‘The Secret Lives of a Secret Agent – the Mysterious Life and Times of Alexander Wilson’ by Tim Crook, Kultura Press, 2010
The mysterious Alexander Wilson died in London in 1963 after a four-decade long service as a deep undercover agent for British intelligence. He also had a dual career as a spy writer and Tim Crook conclusively demonstrates that Wilson “set his fiction in the reality of his life”. In ‘The Devil’s Cocktail’ published in 1928, the central character, one Captain Hugh Shannon, applies for a job as a professor in English Literature as part of a British Secret Service operation to monitor Indian independence activists and influences of Moscow-directed Comintern agents.
The plot of ‘The Devil’s Cocktail’ revolves around Captain Shannon’s role when he responds to an advertisement in The Times:
A Professor of English Literature is required for Sheranwala College,
University of Northern India, Lahore, at a salary of Rupees 500-50-1000,
for a period of three years. Applicants must be graduates of an English
University and preference will be given to one who is a sportsman. Apply with copies of testimonials, references etc, to Mahommed Abdullah, C.I.E.,
Savoy Hotel, Strand, London
Tim Crook has established that this advertisement reproduces “virtually word for word” a real advertisement that appeared in the newspaper on 3rd September 1925. Moreover the novel is “hugely autobiographical” because just as the fictional character Captain Hugh Shannon responded to the vacancy, so too in real life Alexander Wilson was recruited by Abdullah Yusuf Ali to teach English at Islamia College, Lahore. After Yusuf Ali stood down as principal in 1927, Wilson took over. ‘Sheranwala College’ can be linked to Sherenwala Gate, near Islamia College’s school in Lahore. There is a fair certainty that ‘Mahommed Abdullah’ was based on Wilson’s knowledge of Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Tim Crook writes,
Principal of Sheranwala College was a man of very deep learning. He had
taken his Master of Arts degree at Cambridge, was a barrister, a retired
financial commissioner, and an eminent economist. At the end of the
interview Shannon had acquired a deep respect for the quiet-mannered
little man, who had proved himself so adept in questioning him...'
The details and charactisation above are entirely consistent with the portrait of Yusuf Ali, the dedicated educationalist, that emerges in 'Searching for Solace'. A quality of a good undercover agent presumably includes an element of objectivity.
The perceptive Captain Shannon develops an affection for his Principal:
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.
He 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 this 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.
“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 few sahibs, such as the Governer, 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
From ‘Searching from Solace’ it is known that Abdullah Yusuf Ali was much vexed by the 'authorities' - the Anjuman-Himayatul Islam, the organisation that governed Islamia College in that epoch. The character ‘Mahommed Abdullah’ also expresses his frustrations [in bold below], which ring true to life. In ‘The Devil’s Cocktail’ there is this exchange between Hugh Shannon and his principal:
He made his way to the Principal’s office in response to a summons, and having been told to take a seat, sat down with
a sigh of relief.
“Well, how have you got on?” asked Abdullah.
“Oh, pretty well, thanks,” replied Hugh; “but it seems to me that I shall
have no voice left after a few days.”
The other smiled."You will get used to that,” he said.
“Perhaps so: but don’t you think that four lectures without a break is
excessive. Surely it is overworking your professors to compel them to do so much?”
“It is a lot certainly, but the authorities desire every professor to take
twenty-seven periods a week. You have only twenty-two, for I have only given you two on Sunday.”
Hugh looked at him in surprise.
“Am I expected to work on Sunday too?” he asked. “I am afraid so. You see this is a Mahommedan College and the holiday
is on Friday – not Sunday. Of course if you prefer I could break up your lectures, so that you had two in the morning and two in the afternoon, but I
arranged them together so that you would have your afternoons free.”
Hugh was thoughtful for a few minutes.
“I think I’d rather risk the strain of the four together,” he said, “if that
ensures my freedom every afternoon.”
Abdullah placed his finger tips together.
“Of course you are expected to take charge of all the sports and I’m
afraid that will take up a great deal of your spare time.”
“Is there anything else?” he asked, with a note of sarcasm in his voice.
“Please tell me now – I think I can bear it!”
Abdullah frowned. After all he was the Principal, and he did not like levity
from his subordinates.
“I think that is all – at present!” he said.
“Thank you!” returned Hugh calmly, then he laughed. “It has its
humours!” he said.
“Everything has a humorous side,” said Abdullah, “and I assure you I
agree with you that my professors are overworked. I have already
discovered that my post here is by no means a sinecure. I spoke to the
governing body about the necessity of engaging at least three other
professors, and thus relieving my present staff of some of its work. But they
regarded me with horror – their idea is to have as few professors as
possible, and overwork them as much as they can – they do not like paying
out money. In confidence, I may as well tell you that they would never have
countenanced your engagement – they think it wicked to pay out as much
as five hundred rupees a month to one man – if it had not been that the
Government refused to give them a grant unless there were at least three
men with English degrees on the staff.”
“Then your promise to do your best to get me an adequate salary seems
doomed to disappoint,” said Hugh.
“I have already done my best without result,” replied Abdullah. “I still
have hopes, however.”
A further passage portrays Abdullah's passionate concern for uplifting Muslim education - just like the real-life Principal's:
... I had hoped to be able, in my new capacity, to alter
things, but already I begin to despair a little. What can one or two men do,
when the same antiquated ideas are prevalent throughout the whole of the
University, and no drastic measures are taken to cope with them. The
students enter the examination-room with their heads full of pages and
pages of notes and texts. If they get a question the answer to which they
have not learnt by heart, they cannot even attempt to answer it. If they get
a question of which they have learnt the answer and a phrase or even a
sentence eludes them, they are done. And you and I will not succeed in
altering the habits which have been pushed into them from their primary
“Isn’t it possible to engage professors with more up-to-date ideas?”
