Obituary: David Herbert

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The Independent Online
David Alexander Reginald Herbert, writer and raconteur: born 3 October 1908; died Tangier 3 April 1995.

The death of David Herbert will leave the expatriate community in Tangier bereft of the focus of their lives, and visitors from Britain to the Sin City of North Africa without an almost compulsory port of call.

To go on holiday to Tangier and not to be invited to luncheon at least eight times a week by David Herbert was regarded by many as social death. Money, breeding and temperament all combined to equip him with a penchant for entertaining, and apart from producing, in 1972, a lightweight volume of reminiscences called Second Son, and in 1990 an equally lightweight sequel of recollections, Engaging Eccentrics, he never did anything else.

The Hon David Herbert was born in 1908, second son of the 15th Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, and was brought up at Wilton House, the beautiful Pembroke seat near Salisbury. But for nearly half a century he made his home on the Mountain in Tangier, first visiting the place in 1933 with Poppet John, a daughter of Augustus. There he was able to sustain a standard of living which would have been quite beyond his means had he remained in England. The garden, where English spring bulbs were in full flower in February, teemed with exotic birds unmolested by the cats: Essex, Dudley and Lady Jane Grey. There were two cottages, in which lived a cook and his wife, who cleaned the house, two gardeners, and a perfect Moroccan manservant who answered the door, poured the drinks, waited at table and drove the car.

The house was a seemingly endless succession of small but exquisitely furnished sitting-rooms leading off from one another, 18th-century china, chairs and family portraits reminding him, and his more plebeian guests, of his stately origins. Photographs of the royal family, too, preserved a homely touch. Herbert's brother served as equerry to the late Duke of Kent and his sister-in-law as a Lady-in-Waiting to the Duchess. His sister Patricia, the late Dowager Viscountess Hambleden, was a Lady-in-Waiting to the Queen Mother for 57 years. His anecdotes about the Queen and the Queen Mother were part of the repertoire to which new visitors, upon whose eager ears he fastened, were invariably subjected. They were very well told, and very funny, even the second time round.

Beautiful in his pampered youth and distinguished-looking in his unwrinkled old age, David Herbert was content that his life should revolve around the arranging of a lunch- or dinner- party every day, or else he was out to lunch or dinner. Apart from the time it took to take a siesta he seemed quite unable to endure his own company, and the result was not unlike an imported version of Tilling. As in the novels of E.F. Benson, those who lived in Tangier met and re-met one another on the terrace of Herbert's house day in and day out, so that new faces from England were welcomed by many pairs of open arms. Plates, cutlery and glasses engraved with the Pembroke crest adorned the table, whether meals were taken indoors or out, and the food, first the meat, then the vegetables, was passed precariously round and round the table by the one servant. Decanters of wine were thoughtfully placed in the centre of the table and guests were invited to serve themselves drinks, which helped to pass the time while waiting for the food.

Herbert was the most attentive of hosts but essentially an indolent man, and he was never known to open a door, carve a piece of meat or pour a drink himself. His bte noire was people who rearranged the furniture, fixed as it was in permanent position, much as furniture seems to be in any royal residence, and Herbert's establishment was nothing if not a court in exile. After one lunch-party he commented, to a departing guest from England, on the reprehensible conduct of a neighbour: ``My dear, did you see the way that man moved his chair after lunch? Then he threw the cushion off it. And finally he disarranged the rug. He simply isn't house-trained!''

During the war Herbert served as a lieutenant in the RNVR, but his pleasure ever after was in making the acquaintance of writers and in swapping literary and social gossip. Paul Bowles, Nancy Mitford, Harold Nicolson, Cyril Connolly, Robin Maugham, Hector Bolitho, Sybil Thorndike, Diana Cooper were all his friends. Immaculate in green cravat, his fingers heavy with rings, David Herbert viewed the world through narrowly focused eyes, absorbing and enjoying the quirks of human conduct, but behind the wealth and wit there lay an essential emptiness. It was as though he knew and accepted the intellectual limitations the regal role imposes upon modern monarchy, a role he played out in the stiflingly Bensonian atmosphere of Tangier to perfection. Many aspire to emulate his performance, but there is no natural successor.

He had great charm, but he was, alas, much maligned by many to whom, over countless years, he extended unstinting hospitality. This he knew, and to his credit he did not care a jot.