Christmas in Wallace of the Secret Service novels

Cover of 'Radio Pictorial' Christmas Special for 1937. Image: AWE
                      Cover of ‘Radio Pictorial’ Christmas Special for 1937. Image: Alexander Wilson Estate.

Christmas features in two Wallace of the Secret Service novels by Alexander Wilson.

In ‘The Devil’s Cocktail’ (published in 1928)  the British Secret Service agent, Captain Hugh Shannon, sent to India to combat a deadly plot by Soviet Agents, is summoned on Christmas Day to be told to leave his role as a Professor of English Literature at Sheranwala College in Lahore.

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Hugh was in a terrible state of mind when he arrived at the College that morning. The examinations were still on, which was a lucky thing for him, for it is certain that he could never have lectured. On the following day the College closed for the Christmas holidays, otherwise he would have taken the morning off. He tried every means he could think of to take his mind away from his trouble but failed entirely, and several of the young Muslims seated before him looked up from their papers and wondered why the Englishman’s face was so pale and so set in its expression.
The morning dragged on its weary way and to Hugh every minute seemed an hour, every hour a day, and when he glanced at his watch and saw that it was only twelve, with another hour still to be borne, he cursed savagely under his breath, a thing that was, as a rule, foreign to the nature of Hugh Shannon.
Five minutes later an interruption came. The Principal himself appeared at the door of the room and beckoned to him. With a sense of relief Hugh left his seat on the rostrum.
‘Come with me!’ said Abdullah. ‘Aziz will take your place.’
The athletic young professor came along the corridor at that moment and, smiling at the other two, entered the room. Abdullah took Hugh by the arm, in his habitual manner, and led him to his office. Once inside:
‘I have received a telephone message from Government House,’ he said, looking at his companion rather curiously. ‘His Excellency desires your presence there at once!’
‘Oh!’ said Hugh without enthusiasm.

Alexander Wilson based Sheranwala College on his experience as a lecturer in English Literature at Islamia College, University of the Punjab which he joined in 1925. A news report from 2011 about the need to digitise its library shows the college as it was in his day.

Apparently the Principal expected his announcement to cause Shannon some excitement, for he looked disappointed.
‘You do not seem very interested,’ he said. ‘Were you expecting the summons?’
‘Not exactly,’ replied Hugh. ‘I had better go now,’ he added.
‘Yes; the message was most urgent.’
Hugh left the office, and a highly intrigued Principal. Abdullah was a very nice fellow, but he was not without curiosity and it was unusual for the Governor to ring up a college and summon a professor to Government House on an urgent matter of business. On this occasion Shannon did not trouble to ascertain whether he was followed or not. He drove there rapidly and on the way, strangely enough, his mind was temporarily relieved of its burden of sorrow.

Report in Urdu from 2010 on the need for renovation and refurbishment at Islamia College, Lahore, Railway Road – where Alexander Wilson was Principal between 1928 and 1931

He was thinking of the College and Abdullah, the man who stood at the helm in the face of overwhelming obstacles and who was fighting bravely to raise his institution to the level of other colleges belonging to the group under the University of Northern India. Hugh disliked Sheranwala College, disliked the governing body with its petty meannesses, its hypocrisy, and its narrow outlook; he could not get on with the staff – except Aziz the sportsman – because of its jealousies, its intrigues for favour, its deceit, and above all its insincerity. But he liked Abdullah. He had an admiration for the genuineness of the man and the latter’s belief in his power to raise the Muslim standard of education; and he felt sorry for him in the knowledge that his task was a hopeless one in face of the smugly sanctimonious and utterly incompetent people with whom he had to deal on the board of governors.

Alexander Wilson's first two novels were spy thriller adventures set in British India. This is the cover of the first Wallace of the Secret Service novel 'The Mystery of Tunnel 51' repackaged for the Christmas market in 1937 as cheap two shillings and sixpence edition at a time when novels usually sold for 7 shillings and sixpence.
Alexander Wilson’s first two novels were spy thriller adventures set in British India. This is the cover of the first Wallace of the Secret Service novel, ‘The Mystery of Tunnel 51’, repackaged for the Christmas market in 1937 as a cheap two shillings and sixpence edition at a time when novels usually sold for 7 shillings and sixpence. Image: Alexander Wilson Estate.

‘He is true blue,’ murmured Hugh to himself, as he swung round a tonga that seemed bent on collision. ‘He is a sahib in the true sense of the word. This city seems to consist of a few sahibs, such as the Governor, Rainer and a dozen others, and hosts of snobs! I don’t know how to describe Novar, Rahtz and their kind, unless it is as sinners.’ The alliteration rather pleased him. ‘Sahibs, snobs and sinners!’ he muttered. The thought of Novar and Rahtz took his mind back to Joan’s peril, and the hard, fierce, wretched expression returned to his face. ‘Oh, Joan, Joan,’ he groaned, ‘to think that I have brought you out to India to this. May God forgive me!’

