Tonight I would like to tell you something about Alphonse Allais, the French writer. He was born in Honfleur in 1854 and died in Paris in 1905.
Well, having told you something about Alphonse Allais, perhaps I can now get on to one of the main subjects of tonight's talk, which is the invention of microfilm. It isn't generally known that the idea of microfilm was born seventy years ago in Paris when an article appeared lamenting the imminent disappearance of the trees of the world in the cause of producing newspapers. Instead of printing them on paper, the writer suggested, one should produce them on tiny squares of film which could be projected on to the wall of one's breakfast room. A revolutionary idea, which was to make such an impact on the media that even now its effects have not been felt. The same writer was also responsible for the invention of ideas like germ warfare which, if he had been heeded could have made the Great War possible as early as 1904, and of some things which have still not been tried out, such as the necromobile. The necromabile, or Corpsecar, is a funeral hearse for transporting bodies to be cremated which cremates the dead person en route and -this is the ingenious part - uses the energy from the cremation to drive the vehicle. The man responsible for these and other ideas was Alphonse Allais, who among other things was a scientific prophet, and tonight I'd like to tell you something about him.
Having been born in Honfleur in 1854, Allais grew up to study pharmacy but abandoned his medical studies in Paris in order to write sketches for night clubs and to edit humorous magazines, thus joining a long and honourable tradition of medical students who have gone on to higher things. It was while he was engaged in journalism that he did his pioneer work on the readers' advice column. Here's just one of the many problems he had to deal with:-
When I got back to Paris after the summer last week, I found an incredible pile of letters waiting to be opened. No exaggeration, they came up to here. If I'd answered them all personally, I'd have had to mobilise every active secretary in France and then call up the reserves. So what did I do? I decided to choose just one letter at random and leave the rest unanswered.
The lucky winner turns out to be a young artist who wants to know how he can keep all the bores, busybodies, spongers, tradesmen and similar art-lovers out of his studio while he is working. Well, that's an easy one, All he has to do is copy me and relax. Because three years ago I had a turnstile installed at the entrance to my office and now anyone who wants to talk to me has to come through it. It's guarded by an old retired soldier in my pay who charges them a franc to come in, and you've no idea how the flood of visitors has tailed off since inauguration day.
People who have come to bore me always hesitate, then go away. Having to pay an entrance fee to bother people isn't quite their idea of fun.
The spongers have been virtually eliminated, except for the really top-flight spongers (those looking for 25,000 francs or more) and I never pay any attention to them anyway. Creditors, of course, come straight in. What is a franc more or less to creditors? But I never pay any attention to them either.
So this morning I was able to settle my boot-maker's account, a small bill for 80 francs. He had already been to my office twenty-five times with it, which means that he has kindly donated over 30% of the final reckoning. Next I'm thinking of announcing a really smart visiting day. Thursday, perhaps.
I'll charge five francs.
Even today that stands out as a fairly advanced approach to readers' letters. It will seem even more advanced when I tell you that, unlike any other adviser, Allais not only supplied all the answers but wrote all the readers' questions as well. The advantages were enormous. Not only did it mean that he always knew the answers, but it allowed him to draw on the vast scientific knowledge gained from a failed career in pharmacy. Here's a letter he received in the course of a debate on the best way to get rid of one's unwanted relations:-
Dear M. Allais,
It is some twenty years ago now that I brought about the death of my mother-in-law, and I can highly recommend the method I used, even if it does entail a strictly scientific approach, I am myself a chemist by training, and it was chemistry that came to my aid during the dark days of my mother-in-law's life on earth.
I should explain that during the summer she never wore anything but cotton. From head to foot she was swathed in cotton. She was mad about cotton.
"Cotton," she used to say, "is the only healthy material there is."
I'm not sure exactly how I got the idea but one fine day ... excuse me while I laugh into my handkerchief ... one fine day I stole up to her room, as silently as a Red Indian cat-thief, and took away an entire wardrobe of her clothes - stockings, pants, blouse, skirt, everything. I spent the rest of the day in my laboratory using a fairly simple and common process to convert those harmless garments into gun-cotton. Well, the next step was so to arrange it that she wore these particular clothes one very hot, sunny day, I waited till she was out in the garden, sitting on a bench, reading some trashy novel or other. I crept up silently, armed with a powerful lens, and carefully focussed the sun's rays on to her. It didn't take long. There was a scream, a searing flash like lightning, then - nothing.
The only theory the magistrate could find to fit the facts was that my mother-in-law was a chronic alcoholic and had been subject to a unique kind of spontaneous combustion. I didn't think it was my place to contradict an expert.
( Member of the Academy of Science )
What else do we know of this scientist, journalist and problem-solver? His writings give little personal away. One of the few occasions on which he addressed the reader personally occurs in the introduction to a volume of pieces he called " The Cavalry Squadron's Umbrella ". He says:
I feel I owe it to the reader to explain the reasons for the title of this collection.
