A writer should always be awake to any opportunity. If an interesting story turns up, you need to pounce on it before it slips away and someone else writes it.
That piece of wisdom was not in my mind when Miriam and I were taken to lunch by a well-known film maker the year before Covid struck. In a short time she had become a good friend.
The three of us were discussing our childhood years and their effect on each of us. Our stories were entirely different to each other and her’s were most singular of all. She started her growing up years in Johannesburg, but went to London with her mother when the marriage fell apart.
In her high school years she returned to Johannesburg with her father. He placed her in Roedean, a private girls’ school with an international reputation. While there, she impressed a young male teacher who took to removing from her usual class and placing her alone in a classroom where he would teach her individually, but mostly he just talked.
“What he talked about was politics,” she told us. “He explained to me how terrible Apartheid was and its awful effect on South Africans.”
As she told the story she mentioned his name. It was John Harris. I thought nothing of it. Johannesburg has endless men and boys called John and, no doubt, quite a few Harrises. Then suddenly, as if it belonged to a different subject, she said, “They hanged him.”
I said, “That John Harris?”
She said, “Yes, that John Harris.”
Harris had taken his resistance to Apartheid to extreme lengths. On 24 July 1964 he had planted a bomb on Johannesburg station and it had killed an elderly lady and disfigured her granddaughter who was with her. Neither had anything to do with Apartheid. His defence had consisted of his having sent warnings fifteen minutes before the bomb exploded, to two daily newspapers, not to the police. At that time the railways police had an office on the station, just across the concourse from where the bomb exploded.
The day after our lunch I called her. “It’s quite a story,” I said. “Will you tell it to me in every detail so that I can write it?”
“I’ll think about that,” she said. “I’ve never told it to anyone.”
I waited anxiously for a few days and was about to call back when Covid struck. she was taken ill and died, and the story of the girl and the bomber died with her.