Archive: Issue No. 122, October 2007

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Peter Machen

Badsha Peer Shrine and Traders' Market
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Peter Machen

Garth Walker, graphic designer
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Peter Machen

Reverend Joseph Shabalala
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Durban: A Paradise and its People by Peter Machen
reviewed by Carol Brown

From bunny chows to colonial edifices to local fashion designers hitting the international hotspots, Peter Machen's Durban is a kaleidoscope of movement, colour, culture and lots more. Durban is often considered the third city after Johannesburg and Cape Town - this is a blessing in disguise. The book captures the city's quirky, sub-tropical, multi-faceted environment which is quite different from the competitive, high flying life in the 'other two cities'.

The Communications Department of the eThekwini municipality commissioned this publication but the final product is as far removed from an official publication as anything could be. Its Taschen-like square, chunky 380 page format with brightly coloured cover wallpapered with enticing pictures is a seductive introduction. The book is about Durban in the 21st century seen from the viewpoint of an insider whose heart is clearly in the city and whose desire to convert the readers to share his love is infectious.

Machen has for many years been an active and influential cultural commentator in the city through his regular newspaper columns covering the nightclub scene, the theatre, visual arts and the high and low roads of the city. He is also a visual artist who has recently held some successful gallery exhibitions and this talent is evident in the layout of the book which was also done by him. It's relatively unusual for a book to be designed and written by the same person and maybe this is what gives it a coherence and identity of its own.

He leads us on a journey through various parts of the city, many of which don't normally intersect at all in real life. The Hare Krishna Temple of Understanding in Chatsworth is a heightened experience with glimmering gold and marble in a feverish mélange which is far removed from the simplicity of the circles of white stones set under the open sky in numerous locations indicating the temples of worship for the followers of the Shembe religion. This synchretic Christian belief was established early in the 20th century in the Durban area when Isaiah Shembe is said to have parted the waters on Battery Beach. (And ssh - there's a memorial sculpture in a basement somewhere under wraps waiting to be installed).

And how many Musgrave Mall shoppers have ever bought an inhloko (aka boiled cow head) from Warwick Avenue's Head Market? Dion Chang studied fashion at the Durban University of Technology and is now a high flying designer who was fashion editor of Elle magazine and an instigator of the SA Fashion Week. The facing page features one of the lesser known gurus of the local rag trade - Rajeen Ramduth who works from a small studio in Grey Street where some of the finest suits in the world have been made for generations. It is these contrasts and surprises which make turning the pages exciting. There is little about Durban that Machen does not understand or imbue with affection and excitement.

The book is lavishly illustrated with the text providing sound bytes to the many colour photographs which cover areas such as museums, sports, film, art, dance, theatre, architecture, music, fashion, religion, eating, and design. It's an adventure which revels in the opening up of the city post democracy. The former ghettofication of areas and cultural expressions under apartheid have now exploded into a bubbling cauldron and the richness of discovering and participating in what has been around us all the time but often hidden from view is part of the city's appeal.

Machen has encapsulated the uniqueness and energy of Durban with its hot, vivid diversity. He concentrates on creativity with an emphasis on the offbeat and the book is truly a celebration of what he calls 'A paradise and its people'.