They are two in number.
1. There is no mention of umbrellas anywhere in the book.
2. The merit of the cavalry squadron, as a military unit, is much in the air at the moment. I have not dealt with it.
One sensed here, somehow, a determination to keep the reader at a slight distance. And in fact about all that emerges about his private life in his writings is that he had numerous love affairs, lived wildly with disreputable friends and drank enthusiastically. The drinking bore fruit in a book which is ostensibly about one of his more Bohemian friends, Albert Capron, who was always known as Captain Cap, The book indeed is called Captain Cap; His Life, His Thoughts and His Cocktail Recipes ". Each adventure is embellished by the consumption of a different cocktail for which the recipe is promptly
given, as for instance:-
If you come to Touraine, "said-our new-found friend," you must come and stay with me and try our wonderful local wines. It'll make a change from your damned Whisky Cocktails. !"
(FOOTNOTE: to make a Whisky Cocktail, take a few small pieces of ice, several drops of Angostura bitters, a little curacao and noyau, then add the whisky. Shake, strain and pour ....)
This must have been one of the very first cocktail recipe books and is surely the only one which also contains 47 short stories. Captain Cap, incidentally, once stood as a candidate in the local elections in Kontmartre in the 1890s and Allais has preserved for us Captain Cap's election programme of promises, drawn up specially for him by Allais:-
1. The construction of a fort on Kontmartre Hill.
2. The construction of an observatory on -the same hill.
3. The removal of all taxes on bicycles.
4. The encouragement of licentiousness in the streets with a view to halting France's
5. The transformation of Place Pigalle into a sea port.
6. The construction of a large boulevard from Montmartre to the big shops.
7. The suppression of all bureaucracy.
8. The construction on Montmartre Hill of a bull-ring and yacht basin.
9. The total suppression of the College of Arts, etc, etc.
So the picture begins to emerge of Alphonse Allais, the politician, cocktail mixer, scientist, problem-solver and above all journalist, because it was through the newspapers and magazines of his day that Allais let the civilised world know what he was thinking. In a rare piece of autobiography, he has actually recorded how he first entered joumalism He was introduced by a friend to a provincial printer who wanted to start a new local newspaper, but needed someone who could spell to write it. Above all he needed someone who could produce local news with a difference. “Are you the man for the job?” he asks Allais. “Try me,” murmurs our hero. “Right”, said the printer;” write me a news item for the following headline: PIPE SMOKER'S EXTREME CARELESSNESSS. Allais sat down, he tells us, and before five minutes had passed had produced the/following story:-
PIPE SMOKER'S EXTREME CARELESSNESS
The parish of Montsalaud was the scene yesterday of a tragic accident caused by a pipe smoker's carelessness. A local clogmaker was returning home about ten o'clock in the evening smoking a pipe which gave off a constant shower of sparks. -His route took him through the small pine wood belonging to Mme la Marquise de Chaudpertuis, where he failed to realise that the smallest spark might ignite the fir cones and dry twigs lying on either side.
He was walking along thus smoking his pipe when suddenly he stopped with a cry. There, beside the path, lay two poor children asleep, entiwned in each other's arms and shaking with cold. The clogmaker, who is a kindly-hearted man, woke the children up and helped them to build a big bonfire in the middle of the wood, then went on his way. Unfortunately, the fire had been badly lit and went out. The bodies of the two children were found this morning. They had died of cold.
- "Excellent!" cried my new boss."That's what I call good local news. You're hired!"
This ability to invent a good story, the hallmark of all great journalists, never left him and he bequeathed to posterity hundreds of well reported incidents which, unlike all those humdrum newspaper stories based on fact, have never dated. He supplied the ' headlines to go with them, too. He tells the story of the young author who was determined never to compromise by doing hack work but to dedicate himself to the composition of his first novel. Not surprisingly, the young author soon found himself without any money to buy supper, but still he refused to give in. That evening, desperate, he pulled out an old suitcase and solemnly cut it in pieces, then cooked the leather fillets in a frying-pan and ate them for what nutriment he could find. In the night he got acute indigestion and died. The papers the next day blazed the headline: " TRUNK FOUND IN DEAD MAN!
