Today I bought my lunch from Dunnes Stores in Dublin’s Henry Street, north of the River Liffey. I bought it with wonder. I bought it with gratitude. I bought it with the concept of courage at the forefront of my mind. Perhaps I should have bought a grapefruit, as a truer symbol of that gratitude. In my mind, now, that symbolic grapefruit represents a kind of freedom. I am free to buy it, because all people in South Africa are free.
When I worked in London in the mid-nineties, I bought a British colleague a bottle of South African wine as a farewell gift. “Thank you,” she said, unusually terse. “A couple of years ago, I would never have accepted that.”
We forget, as time goes, how the actions of ordinary individuals, sometimes on a different continent, contributed to South Africa’s democracy. And today, at Dunnes, I paid a special tribute in my head, in my heart also, to these sorts of people, who embrace small acts of protest that ultimately help to engender political change.
The Dunnes Strike of 1984/5, held right here where I bought my lunch, was a watershed event that ultimately led to larger sanctions and the forcing of the Irish government into adopting a policy on trade with apartheid South Africa. On 17 July 1984 Mary Manning, a cashier who worked at Dunnes and a member of the Irish Distributive and Administrative Trade Union (IDATU), refused to process the sale of 2 South African grapefruit at the till point. The decision that its members would not handle South African goods had been taken three months earlier by IDATU, and as a member, Manning was simply carrying this out. Manning was suspended from her job, and she and nine other union members, including shop steward Karen Gearon, went on strike. The strikers picketed outside the Dunnes Stores for two and a half years, surviving on strike pay of £21 a week. Although Manning herself was not a member of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement (IAAM) at the time, members of the IAAM and their supporters were present for the duration of the strike. The strike ended when the Irish government finally placed a ban on the sale of South African fruit and vegetables in Irish stores.
Rather than a symbolic Outspan grapefruit, today I bought an egg and mayonnaise mixture (€1.89) corn crackers (€1.89), a chocolate (€1.50) and a teaspoon (€0.50), because I needed protein, something substantial in my system, and something to spoon the egg onto the corn crackers. I carried my small meal (R84 by quick mental calculation), across the River Liffey, past Trinity College, up Grafton Street and all the way to St Stephens Green, where I ate it on a park bench amidst the carefully manicured pathways, the Dubliners on their lunch-hours, the tourists and the cold. I don’t know if anyone else in that park was thinking about South Africa, or what the Irish contributed. I certainly was. When one is away, home is always the place at the forefront of the heart.
Tomorrow, I fly out from Durban to Barcelona, then on to Ireland. There is the vertigo already, the heady feeling of plunging into a dream. That I will become again that person I haven’t met for so long – that side of myself who was once willing to take a ticket to anywhere, and not care about the consequences. Writers, in my inexperienced eyes, were people granted privileges of great freedom by the necessities of their craft. I was always going to be one. I busked in foreign cities between jobs to earn money as I travelled. I walked alone beside unknown rivers, and wrote the beginnings of endless stories beneath strange skies.
Eventually, I learned that writing is not a reward for when you get everything right. Rather, it’s a yearning or a longing; a dream that nestles sweetly in the cave of the heart, while you’re living your real life. Sometimes, rarely, between the dreaming and the work, writing offers up its own rewards. One of these intermittent moments came to land last year, when the Wilbur and Niso Smith Foundation in London acknowledged my unpublished manuscript, The Hum of the Sun, with a beautifully engraved glass award, and the means to block out time from my life to travel, research, and write another work.
With this generosity, the reality of exploring the cities of Barcelona and Dublin finally becomes real. That inside pull intensifies with a whole lot of sweetness when I realise the mysterious truth that in the long run, things really do work out. Life, in its way, sometimes delivers these healthy measures of magic. Soon I will walk and write once more as I soak up the breath of these foreign cities. In just a day or two, I’ll once again be writing beneath another sky.
Thanks to the Wilbur and Niso Smith Foundation for the lovely news that my manuscript The Hum of the Sun was awarded first place in the Best Unpublished Manuscript category of the Foundation’s inaugural Adventure Writing Awards. Click on the image from the Foundation’s website to see the winners in all three categories.