Norman Alliston, who were you?

by admin on May 27, 2011

This morning I went on another of my time-wasting Internet meanders and landed in another unlikely place. Courtesy of Google Books, I found myself looking at the 1901 volume of British Chess Magazine, scanned from the Harvard Library collection, featuring an enormous picture of Queen Victoria on the cover.

Trivia question: Why was Queen Victoria on the cover of the 1901 volume of British Chess Magazine? Was she an avid chess player? (Hint: The volume contains twelve issues, one for each month. Her picture also appears on the cover of the February 1901 issue.)

I started reading through the January 1901 issue and found no explanation for Queen Victoria’s presence. However, I did find a hilarious article by someone identified as Norman Alliston. Basically, this article was what you would get if Johnny Carson had lived in Great Britain in 1901 and decided to do a monologue about chess. It’s a series of jokes and one-liners about chess, with no particular rhyme or reason to them. The article is called “Minor Reflections on Chess.” I was hooked when I got to the line where he says, “Chess is a serious game; almost as serious as golf.” Also, says Alliston:

Chess, however, is by no means synonymous to virtue. Chess players have unpleasant characteristics. They are — to a degree of course — proud, argumentative, overcautious, and deceitful … As to their deceitfulness this undoubtedly comes from the chess player’s habit of continually laying traps for his opponents.

Curiously, this quote was picked up by chess historian Edward Winter, who included it in a web page on Bribery in the Chess World. However, there is nothing in the quote about bribery per se, only about the characteristics of chess players.

Another quote for fun:

I do not hold much of those chess brothers who refrain from the smoking of tobacco. These non-smoking gentlemen are usually hard-thinking, uncomfortable antagonists. They are apt to play woodenly, and become somewhat impatient between the moves. Cigars, I somehow fancy, will give a deep and rather technical game. Cigarettes will tend to make the encounter sprightly or boisterously reckless. For my opponent I would have one versed in the cult of the crusted briar; then shall our game be level-headed yet lively, sprightly yet discreet, novel yet dignified, exciting yet untroublesome — pre-eminently sociable.

Ah yes, just what we all long for… exciting yet untroublesome chess games.

I think that Alliston’s column will provide material for several “Chess Wit & Wisdoms,” a portion of my blog that has been sadly neglected for many months.

But now, who was Alliston? A web search reveals a few clues. He seems to have been a kindred spirit to me: a person who spends his time writing things of no lasting consequence. He wrote a few forgotten philosophical books, one of which received the following delightful review in 1906:

Reconnoitres in Reason, by Mr. Norman Alliston, is a small volume of discursive essays of a philosophical character, which appear to have no very definite object; we should suppose the author wrote them for his own amusement and they may afford a little amusement to the reader. We should do them no injustice if we describe them as clever, though it is a doubtful compliment …

Much later in life (1936), Alliston turned to mathematics, writing a book whose title, Mathematical Snack Bar, again suggests a propensity for clever, light, ephemeral thoughts.

That’s all I was able to find out on the Internet. Plus he played chess, probably not very well, and he collected picture postcards.

And now for the answer to the Queen Victoria question: As a quick check of Wikipedia will inform you, England’s longest-reigning monarch died on January 26, 1901, a traumatic event for a country where only a small minority of people had ever known another ruler. Quoth the British Chess Magazine:

Queen Mother of her people, ever mindful of their welfare, sharing their joys and sorrows, her influence will remain a glorious tradition for the guidance of future British Sovereigns. She was loved because she loved. She was honoured because she ruled by love and justice. Her influence for good was so wide and powerful that all British subjects should be devoutly thankful that she reigned for so many years. The whole World respected her noble example, now consecrated by memories which will cling to her name through the future history of our Nation.

‘Twas a very different time …

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

David Rex Alliston September 5, 2015 at 2:49 am

The following taken from my family tree, may add something to the
blog which I came across whilest browsing the internet looking for info.

Regards – David Alliston

Sir Frederick Alliston (London Councillor, Sherrif of London)
Owner of Alliston and Co Wharehouseman trader of Manchester cotton goods
Children of FREDERICK ALLISTON (second Marriage) and MARY LOADER included:

viii. NORMAN ALLISTON57, b. 04 April 1877, Kensington; d. 13 October 1937

Entered his father’s business on leaving school. Started at the bottom, licking stamps and writing up ledgers. At an early age, travelled to the Continent and became fluent in French and German.

Remained a bachelor, living with his parents at 45 Regents Park Road. Wrote a book about mathematics and another obscure book on the theory of Chinese puzzles. He belonged to some scientific societies and twice a year visited friends on the Continent. (John Alliston, Tasmania)
Left the following in his father’s will:
A proportion of his father’s presentation plate.


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