Ah, Durbs, what a city to grow up in; Mick's Pie Cart, Cane 'n coke, Indian Market, green mangoes, rickshaws, bunny chow, pickled eggs, sardine runs, large flying cockroaches, and of course, Union Castle Lines. Of course, that ever smell of the Surf.
Having been born in Pretoria in 1946, I am an ex "Vaallie", (or Anglo Rock, or Kydaar) who at the age of 8, moved with his parents and younger brother to Durban from a small farming community between Groblersdal and Marble Hall, in what is now Mpumalanga.
However, my memories of Durban date back earlier, as a town of wonderful seaside holidays when I was about 4 or 5. This involved catching a steam train from Marble Hall, changing at Pretoria onto a much longer and posher overnight train pulled by an electric for the final leg down to Durban where we stayed with my Aunt and Uncle on Norwich Crescent in Woodlands. From here we visited Granny and Ou Pop, who lived in a flat in College Lane just off Russell Street.
Visiting Granny was a special treat, because we always went down to the beachfront to go on the rides there; the little wooden motor boats that one could navigate around islands in a small man made "lake", or the little cars one could drive oneself, scooting around a track.
At times, we would go by bus to Brighton Beach and after a ride on the funicular, we would go for a coke outside in the gardens of the Brighton Beach Hotel.
The best however was a trip down to the Snake Park area where there was a real little green and black steam locomotive, pulling about 3 or 4 carriages, some of which came complete with a roof and doors and windows. There and then I wanted to be a train driver. (More on that later)
As a side note here, the irony was that Ou Pop was very British, and was the uniformed main doorman at the Edward Hotel in its hay day on the beach front. He saw service as a Scots Guard, and even in later years, was always a very imposing figure, standing about 6 foot 4. A ramrod straight back and a rich voice with a soft burr. He used to comb my hair and give me a shilling before I went to the Sunday School at the church down the road on Russel Street.
Anyway, back to the start of a new city life in Durban. I continued my schooling in 1954 in Class 2 at Stella Park junior school, at the corner of Umbilo Road and Stellawood Road, bussing in from Woodlands. After Standard 1, it was up the road to Stellawood School from 1956 for Standard 2, finishing in 1960 at Standard 6.
Stellawood was a great school; I was in the red "house", Rhodes, and the inter-house athletics were on the very top field, across the road from the cemetery, and of course the crematorium. This was often the source of school boy macabre humour, especially when the crematorium was operating, so to speak. The headmaster at the time was a Mr. Kethro, a widower who ended up marrying my Standard 3, (maybe Std. 2) teacher, a Miss Anthony. She was to me such a wonderful teacher, a small, gentle, and gracious lady.
For some obscure reason, I was made a prefect in Std. 6. I was a skinny little guy for my size, and shy. Getting larger and older boys to behave and not smoke, (some had plugged Std. 6 a few times), was not an option.
Another highlight during the Stellawood years was a school trip to the Alhambra cinema, opposite the Technical College, to see The Ten Commandments. What a movie; to this day, my two favourite scenes were the parting of the Red Sea and Moses' staff turning into a snake.
It was around about this time in the mid 1950's that my parents moved to the former married police quarters, known as Wentworth Government Village, situated between Wentworth Hospital and the SA Police office complex. Memories abound of hot afternoons after school, walking down Stellawood Road to the bus stop on Umbilo Road, with the Power Station in the background going great guns. There was a bakery shop on the corner, that had the most mouth-watering aromas coming out of its doors. At 3 in the afternoon, one was always hungry.
I used to cycle a lot then, often down to Mobeni to visit my Mom, where she worked at BSB, (Boere Saamwerk Bpk), a wool co-op., the Afrikaans counterpart of nearby FCU, Farmers Cooperative Union. BSB's loading dock was serviced by a very busy railway siding, where I spent hours watching the steam engines shunting up and down. One day, the train driver invited me up onto the locomotive and after sharing a thick delicious cheese sandwich with me from his large blue-grey tin lunch box, he vacated his seat to allow me to climb behind the controls. All those gauges, the stoker sweating, shovelling coal into the roaring fire, the constant hiss of steam and that wonderful aroma of train smoke. I could not believe my luck!
He showed me the "ropes" what the gauges meant, whistle, levers, brakes etc., and at the end of my quick Train Driving 101 lesson, my time had come. The locomotive had to be reversed, …. very slowly. I ratcheted the lever a bit too much, promptly spinning wheels accompanied by flying sparks.
WOW. What a treat in those for a 9-10 year old.