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Alexander Wilson (standing) with his family in Southampton when he started teaching at Islamia College, Lahore and writing espionage novels. Middle to late 1920s. Image: Alexander Wilson Estate.
Alexander Wilson (standing) with his family in Southampton when he started teaching at Islamia College, Lahore and writing espionage novels. Middle to late 1920s. Image: Alexander Wilson Estate.

 In ‘Get Wallace’ first published by Herbert Jenkins in 1934, the novel begins with key Secret Service officer ‘Quotation’ Cousins doing his Christmas shopping in the world famous Selfridges store in Oxford Street.

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Chapter One

Cousins Goes Shopping

The Christmas rush was at its height. An almost solid mass of humanity crowded both sides of Oxford Street; taxis, omnibuses, private cars, commercial vehicles panted their way forward by painfully slow degrees, every now and then coming to a protesting stop as the traffic signals barred their progress with scarlet warning. The shops were packed with jolly, clamouring people bent on purchasing gifts for friends and relations, all of them imbued with the spirit which only Yuletide can bring. In one of the great stores, of which London has such a large number, a little man, slim, barely five feet in height, made his way from department to department with surprising ease. Unlike so many of the men and women round him, he showed no signs of confusion or agitation.

Pathe news report on maintaining London buses in 1934 starting with a view of Oxford Street and Portland Place

Utterly unperturbed, he progressed by a series of rapid, eel-like wriggles, while others, pushing and jostling, almost remained at a despairing standstill. He managed also to get served without appreciable delay, one or other of the hardworked, but always courteous assistants seeming ready to place herself at his disposal when called upon. It may have been that they were attracted by his deep brown eyes, the brightness of which almost fascinated, or perhaps the mouth, full of humorous curves, proved irresistible. Altogether he was a remarkable individual, compelling attention wherever he went.

Kitchen gadgets regarded as modern in 1934  being sold in Oxford Street department stores at Christmas

His extraordinarily wrinkled face was utterly incongruous, when one noticed the slim, boyish figure neatly attired in a dark grey overcoat, grey suit, grey Stetson hat. Whenever he smiled, which he frequently did when conversing with the girls who served him, the wrinkles turned into a mass of little creases, each one of which appeared to be having a little joke on its own. He proved a rare tonic to quite a number of assistants who, previous to his advent, had felt as though they were about to collapse from sheer fatigue.By the time he reached the wireless department, he was loaded with parcels. He spent some time inspecting valves and loudspeakers; then turned his attention to the display of cabinets.

A feature article on BBC radio programming at Christmas in 1937 in 'Radio Pictorial'.
A feature article on BBC radio programming at Christmas in 1937 in ‘Radio Pictorial’. Image: Alexander Wilson Estate.

Customers desirous of purchasing radio sets were being shown the latest models by polite young men; in various parts of the room were listening-in to scraps of the programmes broadcast from London Regional, National, Radio Normandie and other stations.
Suddenly above the medley of music and song came the rapid, insistent tap of a Morse message. A young salesman standing close to the little man with the wrinkled face gave vent to an expression of annoyance.
‘That blessed row keeps butting in and spoiling our demonstrations,’ he remarked, as though looking for a sympathiser.
‘You’d hardly believe it, sir, but there are some people who know so little of wireless that they imagine the dot-dash-dot business to be caused by a flaw in the set.’
‘You surprise me,’ returned the little man. ‘I suppose it is actually a ship sending a message.’
‘I can’t make out what it is. To tell you the truth I feel rather puzzled about it. It is butting into all the stations, and is so loud and persistent—’
‘What you might describe as remorseless,’ murmured the other, his bright eyes twinkling mischievously.

