The Independent on Saturday
51 years under the trees
GORDON Michael, 67, feels blessed to have spent his lifetime working in the tranquillity of Mitchell Park, under the shade of the big old trees.
Next month he celebrates 51 years, having missed the 50th anniversary last year because of Covid restrictions.
He has some intriguing tales to tell of the colourful characters who make up Durban’s history – famous and infamous – having been a waiter at the recently closed Blue Zoo Restaurant for 46 years. He retired in 2017 and since then has operated the tuckshop in the park’s zoo. His father, Michael Govindsamy, had 15 general outlets in the Umgeni Road area where Michael started selling papers from the age of 7.
“We used to sell on the corner of Umgeni and Goble roads when the Daily News and The Mercury were 2c each and a Sunday Tribune was 3c. The Sunday Tribune would arrive in the shops at 9pm on a Saturday night. We used to run between the cars,” he said this week.
Working in the Umgeni area selling papers as a schoolboy, he operated in the main sporting zone of Durban, with two golf clubs, rugby, soccer and cricket grounds, as well as the Newmarket Racing Stables all nearby.
“Racing trainer Herman Brown used to come past in his red Pontiac and we’d throw the paper in his window. From the stables, he would sometimes take me and my cousin to Regent Fish & Chips to get fish and chips or to Athlone Butchery where he’d get us meat; he looked after us.”
On the weekends and public holidays, Michael would sell newspapers in Kensington Drive in Durban North outside the famous Rex Cinema, near the Astra and Broadway cafés. His recollection of details, such as dates and names, is comprehensive and he delivers them for the popular talks he is invited to give on the history of Durban.
“I remember when racehorse Sea Cottage was shot in June, 1966, and the triggerman was Johnny Nel. It was a set-up of course by a famous bookmaker, Sonny Chislett, who stood to lose all his assets if Sea Cottage, which was the favourite, won the July.
“Johnny Nel shot from the bridge because he said later that he never wanted to kill the horse, so he shot Sea Cottage in the buttock so he would just be wounded. At that time the trainer, Syd Laird, said all the other horses would see the wound from behind on Durban July Day and true enough, Sea Cottage came 4th in that July and went on to win the 1967 July in a dead heat,” recalled Michael.
Apart from selling newspapers, he was also a caddy at the Windsor Park Golf Club to many of Durban’s leading business people and sporting stars in the 1960s, where he would earn 10 cents an hour for picking up golf balls.
Learning by watching coaches such as Phil Ritson, who charged an exorbitant R2 for a 30-minute lesson (word has it Ritson coached Gary Player), Michael also won the Alan Herschel Golf Club Trophy in the caddies tournament. Michael started working at the Blue Zoo Restaurant in 1971, just short of his 17th birthday. His family made up three generations and many years working at Blue Zoo.
His favourite memory is of Nelson Mandela, who would stay at King’s House, which borders on Mitchell Park. Michael’s first cousin was Mandela’s household comptroller and Mandela attended a family wedding with them in Phoenix.
“He (Mandela) came to our family’s wedding on July 6 in 1996 and stayed for four hours, can you believe that?”
Michael has always been proud of Mitchell Park, highlighting that in 1985 the park took third place in a competition celebrating parks around the world.
“Mitchell Park is the best environment to work in the world. I work in the shade of the trees and have met people from all walks of life. Every day I get to chat to different people.”