A. P. Herbert is one of the most brilliant of the younger English writers, and has done remarkable work in fields apparently incompatible: light verse, humorous drolleries, and a beautifully written tragic novel, The Secret Battle. This last was unquestionably one of the most powerful books born of the War, but its sale was tragically small. The House by the River, a later book, was also an amazingly competent and original tale, apparently cast along the lines of the conventional “mystery story,” but really a study of selfishness and cowardice done with startling irony and intensity.
Mr. Herbert went to Winchester School and New College, Oxford, where he took his degree in 1914. He saw military service at the Dardanelles and in France, and is now on the staff of Punch. There is no young writer in England from whom one may more confidently expect a continuance of fine work. This airy and delicious little absurdity is a perfect example of what a genuine humorist can do.
A. P. Herbert
If there is still any one in doubt as to the value of the oldfashioned classical training in forming a lusty prose style, let him examine Mr. Herbert’s The Secret Battle. This book often sounds oddly like a translation from vigorous Greek – e.g., Herodotus. It is lucid, compact, logical, rich in telling epithet, informal and swift. If these are not the cardinal prose virtues, what are?
IT IS COMMONLY SAID that everybody can sing in the bathroom; and this is true. Singing is very easy. Drawing, though, is much more difficult. I have devoted a good deal of time to Drawing, one way and another; I have to attend a great many committees and public meetings, and at such functions I find that Drawing is almost the only Art one can satisfactorily pursue during the speeches. One really cannot sing during the speeches; so as a rule I draw. I do not say that I am an expert yet, but after a few more meetings I calculate that I shall know Drawing as well as it can be known.
The first thing, of course, is to get on to a really good committee; and by a good committee I mean a committee that provides decent materials. An ordinary departmental committee is no use: generally they only give you a couple of pages of lined foolscap and no white blotting-paper, and very often the pencils are quite soft. White blotting-paper is essential. I know of no material the spoiling of which gives so much artistic pleasure – except perhaps snow. Indeed, if I was asked to choose between making pencil-marks on a sheet of white blotting-paper and making foot-marks on a sheet of white snow I should be in a thingummy.
Much the best committees from the point of view of material are committees about business which meet at business premises – shipping offices, for choice. One of the Pacific Lines has the best white blotting-paper I know; and the pencils there are a dream. I am sure the directors of that firm are Drawers; for they always give you two pencils, one hard for doing noses, and one soft for doing hair.
When you have selected your committee and the speeches are well away, the Drawing begins. Much the best thing to draw is a man. Not the chairman, or Lord Pommery Quint, or any member of the committee, but just A Man. Many novices make the mistake of selecting a subject for their Art before they begin; usually they select the chairman. And when they find it is more like Mr. Gladstone they are discouraged. If they had waited a little it could have been Mr. Gladstone officially.
Now you have to outline the rest of the head, and this is rather a gamble. Personally, I go in for strong heads (Fig. 3).
I hope that is right. It seems to me to be a little too far to the southward. But it is done now. And once you have put in the ear you can’t go back; not unless you are on a very good committee which provides india-rubber as well as pencils.
Until one draws hair one never realizes what large heads people have. Doing the hair takes the whole of a speech, usually, even one of the chairman’s speeches.
This is not one of my best men; I am sure the ear is in the wrong place. And I am inclined to think he ought to have spectacles. Only then he would be a clergyman, and I have decided that he is Mr. Philip Gibbs at the age of twenty. So he must carry on with his eye as it is.
I find that all my best men face to the west; it is a curious thing. Sometimes I draw two men facing each other, but the one facing east is always a dud.
There, you see (Fig. 6)? The one on the right is a Bolshevik; he has a low forehead and beetling brows – a most unpleasant man. Yet he has a powerful face. The one on the left was meant to be another Bolshevik, arguing with him. But he has turned out to be a lady, so I have had to give her a “bun.” She is a lady solicitor; but I don’t know how she came to be talking to the Bolshevik.
PERSPECTIVE is great fun: the best thing to do is a long French road with telegraph poles (Fig. 7).
I have put in a fence as well.
LANDSCAPE is chiefly composed of hills and trees. Trees are the most amusing, especially fluffy trees.
Here is a Landscape (Fig. 8).
But it takes a very long speech to get an ambitious piece of work like this through.
There is one other thing I ought to have said. Never attempt to draw a man front-face. It can’t be done.
– Collected in Modern Essays, Christopher Morley, ed., Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., 1921