High school started at Glenwood in 1961 as a Third Former, (Std.7), a juncture where one's life took on a whole new hue and meaning. As first year students, us "irks" had not only prefects to deal with, but with older boys in 6th form, making us run around picking up papers, cleaning blackboards with one's nose and so on.
Of course, the older boys who sat at the back of the bus coming to school used to order a new boy sitting in the front of the bus to ask the driver to stop directly outside the school on Bulwer Road instead of the bus stop a bit further away. In the 4 years (1961-1964) travelling in from Woodlands on the bus, there was only one occasion when a driver refused.
It was compulsory for scholars to attend 1st team rugby and cricket home matches in full school uniform, complete with straw bashers (boaters), on Saturdays, particularly against rivals like DHS, (Durban Horse Stables), Martizburg College, and Kearsney. One had to hand in your name at the fixture. Those who did not attend ran the risk of being flapped by a prefect on Monday. Of course, in those days schools considered soccer as non- U, and there were some guys in my class who were avid soccer players and/or Durban City or Durban United fans who refused to come in to watch school sports.
But it was good fun overall, especially as one progressed up the totem pole towards Matric. In addition to a great headmaster in the form of Jack Dixon, (who drove a smart looking Opel Kapitan), there memorable teachers over the years, Max Sandler, Hermie Kriel, Koos Basson, Nobby Clark, and of course, who could forget Sloppy Alexander, who signed off tests and essays with a signature or initials that spelt GOO.
Max was our arithmetic master in Std. 7, pipe smoking and quietly spoken with a sharp caustic wit. He did SABC radio sports broadcasts on weekends, particularly cricket, and thought Charles Fortune spoke c**p by the yard. Sadly, throat cancer took over, and Max died, (1962, I think.)
Hermie Kriel who taught Afrikaans, was absolutely terrifying, even when we were older in later years. He was a stocky man, with flinty blue eyes and a perpetual Churchillian scowl on his face. He coached rugby, smoked a pipe ferociously, and handed out flaps with his banana fingered hands; he did not need a cane. To brush up on everyday conversational Afrikaans, homework was reading Huisgenoot magazine, which you did, and God help you if you could not answer questions the next day. No cocky insolent disobedient wise asses in his class, he was very well respected as tough but fair. I believe he went onto teach at Port Natal Hoerskool.
Nobby Clark used to pitch up for his maths lessons late, and on one occasion, not at all. Laid back? Heck, he made a dead man look like a fidget and had a habit of throwing his pieces of chalk out the window, hardly used after a few algebra equations on the board. After he took a transfer to New Forest High out in Woodlands, he ended up marrying one of his female students.
Form 5, (Std. 9) saw the first of many pranks. The classic act, that we never repeated, was electrifying the classroom door knob with a hand cranked generator, just before the English teacher arrived. A couple of boys were flapped by a very, very angry Mr. Talbot, who apparently jumped sideways about a foot after grabbing the door handle.
At other times, by way of a system of pullies and fishing gut running under the floorboards, a sinker would be rigged to knock against the floor, near the door. Of course, the teacher would go to answer it, no one there. Another classic, was hauling a class mate's desk (Sid P.) out into the corridor during lunch break, and sticking a "For Sale" onto it. Bloody hilarious.
Other usual common or garden pranks were drawing pins on desk seats, spiking sandwiches with little red devil chillies, (sorry Alan), and coating the underside of desks with chalk which rubbed off onto the grey trousers, not noticed until it was time to go home.
It was only in Form 6, (Matric) when I picked up enough courage to pull my very own prank; using the padlock from the victim's desk, I locked the button holes together of his school blazer. This was only discovered when it was time go home after school. For punishment, he and a few friends man-handled me out of the class room and down some steps to the toilets. A cubicle was found, and I was promptly turned upside down with my head with my head a few inches above the water line in the bowl, which was then flushed. Thank God the bowl was already clean, so no harm done.
Still bloody hilarious. I still laugh about these jokes to this day. Imagine doing this today.
There was a lot of pride and a strong sense of belonging, being a Glenwood Oke, one of the "Main Manne" so to speak. Sitting in the back of the school bus, lighting attacks of flatulence with a match, (a very quick blow torch like green flame), lording it over younger scholars, ogling Durban Girls High and Mitchell Girls High students at the bus stops. Somehow, our rivals from DHS, (Durban Horse Stables) did not seem to be noticed as much by the girls.