The kind of radio sets being stocked by Selfridges at the time of the publication of 'Get Wallace' in the middle 1930s. Image: AWE
The kind of radio sets being stocked by Selfridges at the time of the publication of ‘Get Wallace’ in the middle 1930s. Image: AWE

The demonstrator eyed him more in sorrow than in anger; was about to turn away when, sharp above the strains of a melody played by a symphony orchestra, came the staccato note of the wireless message once more.
‘There it is again, blow it,’ grunted the salesman. ‘Odd that it should keep coming through like that, isn’t it?’
But the little man was not paying any attention to him. He was listening to the rapid series of dots and dashes coming over the air with such force. The first time he had heard the interruption he had been too much engaged to take any notice of it. Now he was spelling out the message to himself with surprising results. X. S. B. Seven, it ran, wanted at Headquarters immediately. Most urgent.  As the sound of the last dot died away, leaving the music triumphant, the man with the wrinkled face turned to the demonstrator.
‘Where is the nearest telephone?’ he demanded. On receipt of the information, he rapidly wriggled his way through the crowds to the telephone department. The number he murmured to the operator acted like a charm. Without the slightest delay she indicated a box, eyeing him with great curiosity as she did so. Carefully shutting the door behind him, he placed the receiver to his ear.
‘Cousins speaking, sir,’ was all he said.
‘Good,’ came a quiet voice from the other end of the wire.
‘We’ve been trying to get hold of you for the last hour. Where are you and what are you doing?’
‘In Selfridges – shopping,’ replied Cousins.
A soft chuckle seemed to indicate that the other man was amused.
‘Sorry to interrupt your laudable endeavour to help trade, Cousins,’ he observed. ‘But I want you here – at once.’
‘Very well, sir. I’ll be with you in ten minutes.’
Having given instructions for his numerous parcels to be sent to his flat in Lancaster Gate, the little man, whose name was Cousins, and who was down as X. S. B. Seven in the records of a certain important government department, quickly went from the congestion and noise of Selfridges into the rattle, roar, and crush of Oxford Street.

Street scenes shot by Pathe in 1933-4 of Old Bond Street

Hailing a taxicab he directed the driver to take him to Whitehall, giving explicit instructions about the route to be followed. Few people know London as Cousins does. He gave a lesson to the taxi driver that afternoon, concerning the way to get from Selfridges to Whitehall by the shortest and least congested route, that was an eye-opener to a man who had previously considered his knowledge of the metropolis unique.

Selfridges in the 1940s. Image: By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer - http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//44/media-44390/large.jpgThis is photograph D 23005 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24377195
Selfridges in the 1940s. Image: By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer – This is photograph D 23005 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums. Public Domain.

Seven minutes after concluding his telephone conversation, Cousins alighted near the Foreign Office. Paying off the taxi he walked across to the building which is the headquarters of the British Intelligence Service. Less than two minutes later he entered the office of Major Brien, one-time officer of cavalry,now head of the office staff and second in command to Sir Leonard Wallace, Chief of Great Britain’s Secret Service. The tall, upright man, whose fair hair was rapidly thinning, and whose good-looking face was beginning to show signs of the strain of years in the most exacting profession in the world, greeted Cousins from behind a desk literally buried under a mass of documents of all shapes, colours, and sizes. His blue eyes twinkled merrily, as he surveyed the dapper little man, who ranked very high in the list of those devoting their lives to their country’s service, as members of that very silent but very efficient corps of patriots.
‘I’m beastly sorry to interrupt your Christmas shopping, Cousins,’ he observed, ‘and as our French friends would say, utterly desolated at calling you back in the midst of the first leave you’ve had for about three years. But que voulez-vous? It is the service calling. Take a pew, and help yourself to a cigarette, if you can find one.’

Pathe review of news events in 1934

He pushed aside a heap of reports, uncovering a large silver cigarette box. Cousins, preferring his pipe, filled and lit it before sinking into a comfortable leather armchair close to the desk
‘I hate leave,’ he pronounced with a smile; ‘always feel lost. To quote Ruskin—’
‘Don’t quote anybody,’ interrupted Brien hastily. He helped himself to a cigarette, lit it, and sent a spiral of grey-blue smoke rising towards the ceiling. ‘We telephoned to all sorts of places in an attempt to find you,’ he resumed presently, ‘before getting the Admiralty to send out a wireless message in the rather vain hope that you might pick it up somewhere. If the matter had not been extremely urgent I shouldn’t have bothered you. But I am very short-handed at the moment. Most of the experts are spread over Europe engaged on other jobs. Maddison is here, but he’s as puzzled as I am. There is nobody else I dare rely upon in an affair of such gravity as this. I shall be heartily glad when Sir Leonard gets back from the United States.’
‘What’s the trouble, sir?’ queried Cousins.
Major Brien sat reflectively stroking his small military moustache for a few seconds; then leant forward. ‘Two of our most cherished military secrets,’ he observed, ‘have, during the last few days, been offered for sale to the governments of France, Germany, and Russia. One consists of the plans of the Wentworth gun, the other the Masterson monoplane. I received information to the effect that negotiations had been opened in Moscow and Berlin, from Reval and Gottfried respectively, early this morning. This afternoon Lalére informed me from Paris that the Quai d’Orsay had been invited by some mysterious agency to make an offer for the plans.’

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