profession, and if she was allowed to get any further, she might blow his cover. Yet if Alan wonders about the identity of this storytelling lady, we know virtually as little about Alan himself. From our perspective, they are like two peas in a pod.
Her incomprehensible story becomes his, those references to doctored whisky and stolen cars cannot be assembled into a coherent narrative, and Alan ends up soliciting his listeners’ “ideas and suggestions” as to how a greater meaning can be achieved, inviting them to correspond with the BBC. This narrator bereft of narrative authority is equally a character trapped in a fiction which he cannot understand. Wireless has reduced Alan to sheer inarticulate speech, just as he has been transmitted into a random home like a wireless broadcast. Yet the story’s final request is a satire upon the soft authoritarianism of the BBC, which knew nothing of its listeners and took more interest in transmitting morally uplifting content into their homes, than seeking their opinions. Alan would not share any incoming “suggestions” with the rest of the listeners: there was no community, only a received transmission which one had to put up with.
The first story in A J Alan’s Second Book, “The Necessity of Invention Knows No Law” poses something of a counterpart to “Jermyn Street.” Chief amongst the similarities between the two tales is that Alan meets a mysterious lady and that he eventually ends up crashing about in her suburban villa with the lights off. But it transpires that this lady is an author who has three days to write a novel, and that Alan has been recruited as her “unconscious collaborator” in an impromptu trial storyline. This time Alan has been invited into the home in question, and his blundering will not be interpreted by his listeners “ideas and suggestions,” but contained within a novel to which, like the earlier correspondence with the BBC, we have no access. Yet Alan is himself a character in a fictional story, and if he insists that his own narrative is true and unpolished whilst the novelist’s is false and embellished, this can only draw attention to Alan’s own fictional credentials.
If Alan himself represents a crusading personification of the BBC, the supernatural likewise appears in his fiction as a sly and not wholly serious metaphor for wireless broadcasting. The spirit world emerges as a vast, obscurely-organised broadcaster of warnings, notifications, curses, and occasional misinformation. Just as the BBC of Alan’s day was struggling to define its purpose, identify its listeners, and “speak” for the nation, Alan imagines an equivalent uncertainty raging amongst the forces which intervene in matters of life and death.
Alan here plucked the premonitory tale from the hands of E. F. Benson, and this literary model seemed altogether readymade for the medium of wireless broadcasting. Alan’s latest account of a premonitory message would materialise in his listeners’ homes, borne on invisible wireless waves. Previous masters of the premonitory tale, such as Benson and W.F. Harvey, had regarded their abrupt joke-like structures as essential to their success, and perhaps the logical destination of this model was a translation into told rather than written jokes.
Benson’s “The Room in the Tower” (1912) casts an unmistakable shadow over Alan’s early tale “The Dream”: the narrators of both stories are haunted by a recurring premonitory dream over the course of many years, but Alan’s dream does not concern a single man’s destiny, but a minor civic event in which an audience of “forty or fifty” men wait in turn to be called up on to a platform to converse with a mysterious lady. Alan relates that he has “always been too late” to see how the candidate is selected, and that the conservation is “so quiet” that he has never distinguished what is said upon the platform. The “punch line” of this story is that on two occasions Alan recognises the man on the platform and, wishing to “compare notes” with him in real life the next morning, he finds that the man has “died in bed.”
The dream is an odd mixture of curse and lottery, and if Alan has learned that one should avoid being called to the platform, this is not quite the secret to immortality, as the curse only applies to “death in bed,” and it can have no bearing upon a daylight mishap such as being flattened by a bus. If Alan reasons that “all these other people must be dreaming too,” and this audience moves in the same social circles by day, then many of them must have surely acquired his own suspicion about the peril on the platform. Why, then, have they not put their heads together and exploded the trap?
In “A Coincidence,” Alan awakens in the dead of night to a peculiar and uncanny vision, rather like Hugh Grainger in Benson’s “The Bus-Conductor” (1906). A succession of cars brake sharply outside of Alan’s home, until he finally emerges in a dressing-gown, to be greeted by an odd “optical illusion”: the impression of a man’s body, which turns out, from a distance of “five and six yards,” to be only a “rough patch in the road.” Two policemen are equally tricked by this illusion, as well as the drivers of all of those hastily-braking cars. The illusion is dismissed as a “coincidence,” but the real coincidence of the story comes several weeks later when a man is run over on the very spot of the illusion.
