Anthony Babington

Writer and judge who was left for dead at Arnhem

Anthony Babington was a circuit judge, a bencher of the Middle Temple, a committee member of the Garrick Club, an enthusiastic member of the writers' organisation Pen and the author of a number of highly regarded books. He was also a good companion, a bon viveur, a flirtatious old gent, and kind and gentle to a fault.

Anthony Patrick Babington, judge and writer: born Monkstown, Co Cork 4 April 1920; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1948, Bencher 1977; Prosecuting Counsel to the Post Office, South Eastern Circuit 1959-64; Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate 1964-72; a circuit judge 1972-87; died London 10 May 2004.

Anthony Babington was a circuit judge, a bencher of the Middle Temple, a committee member of the Garrick Club, an enthusiastic member of the writers' organisation Pen and the author of a number of highly regarded books. He was also a good companion, a bon viveur, a flirtatious old gent, and kind and gentle to a fault.

All of this, however palled in comparison to the grand achievement of his life which was a triumph of mind over matter, an object lesson in how a human being can conquer adversity.

In the fighting around Arnhem towards the end of the Second World War, Babington suffered appalling wounds and was left for dead, until one of the burial party detected the feeblest of movements and he was consigned not to the grave, but to hospital and recuperation. He had lost the power of speech and virtually all mobility. Eventually, and unbelievably, he learned to walk again. His right arm never recovered, but his left became effective enough to compensate. He used to say that speaking, after his near-death, was like talking in a foreign language and he was left with a marked stutter, but talk he did, amusingly, wryly and with a constantly engaging self-deprecation.

To those who saw him only from a distance he could seem a mildly Wodehousian figure, but the plummy tones and courteous manner concealed ability, shrewdness and compassion.

Anthony Babington was born into a well-to-do Anglo-Irish family, but his father succumbed to drink and died when Tony was only 10. So, as one good friend, the writer Gillian Tindall, observed, "No Eton, no Oxford, no money to read for the Bar in comfort." Instead, the young Babington went to Reading School and then enlisted in the Royal Ulster Rifles before being transferred, unexpectedly, to the Dorset Regiment on the outbreak of war.

He was an ambitious young man whose aim, before his terrible wounding, had been to become at least Attorney-General, though he confessed, characteristically, "I'd probably have blotted my copybook on the way up - slept with the Lord Chancellor's wife or something - and everything would have gone wrong." The recovery from his wounds required extensive surgery, followed by months at St Hugh's College, Oxford, which served as a special hospital for those with serious spinal and head injuries.

After he had regained his speech and learnt to write, awkwardly, with his left hand, he was determined to fulfil his original ambition of becoming a lawyer even though the authorities insisted, curiously, that he would be better suited to a career in farming. His handicaps were augmented by long and serious bouts of pneumonia and pleurisy, but he stuck it out and was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in 1948. In 1964 he became a stipendiary magistrate and from 1972 until 1987 he was a circuit judge.

At the same time he developed a parallel career as a writer. His most notable successes were his studies of courts-martial in the First World War. Books such as For the Sake of Example (1983) and Shell Shock (1997) did much to change public and official thinking about issues of alleged cowardice and desertion. He also wrote a memoir, An Uncertain Voyage (2000), in which he discussed his father's ruin and also revealed, to the surprise even of his friends, that he himself was strongly religious and attributed his miraculous recovery at least in part to the power of prayer.

Babington was a gregarious figure who much enjoyed his involvement with International Pen, not just because it enabled him to work on behalf of freedom of expression but also because of the opportunities it provided for intelligent friendships. In later life he was sustained by the care and companionship of the writer Josephine Pullein-Thompson, for many years the indomitable secretary of English Pen.

Tim Heald

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