Being a Glenwood Oke had its downfalls. Many a time we were blamed for after-school mischief perpetrated by fellows from Mansfield High, who also wore green blazers, ties with red in them and of course the grey pants.
I cannot leave out mentioning names a few of fellow class and school mates who later became part of the Durban scene. First off is the late Ken Henson, of Henson and Finch fame. Always immaculately groomed with perfect handwriting, Ken used to bring his Shadows records to school during the matric year to play during music lesson periods. Then there is Hugh Mathie, of Mathie Bros. furniture. Both these individuals were in my class from Form 3 to Matric. Fellow Glenwood scholars at that time were John Gorton, the jockey and Ian (Spider) Murch, of the local music scene.
Talking of the music scene, we were fortunate to get The Flames for one of the matric dances, I think it was 1963.
After matriculating in 1964, (and with no further thoughts of becoming a train driver**) January 4, 1965 saw me standing outside the City West Branch of Nedbank, (formerly Netherlands Bank), corner of West and Broad Streets clutching a green plastic lunch box in my nervous clammy hands. It was my first day of my working life, starting at R100 per month. I chose Nedbank because not only would they pay me while I was away doing the 9 months' military service, but they paid R20 a month more than Standard and Barclays.
** A brief side bar: On the topic of where to work after leaving school, for those not going straight to University, the choices consisted mainly of the Big 4: Banks, Railways, or Post Office. For those going to Varsity, it was the Durban Corporation, who offered some form of assistance towards tuition fees. Me, I just wanted to start "graft" immediately, earn money, pay board to help with family cash flow, and with no car in the family, buy a car.
Back on track: Opposite the branch was the Polar Bar ice cream and milk bar, and Beare Bros was on the corner diagonally opposite. The furniture store with the awful sounding name, Morkels, also opened in competition in later years, and offered hot V8 Capri Piranhas in yellow or bright reddish orange as prizes in competitions to boost sales. Morrrkels.
On weekends, it was Saturday "Arvie" bioscope and Sundays, the beach.
The bioscope crowd was a hoot, often starting off with a beer in the Playhouse Lounge or on the first-floor verandah of the Broadway(?) hotel directly across from the Embassy cinema. A standard uniform among of the less conservative "non conforming" young bucks was jeans and a white T-shirt with narrow red and blue piping at the end of the sleeves, with a packet of Texan or Lucky Strike rolled into the end of a sleeve, just off the shoulder. When smoking, one grimaced and held the cigarette was gripped between the thumb and forefinger. Like…
For the James Dean, Elvis or Teddy Boy Wanne Be, maybe a lekker ketting (chain) and a skull ring completed the dress code. A comb was handy in the right hand back pocket of the jeans, ready to make another pull through the Vitalis or Brylcreem hair, … in case you saw a serious chick, ek se.
While the next-door Princess Bioscope was popular Saturday mornings with youngsters swapping comics on the steps, for some reason I never went there for afternoon or evening shows. The Roxy and Oxford on Pine Street and the Capri on Smith Street were frequented in the earlier years before falling from favour.
Most of Sunday afternoons were going from Woodlands to South Beach, using a Travel at Will Ticket my Dad bought that morning. The highlight was body surfing on the black floating devices made of thick rubber that were rented from a stand on the sand under a colourful umbrella. Cokes or Fantas could be bought from bare foot Indian waiters wearing white jackets and long black pants, navigating the tanning bodies on the "Whites Only-Slegs Blankes" beach. My Dad at the time used to mock the "Slegs Blankes" sign, anglicizing it as "bad blanks".
Tired of ice creams or hot dogs at the Model Dairy before having to catch buses home, the real fun in Durban started when I bought my first car, a 1966 Ford Anglia 105E after returning from military service with Durban Regiment.
I must digress here to relate an event that took place during my time in Ladysmith. It was very profound for me and restored a lot of faith in human nature, away from politics. In full uniform, I was thumbing alongside on Berea Road on a Sunday evening, battling to get a lift back to the barracks in Ladysmith**. A large well used American car of a certain vintage pulled up. In it was a Zulu family man with his wife and 2 kids in the back. The window rolled down and I was offered a lift. If ever there was a red rag to a bull in those apartheid days where white persons in uniform were not popular, this would have been it. I was made welcome with a friendly greeting and he took me as far as he could, very apologetic of not being able to go as far as Ladysmith**
** Ladysmith, (WTMB) as John Vigor called it from time to time in his Idler's Column on the back page of The Natal Mercury. It stood for Wherever That May Be, a place where no one ever won the local town's beauty contest. His words, not mine. Funny though. [According to John Vigor, the town's Lucky Legs Competition was won by the Town Hall piano. Ed.]