In many ways, certainly in his breadth of interests, Allais resembles Leonardo da Vinci, with the notable difference that Allais never learnt to draw and so did not fritter away most of his time doodling in sketchbooks. Again unlike da Vinci, Allais was a keen cyclist and seems to have excelled at the sport. He tells us:-
"Yes, what you have read is quite true; I am indeed the current holder of the world record for the millimetre. Perhaps you would be interested in a few technical details. The machine I use is a wooden velocipede made in I864 by a blacksmith from Pont l'Eveque who has since unfortunately died. The tyres are made of a thin strip of sheet iron, which gives me no problems with broken bottles in my path. I hold the millimetre record on the track and on the road. The track record stands at less than l/l7,000th of a second, while my road record is not quite so good; l/l4,000th of a second, even a little more, though I should add that the attempt took place against a terrible headwind, accompanied by driving rain. In addition - perhaps I shouldn't mention this - my two trainers, Messieurs Kaourice O'Reill and the good Captain Cap, happened to be dead drunk that day. I hope to lower my record in the autumn; meanwhile, more valuable information can be found in my forthcoming book, Confessions d'un Enfant du Cycle...."
He was also, as you might expect, a great traveller. One of his travel pieces starts:-
About three years ago, in other words at Christmas time, I found myself detained in a small prison in Yorkshire on charges of theft, swindling and blackmail, as well as a rather involved morals offence which I would find it rather painful to explain any further
…And to think that I had been invited to spend Christmas Eve in the bosom of the respectable family of a Baptist minister in the Faroe Isles!
He was in fact quite fond of Britain at a time when we were generally powerful but unpopular in the world rather as America is today. He has left on record one visit to London which not only draws again on his scientific knowledge, but contains a handy hint for travellers today. To put it very briefly, he had consumed quantities of ale, stout and porter, and suddenly found himself in the Tottenham Court Road, convinced he would not make it to the nearest refuge in Leicester Square. His eye fell on a chemist's sign. All at once - a stroke of genius! He went in and told the chemist that he thought he was suffering from diabetes.
- I can soon find out, sir. But I'm afraid it will mean analysing a sample of your ...”
- Yes, I understand.
And Allais was ushered into a back room and to blessed relief.
(If you want added proof of his multiple interest, you need only cast an eye down the titles of his articles. To take a few carefully chosen random samples, there are "The history of Tuesday through the ages", "Come on, let's have a spelling reform!","Water proof wrapping, or Why I prefer a scientific education to what used to be called the Humanities", "Security through blackmail", "Another use for the whale", "A quite funny remark by Mark Twain", and "How far can the public relations people go, always assuming the way they are going, that they will ever stop?")
So by now we have a fairly well-rounded picture of Allais. Top bicyclist, expert on cocktails, scientific genius, traveller, answerer of readers' letters, writer of readers' letters, politician, lover, dog-hater (did I mention that he hated dogs?) and journalist. The only question that remains to be answered is: How is that nobody has ever heard of him?
I don't think I am exaggerating when I say that he is completely unknown in Britain. I have only met one English person who has heard of him. I have never seen him mentioned in any British reference book and there is no English translation of him. Sometimes I almost feel that I once invented Alphonse Allais and have come to believe in my own creation.
Luckily, at such moments I have a small pile of French paperbacks to convince me that he is alive and well and living in fin-de-siecle Paris, because in the last twenty years about a dozen collections of his work have appeared, each one introduced by an Allais enthusiast who claims him as one of the great humorous writers. And here we are getting close to the reasons for his obscurity.
Allais died in 1905. That day Jules Renard wrote in his diary: "Poor Allais. He was a great writer". There then followed the customary forty-year period of neglect, after which he was rediscovered by the Surrealists, and given an honoured place in Andre Breton's "Anthology of Black Humour". Since then his articles have gradually been rescued from the magazine archives in which they were buried until now almost half his work has been republished. But this promising state of affairs has been entirely ruined by the aforementioned editors, who have all insisted on promoting him as a humorous writer. You see, what they don't realise is that it is one of the basic rules of the literature that once you are bracketed as a humorous writer, you lose all your points. It is all right to be a satirist, a comic novelist, a light poet, an essayist, even a wit; but give a gay dog a humorous label and you might as well forget him. You only have to think of humorous writers in English to realise that those who are remembered at all, are remembered in some other guise. S J Perelman may have spent most of his life writing humorous pieces, but he is always referred to as the Marx Brothers screenwriter, on the basis of two short collaborations. Flann O'Brien is remembered as the novelist author of "At Swim Two Birds" more than as the brilliant columnist who wrote under the name of Myles na Gopaleen. Max Beerbohm is an essayist. Dorothy Parker is being turned into a short story writer. And this all has to be done merely to sneak them into the literary reference works, not to mention the bookshops. So you can see now why I have refused to refer to Alphonse Allais as a humorous writer. I'd rather call him a bicyclist or a cocktail expert. I can see now what Jules Renard meant in his diary: what he meant to write was "Poor Allais. He was a great writer but everyone will dismiss him as a humorist ".
