Alan in literature

What authors have said about Alan through the ages.

From time to time I come across passages in books which are clearly about me. As I have never known the authors, this is presumably a measure of my fame; as some at least wrote before I was born, a measure of prophecy seems to be involved. ( I do not reflect much on that, nor draw any conclusions therefrom, but merely note it in passing. )

This collection is the merest sample of the incisive analysis of my character available to the world in many publications. As I find new examples, I shall add them, if I remember.

A caution : do not suppose that I assert that all passages of literature refer to me; my natural modesty forbids such grandiose claims. In fact, only a tiny fraction can be certainly identified as falling into this favoured category, and in most cases - no doubt in recognition of my shy and retiring character - my name does not appear. Sometimes the passages are, in graceful synecdoche1, attributed to other people, but the real meaning is always clear. In any case of doubt, should there be one, I am the authority on whether a passage refers to me. After all, it takes one to know one.


1 : J.C. Nesfield : Manual of English grammar and composition ( MacMillan, 1901 ), page 242.

"But Cecilia, having learned modern forms of snobbery at Cambridge, considered a man with a degree in chemistry incomplete as a human being."

- Ian McEwan : Atonement ( Vintage, 2002 )

I regard that as a shade harsh, but am inclined to see it as a slip perhaps occasioned by undue haste. Surely the author must have meant "... a man with only a degree in chemistry ..."; were I to be stripped of all attributes except my degrees, it is just possible that even I might be considered incomplete. Perhaps it is Cecilia's fault for studying in the wrong tripos; in the Natural Sciences tripos, we learnt no snobbery, but quite a lot of chemistry, which I assert is better.

( Note added just in case : I knew a Cecilia once, who was certainly not this one; she did not study at Cambridge, and was much too kind to entertain any such thought. )

"... Judge Sir Oliver ( or Ollie ) Oliphant, who came, as he was never tired of reminding us, from the North of England. In fact he regarded everyone who lived south of Leeds as idle dreamers who spent their time lying in the sun, peeling grapes and strumming guitars."

- John Mortimer : "Rumpole and the eternal triangle", in Rumpole on trial ( Penguin Books, 1992 )

The sentiment is perhaps somewhat exaggerated, no doubt for artistic effect. It is also oversimplified, perhaps because Mortimer was not aware that I live quite a long way south of Leeds. Nevertheless, I do come from the north of England, I am very satisfied with my status as a Yorkshireman, and I have been known to be scathing about inferior breeds, such as Londoners. I accept, grudgingly, that it isn't their fault.

"I have a good mind. I fancy it is a better mind than, say, Undigo's. But Undigo - well, for one thing, Undigo's pupils have more firsts than mine do, I am interesting, I stimulate, but - well, amiable and individual intellectuality is not enough. I know it, you see, I know it."

- Robert Robinson : Landscape with dead dons ( Gollancz, 1982; first published 1956 )

The quotation is a reflection by a fictional Oxford don called Christelow, who is clearly modelled on me. How Robert Robinson knows about me is something of a mystery, as is the case with all other writers whose work appears in this anthology. How he knew about me in 1956 is another of life's little puzzles, for I was then hardly formed, though I suppose the signs were there. I shall not nominate any of my present or past colleagues to take Undigo's place, but I have my own ideas about it. It is perhaps unfortunate that Christelow turns out to be a multiple murderer.

"Poor Sir Henry suffered from the gout. That was the truth of it, and gout was a respectable disease that any gentleman might well come to."

- R. Thorndyke : The further adventures of Doctor Syn ( Arrow Books, 1972; first published 1936 )

I am not entirely sure that I can blame Thorndyke for my occasional attacks of gout, but it can hardly be a coincidence that the book and I were published in the same year. Still, he does make a point of my respectability and gentility, even if he rather overreaches himself in the knighthood. ( I could wish that he had got the gout wrong instead of the other bits. Incidentally, it is doubtless my respectable and gentle nature that leads me to prefer to refer to my ailment as morbus articularis2, which sounds much more dignified. )


2 : S.C. Woodhouse : The Englishman's pocket Latin-English and English-Latin dictionary ( Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952 ), page 355.