Here, the message has reached the wrong person. Alan is possibly roused from his recurring death dream, and cars are torn from their journeys, by the premonition of a death which they are not only unable to recognise as a premonition, but which, if they did, they would have no practical means of preventing. It is not a meaningful premonition, but rather an elaborate and sinister joke which is perpetrated by otherwordly forces to inexplicably mock Alan.
Alan’s next tale, “The Diver” begins with one of Benson’s favourite plotlines in which a fraudulent medium inadvertently delivers some genuine supernatural tidings. An exasperated Alan wishes to dispel the growing suspicion that “nothing ever happened” whenever he attends a séance. He duly invents his own knee-operated “table-tapper” and deploys it to sensational effect at his next sitting. In the course of his fraud, however, he correctly predicts the 100-1 winner of the Derby, but fails to “take my own tip and back it.” Alan moves on to recount what he regards as a “genuinely uncanny” premonition, in which, lunching at a sandwich bar beside a swimming pool, he is haunted by a phantom diver who never resurfaces. In one appearance, the diver “gave me a most meaning look. I didn’t know what it meant, but it was undoubtedly a meaning look.”
Alan consequently meets the diver at a dinner party and he learns that this character, Melhuish, is intending to travel to Mexico with his host and hostess, the Pringles. Presumably having learned the lesson of his earlier tale “A Coincidence,” he appreciates that his vision “might be a warning of some kind.” He describes his vision to Mrs Pringle and she happily concurs that it is “a portent, a direct intervention of Providence.” Mrs Pringle’s refusal to travel with Melhuish is vindicated when he perishes, along with thirteen others, after the bridge carrying his train collapses and he takes his final dive.
Alan once more ends his tale by asking his listeners to identify the “moral to this story.” It is a tricky one. Melhuish has been himself warned from diving – the scar by which Alan identifies him as the man from his vision was procured during a previous diving accident – but this warning to avoid water is so watery that it makes no impression upon Melhuish. And even if it had done, the ship carrying Melhuish to Mexico remains afloat, whilst his train ends up sinking. Alan does not deem it worthwhile to acquaint Melhuish of his vision, regarding him as an inevitably-cursed “Jonah,” and whilst a stray scrap of warning has inexplicably reached the Pringles, many more people have been consigned to oblivion.
In “The Voice,” Alan investigates a friend’s haunted wireless set, on which the 2LO broadcast is nightly interrupted by the strains of a female opera singer. Assuming that the signal is being broadcast from “some amateur transmitter quite close,” Alan scours the neighbourhood with his “direction-finding set.” But in a particularly clear echo of the comparison between human “transferred emotions” and wireless transmissions which is outlined in Benson’s “The Terror by Night” (1912), the culprit turns out to be a teenaged girl who is unknowingly channelling the operatics of her deceased mother. This tale concludes happily, however, with the daughter being persuaded to develop her own operatic talent.
In “My Adventure in Norfolk,” Alan learns that he has been trapped in a recording. After witnessing some puzzling events whilst scouting for a forthcoming holiday in Norfolk, he discovers that they “all happened in February, nineteen nineteen” and that those with whom he had conversed “have been dead for years.” Alan was a member of the magic circle, performing tricks at social gatherings, and his story evokes the experience of being contained within a managed performance, just as the audience member called up to assist in a magic trick is provided with a false feeling of his freedom to, say, choose a card, when in reality they are being controlled like a puppet; or just as those amongst Alan’s own audience are actually reacting to a staged performance rather than to an off-the-cuff talk.