Back to the main story. Duly adorning my new chariot with a red devil cartoon character painted in a corner on the back window, the Playboy Bunny silhouette on the back next to the number plate and a rubber shrunken head dangling from the rear-view mirror, I was ready for action. I put in R0.50 a time into the tank, (about a third full) and life was good. I never seemed to want to fill it, and it used to drive my friend nuts. To this day, it still drives my wife nuts too.
My post-army time at City West branch was marred by the tragic death of a friend and colleague, Gavin Alcock. He also owned an Anglia like mine, and as I only had my learner's license at the time, he took the trouble to come out to my home to show me the mechanics and idiosyncrasies of the car and help me prepare for my driving test.
Anyway, he was also a motor cycle enthusiast and he and a bunch other bikers went on a road trip to Rhodesia. On a lonely stretch of road, they were apparently stopped by men in army fatigues. It is not clear if they were travelling in convoy at the time or had split up, but Gavin made the mistake of demanding ID and asking who the hell they were. He was shot dead on the spot. Turned out they were terrorists, and it never became clear what happened to the rest of the guys.
Back to Anglias. Of course, Shawn Perkins' sport car parts shop on Aliwal Street opposite the Piccadilly was a haunt for me, staring longingly at wooden steering wheels, bucket seats, head rests, fog lamps, chrome wide rim wheels etc. It was only years later, I was able to upgrade my 998 CC Anglia engine with a stage 1 high lift cam, a twin choke Weber carburetor and a banana branch manifold, installed courtesy of next-door neighbours on Kenyon Howden Road, Trevor and Maurice M.
That car must have clocked nearly 100 mph, along the Isipingo Flats, I know, because it broke the speedo cable which stopped at 90 mph. In retrospect, it was damned dangerous; the suspension was left unchanged as were the stock narrow Marie biscuit type wheels. Heck, but want a lovely sound it made, especially the lumpy bubbling idle, thanks to the new cam shaft and a Monza Exhaust.
On most Wednesday afternoons, (in those days bankers closed early Wednesdays, supposedly to make up for clerks working Saturday mornings, NOT for managers to play golf), a pal and myself ended up at Al Fresco at the Esplanade Hotel, where the Flames played. Ricky Fataar who always seemed to be eleven years old and sporting a Union Jack shirt played drums like a maestro, and Blondie Chapman sang his heart out.
As is no doubt well known, the Flames sought fame and fortune overseas, initially being associated with The Beach Boys. In more recent years Blondie became part of the Rolling Stone concerts, providing backing vocals. I believe there is a YouTube clip featuring a no-longer young Ricky Fataar on drums and Blondie on guitar and vocals performing some great blues.
Cocktail hours were also spent at the Bull Ring at the Lonsdale Hotel, (Dickie Loader and the Blue Jeans) and Cookie Look at Claridges, (cannot recall a specific band here, they seemed to change a lot). Needless to say, when the Bull Ring and Cookie Look became El Castilian and Café De Paris respectively from 8 pm, where girl friends and future wives were taken dancing.
If without a date for the evening, one would go to sessions at Journey's End or St Cyprians. A fellow Glenwood Old Boy, Alan Reid, was the lead singer in a band at Journey's End too, which made it kinda cool.
Of course, all guys would know "The Walk". One would see a pretty girl across the hall, and in what was thought to be a smooth, sexy, nonchalant amble up to ask her to dance, she would say "no". Hell, then you would have to pretend you were just going to the men's anyway.
Another joint at the Lonsdale Hotel is worth a mention, The Red Garter. It was quite a racy place for the mid 60's; semi naked girls with tassels hanging from nipple caps, simultaneously swivelling around clock wise and counter clock wise.
Another popular spot, especially if single or on the prowl, The Tiles** in Hermitage Lane, off the Esplanade, drew crowds. I saw the Rhodesian band, the Etonians there for the first time, featuring lead singer Alan Elderkin, (a.k.a. Quinsey), with the amazing voice, a la Walker Brothers. They also appeared in a hotel along Gillespie Street, near the Four Seasons, I think it was the Carnaby Club at the Springbok Hotel. When Quinsey broke into his version of "Some Enchanted Evening" the night I was there, my date swooned, and I earned mega brownie points. In later years in a solo career, Quinsey appeared at Al Fresco, The Emerald Room at the Beverly Hills, Mbabane and the then new Holiday Inn on the Durban Breach front.
