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GODFREY HERBERT TRIBUTE (article first published : 2005-10-15)

GODFREY HERBERT: THE MAN I KNEW

Godfrey Herbert died on October 4 and his funeral service was held at St James’ Church which he always referred to as his spiritual home. I have never seen so many people as came to mourn his passing and, in another way, to celebrate his life.

Godfrey was born in England, the last of ten children and the family settled in Durban in his early years. He attended Durban Boys High School. On leaving, he joined the Standard Bank and at the outbreak of World War Two, volunteered for service immediately. He was in an Italian prison-camp but organised an escape for himself and several of the inmates.

After his discharge, he went to Kenya and soon became a bank inspector and a tireless fundraiser for the Red Cross and other charities. He loved to regale his friends with stories of those halcyon days where he certainly lived life to the full. He returned to Durban after retirement, a positive gain for our city.

I first met Godfrey at a very lively dinner party over 30 years ago. May I use a slang phrase and say I was “gob smacked” right away. This man, I visualised as being a fitting guest at Somerset Maugham’s villa in the South of France or in the London coffee houses at the time of Boswell and Johnson and such “greats”. Never had I been in such entertaining company, his stories interspersed with jokes and delivered with such panache, transported me into other realms.

We bonded on that very first meeting, not only because of his compelling personality but, oddly enough, because of grandmothers! When he discovered I had been born and reared in the west of Ireland, he mentioned that his paternal grandmother was a Ryan from County Tipperary. My paternal great-grandmother fitted the same description. I might add, there may be an inaccuracy in all this as Tipperary is virtually littered with Ryan families. As we felt so elated at imagining ourselves as being cousins, we never checked it out!

We met each other often after that and we formed a close friendship. I regret that I never came to know Godfrey the actor – the Pontius Pilate who is inscribed in the annals of theatrical Durban. But for me, he was always on the stage with his anecdotes, impersonations, parodies and so forth – delivered with a magical voice and so riveting. His wit was unique, sometimes a bit risqué but always so amusing.

Godfrey was a self-confessed snob and so very proud of the Herbert family and of his siblings who had all distinguished themselves in their chosen fields. He was a connoisseur of all fine things – art, music, literature, old silver, furniture, good food and wines. He was a cordon bleu cook and his dinner and luncheon parties were legendary. I can still hear him calling out to his Zulu maid whom he trained: “Prieska, Have you made the sorbet?” or, alternately: “Don’t forget the garnish for the fish.” He was a tireless entertainer and a superb host.

Beneath Godfrey’s frivolous façade lay a man of deep compassion. He was the confidante of many who were overburdened with life and his advice and sympathy were so sincere. He was a most devout man and often expressed his deep faith, as well as being a most active member of St James’ Anglican Church. I think it is this facet of his character I will never forget.

As he grew older, his health deteriorated somewhat but to me, his fruitful mind combined with his compassionate heart kept him alive and young. His humour was evident right to the end. As he received the last rites of the Church on his death bed, he quoted Winston Churchill: “I am ready to meet my Maker. But whether He is ready to meet me. That is another matter”.

Godfrey was an end of an era. As Hamlet said of his father to his friend Horatio: “We shall not look on his like again”.

Go in peace, Beloved Friend – Pat Bailey.




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