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HUMPHREY BERKELEY
The Life and Death of Rochester Sneath


click to enlarge

(Hamish Hamilton, London, 1980)
hardback price: 3.95; 96 pages
first published 1974

dedication: To Robin Bidwell, for his help


The blurb on the back:

H. Rochester Sneath, MA, L-es-L, no longer exists. And if you wished to put your son's name on the waiting list for Selhurst School, Near Petworth, Sussex, you might have a little difficulty. It doesn't exist either. But, as this collection of Sneath's letters, and the replies, proves, you can fool most of the people most of the time. Particularly, it seems, if the people happen to be the head masters of those most English private institutions - public schools.
In early 1948, Sneath began his brief and glorious career. Letters, like canes, mortar-boards and jaundiced rugger balls, began to appear in head-magisterial offices, whose occupants, with two notable exceptions, appeared to find nothing strange in either Sneath's requests or his exhortations. Pompous, indignant, eccentric, pushing, toadying, or just plain dotty, the letters were answered with a seriousness which is scarcely credible. For he wrote of infestations of rats, of the possibility of 'engineering' Royal visits; of where to hire a private detective; of junior masters with club feet and warty noses; of ghosts, cricket, statues, new buildings, 'monster' reunions, and a host of other subjects.
George Bernard Shaw was puzzled.


opening lines:
Twenty-six years ago, when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, I invented a public school.


When he was at Cambridge, and President of the Union, back in 1948, Humphrey Berkeley concocted this harmless little prank, in which he purported to be H Rochester Sneath, the headmaster of a minor (but old) public school, and wrote to the heads of various other, better-known institutions. A kind of undergraduate Henry Root, as it were. As ever with these kind of hoaxes, the joy is in the subtle distortions of normality in the writing, and in the replies that they generate from the gullible. Being restricted to a single subject - the public school system - the appeal is a bit limited, but there's some innocent pleasure to be had here.

The real problem is that the project didn't last long enough to get really wild. Berkeley made the mistake of writing to a newspaper, the Daily Worker, to complain about Board of Trade restrictions on the importing of Russian text books. There was no such ban, the letter generated sufficient publicity that the ruse was rumbled and Berkeley found himself in trouble with the authorities at his college. (He later became a Tory MP and was elevated to the ranks of the great and good.) At which point, it all came to an end. Quarter of a century later, he finally decided enough water had been passed to make publication possible. And it's a welcome little addition to the ranks of published hoaxes.

Incidentally, I'd like to take this opportunity to confess to my own crimes against the truth. I went through a phase in the 1990s of writing to the Notes & Queries column in the Guardian giving entirely fictitious answers to people's questions. I did the same with various other publications (well, I was bored at work), and I'd particularly like to apologize for my letter in The Pink Paper, which outed Dan Archer of The Archers, claiming that he once admitted to having a gay relationship as a young man. There is no truth in this whatsoever.


ARTISTIC MERIT: 3/5
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE:
3/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT:
2/5


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