A.P. Herbert

APHerbert2Alan Patrick Herbert (1890-1971), knighted in 1945, was a humorist, satirist and legal reformer, who became a well-known public figure in the post-war period. His science fiction is in all cases related to his satirical bent. The Red Pen (1927), the libretto for a radio opera, has artists in the near future arranging for the nationalisation of the Arts. Number Nine, or The Mind-Sweepers (1951) and its sequel, Made for Man (1958) take place after a short non-nuclear World War III, makes all kind of satirical suggestions about the near future. In 1929, he extrapolated from the talkies to imagine the “feelies” and the “smells”. One of his famous Misleading Cases (“Reign of Error?”, 1963) concerns the criminal responsibility of a malfunctioning, seemingly sentient computer.  For more detail, see the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

That he was excited by at least one of the things that excited the science fiction community at the time is suggested by the book he “compiled and edited” in 1964: the clumsily titled Watch This Space (Six Years Of It): An Anthology of Space (Fact), 4 October 1957 – 4 October 1963 (London: Methuen) was a collection of cuttings and quotations about space, for the first six years from the launch of Sputnik.

Watch This Space includes a letter which he wrote to The Times in 1962, that was not published, which suggests he was not totally wedded to the space project: “The flying fish, no doubt, excite the wonder of their fellows. The flight is exciting, but it gets the fish nowhere: and they return with relief to their natural element. So, perhaps, will Man. Either way, what’s the hurry?” (29). On the other hand, you have to admire the remark he made in the Oxford Union in 1960: “I feel about Space as D.H. Lawrence felt about Sex, that we should think of it with humility and reverence; but I cannot accept the bombardment of the Moon with phallic symbols as an apt expression of our regard for either” (47).

APH, as he was often known, was born in Leatherhead, the eldest of three sons of an Irish civil servant in the India Office. His mother, who died when he was seven, was from a distinguished legal family. Alan was a pupil at Winchester College, and he was still at school when he published his first volume of light verse, and made his first contribution to Punch. He went to New College Oxford in 1910, to read law, and gained a first class degree in 1914.

After his war service he was called to the bar, but he never practised. Instead he joined the staff of Punch, and there began to publish his “Misleading Cases”, humorous explorations of legal anomalies. The first book of Misleading Cases was published in 1927. He also wrote the librettos of comic operas, and novels: Holy Deadlock (1934) was an expose of the stupidities of current divorce laws. One of his other causes was the reform of the ludicrously complex licensing laws. As a protest he  laid a criminal information, in 1934, against the Kitchen Committee of the House of Commons for selling alcohol without a licence.

The year after that he was elected to Parliament himself as a member for Oxford University: he remained an MP for fifteen years (until the university seats were abolished). In 1937 he steered through a bill to reform the divorce laws.

Herbert lived in Hammersmith, overlooking the Thames. Once, after the Second World War, he heard a pleasure steamer go past, and the crew member announce over the loud-hailer: “On the right is the residence of Mr A.P. Herbert […] HE’S A VERY FAMOUS MAN—OR WAS” (A.P.H., 165). In the Second World War he  joined the River Emergency Service, part of the London defences, and when the service was merged with the Royal Naval Auxiliary Patrol he was given the rank of petty officer. He combined this work with his position as MP. In June 1940 he launched a successful campaign to stop books being taxed.

After the war he fought for a water bus service for the Thames, a public lending right for authors, and a betting tax, and fought against a spelling reform bill, the law of obscenity, an entertainments tax, and bureaucratic jargon. In 1954 he chaired a committee of the Society of Authors to press for reform of the law on literary censorship, whose recommendations became the Obscene Publications Act of 1959.

In 1970 there were great celebrations for his eightieth birthday on 24 September. His autobiography A.P.H. was published. He and his family and friends were taken on a chartered steamer down the Thames, escorted by two ships from the Royal Naval Reserve, past waving MPs on the terrace of the Palace of Westminster, past salutes from passing tugboats, to a welcome from the Admiral President of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich.

Punch organised its own celebration, of the sixtieth anniversary as a contributor. A cow was led into the branch of Barclay’s Bank nearest St Paul’s Cathedral. “Pay A.P. Herbert £5” was written on its side, signed by the editor of Punch, and Herbert himself cashed the negotiable cow at the bank, whose spokesman hoped “not to see the practice extended’. Those who do not understand what this is all about have sadly not read the most famous of Herbert’s Misleading Cases, which is Board of Inland Revenue v. Haddock, otherwise “The Case of the Negotiable Cow”.

Herbert died in Hammersmith, just over a year later, on 11 November 1971.

My information comes mostly from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry by Reginald Pound, revised by Katherine Mullin; supplemented  by A.P.H.: His Life and Times, by Sir Alan Herbert, C.H. (London: Heinemann, 1970) and by Reginald Pound, A.P. Herbert: A Biography (Lonson: Michael Joseph, 1976).



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