Sir Alan Patrick Herbert was an English humorist, novelist, playwright and law reform activist. He was an independent Member of Parliament (MP) for Oxford University for 15 years, five of which he combined with service in the Royal Navy.
He was born in Ashtead, Surrey, to Patrick Herbert, a civil servant, and Beatrice Herbert, née Selwyn. His mother died when he was seven years old. He had two younger brothers; both were killed in battle—one in 1914 and the other in 1941.
He was educated at Winchester College and New College, Oxford, obtaining a first class honours degree in jurisprudence. He was called to the bar by the Inner Temple in 1919, but never practised.
He served in the Royal Navy during the First World War. He served at Gallipoli and was mentioned in dispatches. He drew on that experience for his novel The Secret Battle, published in 1919. During the Second World War, in addition to his parliamentary duties he served in the Royal Navy on patrol-boats in the Thames. He may have been the first serving Member of Parliament to serve in the Royal Navy without being an officer: he was Petty Officer Herbert from 1940 to 1945.
In 1935, with the aid of Frank Pakenham, he became an Independent Member of Parliament for Oxford University, from where he was returned until the University seats were abolished in 1950.
He was sent to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1943 with Derrick Gunston and Charles Ammon as part of a Parliamentary Commission to investigate the future of the dominion, and supported the cause of independence over confederation as a result.
He was knighted in 1945 in Winston Churchill's Resignation Honours. The Times noted "his individual niche in the parliamentary temple as the doughty vindicator of the private member's rights, including not least the right to legislate."
Throughout his career he lobbied for reform of several laws that he felt to be outdated, including those on divorce and obscenity, using his satirical skills to great effect.
A popular topic of his was the remarkably complex British licensing laws of the time, and in 1935, as a protest, he was the first person to lay a criminal information against the House of Commons for selling alcohol without a licence. (The High Court ruled that it was exempt through Parliamentary privilege.)
Giving his maiden speech on his second day in the House, he declared rashly that he planned to introduce the Matrimonial Causes Bill, to reform divorce, and that he would have it passed before that Parliament was over, publishing the novel Holy Deadlock in 1934 to make his points humorously. It was passed, somewhat strengthened by the House of Lords, in 1938 as the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937. This allowed divorce without requiring proof of adultery, although fake adulteries and the bizarre rules about collusion persisted until the Divorce Reform Act 1969 came into force in 1971. He also advocated reform of the gambling laws and the repeal of the entertainments tax, among other causes.
Starting in 1910, his humorous writing appeared often in Punch; wherein also were first published his series of Misleading Cases in the Common Law - the work for which he is best remembered. These were satirical pieces, in the form of "law reports" or "judgments", on various aspects of the British legal and judicial system. Many of them featured the exploits of Albert Haddock, a tireless and veteran litigant. One of the best-known and most colourful is Board of Inland Revenue v Haddock, also known as "The Negotiable Cow". Even the title is a humorous allusion to the entirely serious "Smith's Leading Cases". Herbert often referred to himself as "A. P. Haddock" in skits in Punch magazine, whether or not these had a courtroom setting.
Thanks to their realism, they were on several occasions mistakenly reported by newspapers both in Britain and elsewhere as factual. One of the "cases", supposedly establishing a novel crime of "doing what you like", was sharply criticized by an American law review article, whose author failed to note its entire absurdity. As such they are examples of the literary technique known as False document. And while, in these fictitious "Law Reports", the fictitious judges and lawyers regularly cited various real and venerable authorities, such as Henry de Bracton, they were prone also to citing texts of Herbert's own imagination such as "Wedderburn on Water Courses" and "A. Capone's Handbook for Bootleggers".
More importantly, these cases were Herbert's vehicles for his law reform work. Beneath their satire, they often carried cogent and sharp legal or political points, that tied into his personal crusades against obsolescent legislation. Although entirely fictional, they are, consequently, sometimes quoted in judicial decisions, and are also the subject of academic research.
Over his lifetime Herbert published five collections of the Misleading Cases, titled Misleading Cases in the Common Law, More Misleading Cases, Still More Misleading Cases, Codd's Last Case and Bardot M.P.?. Stray cases also appear in his collections of miscellaneous humorous essays, such as General Cargo. Virtually all the cases were assembled into two omnibus volumes, Uncommon Law in 1935 and More Uncommon Law in 1982. A shorter selection, Wigs At Work, appeared in 1966.
The BBC successfully adapted them for television as three series of A P Herbert's Misleading Cases (1967, 1968 and 1971), with Roy Dotrice as Haddock and Alastair Sim as the judge, Mr. Justice Swallow.
He wrote eight novels, including The Water Gypsies (1930), and 15 plays, including the light opera Tantivy Towers, and the comedy Bless the Bride (1947), which ran for two and a quarter years in London.
In addition to his fiction, Herbert wrote What a Word! in 1935, continuing his campaign in Punch for better use of English, including a section on 'Plain English' more than a decade ahead of Sir Ernest Gowers' more celebrated work. Characteristically, Herbert uses humour to make his serious points about good writing.
He was the author of the lyrics of the patriotic song Song of Liberty, set in 1940 to the music of Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4.
After the war he wrote a small booklet called 'The War Story of Southend Pier' detailing an account of when the pier was taken over by the Royal Navy in WW2.
In 1967, Herbert published Sundials Old and New; or, Fun with the Sun; a book describing in detail his long fascination with, and experiments in sundial technology. In the book, he describes all manner of sundials, and recounts many of his experiments in designing and building a number of different models, including a few that could be used to tell your position on the earth as well as the local time.
In 1970 Herbert published A.P.H., His Life and Times, dedicated to My dear wife, for our 56th anniversary.
Herbert loved the River Thames. He lived beside it at Hammersmith, West London. He was a Conservator (a member of the Thames Conservancy Board) and a Freeman of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. In 1966 he wrote The Thames (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) in which he explored the "machinery" of the river in all its aspects.
This text is based on the copyrighted Wikipedia article; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License