“It is; and of course Government colleges possess some very fine men
on their staffs, but the narrow-minded policy of our governing body is to get
the cheapest man they can who has a degree. Always our results have
been very poor, but what else can you expect from the average type of
professor we possess. They do their best, but their best is hopeless. I
doubt if more than two or three of them could pass a London Matriculation
“How awful!” said Hugh.
“It is worse than awful. I came out here with very big ideas, but already I
am beginning to find them impracticable. I have three men on my staff with
English degrees and ideas above cram; you are one, Aziz is another, Sadiq
is the third, but Sadiq will not settle down to his work. He is always thinking
that his great attainments as he loves to call them, would be of more use in
another sphere; he does not know his own mind and is a bad case of
swollen head. There remain you, Aziz and me; we can accomplish a lot, but
we are too handicapped to do much.”
Abdullah spoke with great feeling, and Hugh felt very sorry for him. He
could just imagine how the other had accepted the post of Principal with the
high hope that he could do much for the advancement of Mahommedan
education, and how bitterly disappointed he must have been to find the
almost insurmountable obstacles in his path.”
The twist in the story is that Alexander Wilson was working under cover while at Islamia. The real Wilson did not have the two necessary attributes to qualify for the job: a graduate of an English university and sporting prowess. Tim Crook notes
Alexander Wilson needed a qualifying intelligence legend and the
abilities to do the two jobs. He had to have had a background of sporting
prowess. As he would have to raise a company of the College’s University
Training Corps for the Indian Army Reserve, he would have needed military
experience and his RASC commission from the Great War would have
provided that, but any embellishment of rank and decorations would have
been useful. He would have needed higher educational qualifications, but
extensive investigations of Oxford and Cambridge University records
cannot identify Alexander Wilson gaining any of the qualifications he
claimed in Lahore and also cited in his War Office Army emergency reserve
application in 1939. Captain Hugh Shannon of the Secret Service in The
Devil’s Cocktail is assisted with a Secret Service ‘splendid list of referees’
in order to secure the post of Professor of English Literature. Is it to be
assumed that the real Secret Service in London or IPI/IIB [Indian Political Intelligence/Indian Intelligence Bureau] in India had
obliged in the same way in regard to his degrees and references?
The identity constructed for the 'cover' Alexander Wilson not only gave him an Oxford degree, but also set him up as the illegitimate son of one Colonel Gordon Wilson, husband of Lady Sarah Wilson, daughter of the Duke of Marlborough. The 'real' Alexander Wilson did not have a university education, but fortuitously, his father was also a Lieutenant Colonel Wilson. Whether Abdullah Yusuf Ali cottoned on to the intelligence cover cannot be conclusively stated, though in Tim Crook's view
We can only speculate that Yusuf
Ali was recruiting a European who could combine the role of improving the
college through higher educational leadership with the monitoring of the
boys at the College who were drawn from the region’s Islamic elite, North
West frontier farmers and the agitating tribal chiefs of Waziristan.
Islamia College was the only all Muslim college of the University in
Lahore and Indian Political Intelligence and the Indian Intelligence Bureau
must have realised the College could play a significant role in combating
the Muslim perception of discrimination by Hindus in British Imperial India.
They would have realised that it was through higher education that they
could influence the minds of the sons of Muslim community leaders in the
Tim Crook also raises the possibility that Abdullah Yusuf Ali "was so enraptured by the charm and confidence of his protege that he never thought to seek official corroboration of his Oxford qualification".
The intelligence world is rightly described as a world of mirrors and shadows. The 'cover' Alexander Wilson was to become an outstanding principal in the footsteps of his mentor, raising both academic and sporting standards at Islamia College and writing educational textbooks, while also"mollifying and pacifying the region's Muslim elite". While in his 'cover' role, Wilson also married for a second time in India in 1930, to Dorothy Wick, a young actress on tour, and returned to England in 1933. In 1942 Dorothy was informed that Wilson had died at the Battle of El Alamein, but in fact he was working at Bletchley as a 'Colonel Wilson' through World War II monitoring diplomats' communicationsin Urdu, Persian and other languages and was later sent undercover to Brixton Prison.
Tim Crook describes Alexander Wilson as 'the Cassandra of British intelligence history'. This book ought to be read to find out why.
Why did Wilson write spy novels with so much autobiographical content? For Tim Crook this was not discouraged by the authorities because it served as a means for British intelligence to project its power: "MI6, MI5, Indian Political Intelligence and the New Delhi Intelligence Bureau had to be larger, more effective and much greater than they were in reality. Alexander Wilson's spy fiction played a vital part in endorsing and sustaining that illusion". The author, including himself in the third person in this meticulously researched work writes, "Tim Crook recognised the brilliance and effectiveness of the presentation of Alexander Wilson as a genuine secret agent. Were it not for the tangible and concrete evidence that he had been a real player in the intelligence profession painstakingly unearthed by years of research, everything about Alexander Douglas Chesney Wilson has plausable deniability".
M A Sherif
1. 'Searching for Solace - a Biography of Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Interpreter of the Qur'an' by M A Sherif, IBT Kuala Lumpur, 1994
The Knowledge section consists of a wide variety of archival references
and comment. On the side menu just click on to each link
to view material that is relevent to the current reality of Muslims.
If you would like to contribute to this section please send
articles to firstname.lastname@example.org
Recent additions include essays drawing on the India Office Records and the National Archives.
Printable version Comments
Submit your comment:
Mandatory fields are marked with an asterisk (*)
Date: 25th of April 2008
Comments: Savarkar worked for the British - a kind of Omar Bakri of his days. His job was to upstage the stirrings of Indian nationalism. Gandhi was the 'Sufi Council' of the time preaching 'tranquility'.