"As poet and mathematician, he would reason well; as mere mathematician, he could not have reasoned at all ..."

- Edgar Allan Poe : The purloined letter ( reprinted in A century of detective stories ( Hutchinson ), which unhelpfully gives neither the date of publication of the story nor of itself. Other sources tell me that the story dates from 1844. )

As I am neither poet not mathematician, you might wonder how I discern that Poe had me in mind when he wrote that. I am sure that Poe himself would find little difficulty in making the connection, but as he seems to have been able to connect practically anything that isn't a strong argument. I shall simply observe that the combination of Poe's natural politeness about my mathematical and poetic abilities and my own equally natural modesty make the connection inescapable.

"I saw that Roy was not inclined to be amused. I did not mind, for I am quite used to people not being amused by my jokes. I often think that the purest type of the artist is the humorist who laughs alone at his own jests."

- W. Somerset Maugham : Cakes and ale ( Penguin, 1948; first published 1930 )

Very well put, considering that it was written before 1930. Perhaps Somerset Maugham might have laughed at my jokes. Perhaps I might have laughed at his, but they were probably not as subtle as mine. He has missed out the bit where people do laugh, but not at the amusing substance of the jokes - they laugh at the jokes themselves. Such people can be forgiven as unfortunate victims of developmental abnormalities.

"Heavily built and massive, there was a suggestion of uncouth physical inertia in the figure, but above this unwieldy frame there was perched a head so masterful in its brow, so alert in its steel-grey, deep-set eyes, so firm in its lips, and so subtle in its play of expression, that after the first glance one forgot the gross body and remembered only the dominant mind."

- A. Conan Doyle : "The adventure of the Bruce-Partington plans", The Strand Magazine ( ca. 1910; reprinted in The case-book of Sherlock Holmes ( Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 1993 ) )

Would that Conan Doyle's ( or perhaps Dr Watson's ? ) clarity of perception were more widespread ! - though he's overdone the "gross body" stuff a bit. I am here represented as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's infinitely more brilliant brother. Sherlock rushes about, looking for things; Mycroft sits and thinks. I imagine that Mycroft found Sherlock something of an embarrassment, though useful at times. I do not have a hyperactive brother.

NOTE - Mycroft is in absolutely no way related to Microsoft. )

"And although they are dexterous enough upon a Piece of Paper in the management of the Rule, the Pencil, and the Divider, yet in the common actions and Behavior of Life, I have not seen a more clumsy, awkward, and unhandy People, nor so slow and perplexed in their Conceptions upon all other Subjects, except those of Mathematics and Musick."

- Lemuel Gulliver ( also known as Jonathan Swift ) : Travels into several Remote Nations of the World : Part III : a Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, Luggnagg, and Japan ( also known as part of Gulliver's Travels ) ( Oxford University Press, 1999; first published 1727 )

Yes. Well. That's perhaps a bit specific - for "Mathematics", read "theoretical things"; my only quibble with "Musick" is with the spelling. Given such an interpretation, though, it is true that I am better at thinking than doing. ( So was Mycroft, as I remember. ) I am certainly better at forming sentences than at typing them, as I am finding out, yet again, at this very time; the comparatively literate final product of my typing is a matter of repeated redoing. A more precise analysis of my abilities might reveal that I am better at doing thinking and thinking doing than at doing doing. ( I don't think that I do much thinking thinking. ) How Gulliver ( or Swift ) could know that in 1727 is hard to tell; I must think about it.

"For the king was by nature a wise and prudent man, and often sat alone in silence for long periods, turning over in his mind what he should do, and which religion he should follow."

- Bede : A history of the English church and people ( ca. 731; quotation from a translation by L. Sherley-Price, Penguin, 1955 )

Here Bede shows astonishing prescience ( unless it was Sherley-Price, but I have no reason to believe that he was not a wholly conscientious translator ), and - as in the other passages - is spot on the mark. In fact, he shows a depth of understanding not always to be found in people who are closer. I have explained to Jean that during periods of apparent withdrawal, I am engrossed in deep thought, but she accuses me of sleeping. Fortunately, I have contrary evidence - she also suggests that at such times I snore, and that cannot be so, for Bede remarks on my silence.

Alan CreakAlan Creak,
2003 March