Alan abandons the supernatural in favour of an alternative metaphor for wireless broadcasting in “The B.B.I.,” in which he and his dining chums are dismayed by the “really bad bit of work” of a recent burglar, and they resolve to try their own hands at burglary, merely to hone a proficiency in this field. They eventually burgle “war profiteers, white collar bandits,” and donate their takings to charity. They form a sort of guild, the BBI (The British Burglars’ Institute), which sounds a lot like the BBC, and its apprentices are likened to slick, precise machines which can enter suburban homes as cleanly as a wireless signal: “it was one of the rules of the game that nothing must be broken.” They must learn how to move in silence, just as Lambert himself stealthily turned the cardboard pages of his script whilst broadcasting, and in the graduate’s world “everything is done in the dark,” in the same way that one would never see A. J. Alan.
Unfortunately wireless signals have their limits: at one point the BBI attempt to extract a safe from a house by using an electromagnet fixed to a van, but the van becomes stuck to the side of the house. When the BBI operatives befriend a girl in the process of burgling her father’s house, she touchingly claims “quite seriously that this was the only meal she’d ever enjoyed in her own home,” in the same sense that one of Alan’s incoming talks would have brightened up even the most oppressive domestic interior. This satire is whimsical and rather inconsequential – unless Alan is complaining about the cost of the license fee, then the BBC were not really thieves.
Alan had gone off ghosts, and his talks after 1928 increasingly concern crime, fraud and deception. In three of his later stories, however, Alan indulges the prospect of a benevolent salvation through the more supernatural sort of broadcasting, and this seems to be in harmony with the growing surefootedness and popular acceptance of the BBC’s mission.
“H2, Etc” recounts the apparent saving of a man’s life by a cat. Alan ventures in search of his pet before bedtime, and his pursuit of the beast leads him to a strange house where he fortuitously saves an elderly man’s life. In the established tradition of the premonitory tale, we may wonder why this man is worthy of salvation, as he seems to be virtually dead already, while the premonition can be readily dismissed as a “coincidence.”
In the fabulous “Percy the Prawn,” Alan arrives home from a holiday prawning expedition, intent upon devouring the spoils, but the crustacean of the title is accidentally spared from his banquet. Alan decides that it would be “kind” to “put the prawn back in the sea.” Once home in London, Alan is dining in a restaurant and he is presented with a “lobster trimmed with prawns.” Before he can tuck in, his old friend has stepped out of his dinner and, in a “thin piping treble,” he says “I beg of you, in fact I beseech you, not to have any of this lobster.” Although Percy is “too boiled” to answer any further questions, Alan declines the lobster and seventeen of his fellow diners are consequently “taken very seriously ill, and one of them nearly died.” As in “The Diver,” a doomed party is arbitrarily spared from catastrophe, but this time Alan is apparently saved as a reward for his earlier act of goodwill.
“17.45” describes a holiday adventure on the same sort of beach where Alan had captured and freed Percy. Wandering amongst the bungalows of Fallaborough, Alan and his wife hear a distant ringing and, assuming that nobody must be at home to answer the telephone, Alan enters the residence in question to inform the telephone exchange. Yet he receives news that a little girl has fallen off the nearby Chair Rock and that her unconscious body is lying on the beach, in immediate peril of drowning. After rescuing the little girl, Alan is told that her mother had a premonitory dream in which she saw her daughter lying on the beach and wished that she could telephone for a coastguard. This family inhabits the very bungalow where Alan had answered the telephone, but, spookily, this bungalow was never fitted with a telephone.
Alan had characteristically rustled up this beautiful story from Benson’s ingredients: there are several ghostly telephones, or telephones which are appropriated by ghosts, in Benson’s tales, and perhaps just as many Cornish holiday villages. But unlike with Benson’s fiction, this is only a story – a sweet, dreamy fairytale. The premonitory tale had at some point lost its revolutionary enthusiasm and optimism, leaving a more demonstrable entertainment, a pure wireless fizz. The British psyche had absorbed the fact of wireless technology and found it to be entirely material. “Percy the Prawn” and “17.45” are conceivably the final trumps of the premonitory tale: literary history had not so much turned from tragedy to farce, as from joke to fairytale. Alan would close the book on this brief, curious literary subgenre.
[Kenelm Foss’ introduction to The Best of A. J. Alan has been posted here. Ed.]