Only one serious attempt has been made to put this right. In 1983 there appeared a thick paperback (500 pages of it) which was number 8 in a series of basic literary anthologies. The previous seven had been devoted to authors like Victor Hugo and Chekhov • or to general areas like Great Love Letters and Sixteenth Century Poetry, Number 8 was called simply" Humour 1900". In French, "Humour Mille Neuf Cent". Or, if we want to compromise, "Hu-mour Nahn-tin Ern-dred". This was a brave attempt by the editor, Jean-Claude Carriere, to present the last years of the nineteenth century as a golden age of humour, culminating in the work of Alphonse Allais whom he described as the High Priest of Humour. What he was doing of course was carrying the battle to the enemy and saying to himself: "There were so many good humorous writers at the time that I have a fair chance of getting them accepted as a genuine literary school. From there to getting Allais accepted as a real writer shouldn't be impossible". He even rejects the chance of having Allais accepted as a satirist - in his own words: "Humour has never claimed to change by slaughter. Unlike satire, humour takes great pride in avoiding the important areas of life. It aims higher than that."
A brave try, but doomed, because he was forced to fight on the enemy's home ground. As he wryly admits: "Allais unites in his writing all the humorous traditions of the century and often exploits them better than anyone else. He is the humorist par excellence, the number one. As a result, he is almost unknown in the history of French literature ... Having remained in the shadows for more than forty years, he is beginning to find a new public. It may be too young for him yet, but his hour will come."
Assuming that Alphonse Allais is a humorous writer, which I don't for a moment, how could one possibly get him translated and read? Not by championing him as a humorous writer, as 1 have said. Nor by trying to explain why he is funny. As a sort of humorous writer myself, and I don't admit for one moment that I am, I know it is death to try to explain humour. The only hope I see for Allais is promoting him as a television writer. He didn't write much for television, of course, TV being of one the things he didn't invent, or more probably didn't think worth inventing, but he wrote hundreds of stories which would make excellent television. Once established on the little screen, his work would get caught up in the current vogue for the publishing of the book of the TV show. In Allais case the books are already printed and only need translating, and here I am with my dictionary ready. Failing that, Alphonse himself left behind a few thoughts on the modern world of publicity and advertising, and here they are in full:-
The other day, not feeling very well, I started to read the classified advertisements in the paper. Suddenly I came across the following impressive lines:-
"Small fortune guaranteed within 1 month, no risk involved. New approach available to everyone. Write: Box 27, le Journal."
Small fortune. Fantastic! I would have preferred a large one, but beggars can't be choosers so I took pen in hand to inform Box 27 how much I was looking forward to meeting him. I had hardly started reading when an even more extraordinary entry met my eyes- "Young deaf-mute girl, dowry 1,700,000 francs, wishes to meet man of the world, view white marriage. Write: Lucia H.W, le Journal."
- Fantastic! I exclaimed. A wife with 1,700,000 francs isn't bad to start with, but a dumb wife into the bargain! Let us write to her.
I wrote a passionate letter to Lucia H,W, carefully enclosing one of those photographs which make me look, you know, so distinguished .... It was obviously my day, because I came upon a third advertisement no worse than the first two:- .
"Astounding! Astounding! Astounding! My method cures all ills. Write: Dr. 2,119, le Journal.
Astounded, astounded, astounded, I sent off a third letter to the good Dr. 2.119. And while I was at it, I replied to two other advertisements, one:-
"Free country holiday for a month in return for a little easy work. Write: BK,19 le Journal".
And the other, somewhat mysterious:-
"Qwerty uiop sverdlu abc xyz: Write: RSPZ, le Journal".
Feeling much better after all this exercise I ordered a second bottle of wine, then went off to recline on a park bench to dream of my coming fortune, marriage, good health, country holiday and qwerty uiop. The next morning, as you can imagine, I was up at dawn, waiting with the concierge for the postman. All five letters had been answered! Feverishly I tore open the first envelope.
"Sir," it said, "to make a fortune within a month, write a book as good as "My Heart in my Hand, and My Stomach in my Heels", by Edouard Osmont. Hello, I thought, a joker. I turned to the reply from the deaf-mute Lady.
"Instead of running after women, you good-for-nothing, why not read "My Heart in my Hand, and My Stomach in my Heels", a new book by Edouard Osmont." Not again! Someone, somewhere was gunning for me today.
The third letter: "For 100% health, read "My Heart in my Hand, and My Stomach in my Heels" by Edouard Osmont."
Not without a certain suspicion I opened the fourth letter:- "You will quickly earn enough for a country holiday if you write a book like "My Heart in my Hand, and My Stomach in my Heels" by Edouard Osmont."
If I went to open the fifth envelope, it was only out of sheer conscientiousness:-
"Qwerty My Heart uiop in my Hand sverdlu and My Stomach abc in my Heels xyz, by Edouard Osmont."
As for me, I would like to leave you with this thought: why not go off and buy any book by Alphonse Allais ?
A twenty minute radio
26th December 1973