** A kindly lady known as Mrs. Polly sold the tickets at Tiles. I believe that it was her family business who later opened "Polly's Lodge" on Point Road. I never had the opportunity to check this place out, but heard it was a serious competitor for Smugglers' Inn, across the road, further down towards the harbour entrance.
At the risk of mentioning names and places already covered in other articles, another favourite was Le Macabre at the Butterworth Hotel, where the famous Bats played. Pitch dark inside, chairs and tables made to look like coffins and coffin lids. Other clubs visited were at the Killarney Hotel on Gillespie, and The Barn at the Athlone Gardens Hotel, (the Blarney Bros, Dunny and The Showmen)
I had just started dating a girl who was 17 when I took her to the Ocean Villa to see the Village Green, a great band featuring yet another Glenwood Old Boy, Glen or Glyn(?) Turrel, brother of Mike, a well known Glenwood personality. Notwithstanding being below the legal drinking age limit and not drinking before, my date ordered Vodka and Orange like an old hand. Shocking, really shocking. She ended up being my wife, now of 44 years.
Late in the evenings, squadrons of lekker serious Cortina GT's and Anglias would prowl the beach front, and congregate at either the Nest, the Cuban Hat, or the XL Tearoom, where their drivers consumed delicious curried beans on toast or pie, curry gravy and "slap" chips.
Later still, for canoodling, cars would park at the Blue Lagoon or the end of the Point.
A favourite Sunday night haunt was the top of the Astra Hotel on Russell Street, (believed to be one of the first, if not the first Sol Kerzner hotel) where Gary and Spider performed. A plate of curry cost mere cents.
Favourite restaurants included The Causerie, Peter Chens, The Royal Grill, and The Emerald Room at the Beverly Hills. Regarding the Causerie, for a special dinner date with my future wife, I hired a 1925 Rolls Silver Cloud (with driver of course), to go from home on Moore Road, to the Edward, one way. It cost a mere R10, which I thought at the time (1972-ish) was surprisingly reasonable!
On the down side, occasional weekends were required to be spent at Natal Command, where Durban Regiment was head-quartered. Sometimes just a parade on Saturday afternoons, other times overnight bivouacs in and around the Cato Manor bush. Heading out on a Friday night from Natal Command in the ubiquitous Bedford troop carriers, we often ran the (not surprising) gauntlet of jeering Indians along Umgeni Road.
Funny phases come to mind, like:
"Hey, you make me lose my angry"
"I tie my dog loose by your gate"
One cannot leave out mention of Greenacres, (where they served the most amazing ham and tomato or chicken mayonnaise sandwiches in their tea room), Payne Bros, John Orr's, Kings, and Bon Marche, where I had my first holiday job in the toy department over the December holidays in 1962 and 1963. Wedding Bells restaurant served the best sandwiches overall, and it was just around the corner from the above-mentioned Nedbank branch.
Gunston reps were envied, driving around in those orange-brown V6 Cortinas. Speaking of which, there was a guy who cruised the Durban streets in a tweaked Ford Anglia, with its famous slanting back window chopped down and sporting a Chrysler Valiant 6-cylinder engine, and seriously fat tackies.
Visiting the Indian Market was a must, where Mother-In Law Tongue curry powder could be bought, and goods like racks and racks of fabric, jewellery and assorted trinkets were showcased. Another very colourful place to drive through was Clairwood, with its teeming streets, perpetual sales, and brightly painted busses with exotic names, like The Divine Wind. The school bus used to go past the Blue Moon hotel, just before the bridge heading into Durban.
After passing through cane fields, Yellowwood Park appeared as a new subdivision, neighbouring Steinbank's Reserve. Many a bike ride into the reserve too, exploring the bush and possibly trespassing. Mango trees were plentiful, making it easy to grab some low hanging green mangoes. Delicious with salt.
A more exotic past time was eating freshly caught crayfish, (not necessarily legally) thanks to a friend of a friend, Bruce W. who regularly shared his catch. After boiling there and then in a pot of boiling salt water, they were absolutely out of this world.
To end, now living in Canada, I often reflect on those days. Filled with fun, and a few cares, for me growing up in Durban proved to an important, never-to-be missed part in my early life, setting the stage for what was still to come. It was Durban where I started on a long and successful banking career, which saw me spend some time in Johannesburg, London and here in Canada. It was in Durban too where I met my wife, a farm girl from Harding. It was therefore a very special city, and I will always remain grateful for having been at the right place at the best of times. Magic.
Thanks for the memories, Durban. Thanks too for reading.