We've got news for you.

Register on Sunday Times at no cost to receive newsletters, read exclusive articles & more.
Register now

Sometimes it’s the rebels who help the cause


Sometimes it’s the rebels who help the cause

Yes, I know this is a time when we must all obey the law, but I can’t help but admire the rebels among us

I'll be watching for that dark slope in the night.
SKULK ON I'll be watching for that dark slope in the night.
Image: Buddhika Weerasinghe

What I’m about to write is going to make a lot of you, probably the majority, angry. I don’t mean it to, but it’s inevitable that it will. Perhaps a wiser soul wouldn’t write this, would wait for the national mood to turn a little, which it surely will, but there it is. I am the soul that I am, and what can I or anyone do about it?

This week someone — I assume it was one person, but then again it would be nicer to think of them as a couple, silently bonded and sure of foot — went walking on Table Mountain in the dark. They had an electric torch which they largely kept shrouded, but every now and then I caught a glimpse of it, a muted flash, a gauzy bob, like a drowsy firefly. It is, of course, highly foolish and dangerous to go wandering on Table Mountain in the dark. It is, of course, terribly illegal to do so right now, when there is a national lockdown and we all have to stay at home and we are all, supposedly, in it together (some of us all in it together in our shacks, others of us all in it together in our sea-facing apartments or our three-bedroom homes with gardens and pools and well stocked liquor cabinets), and, of course, it is unquestionably true that individual personalities and passions must bend before the good of society and what our president a little dauntingly called “the Might of the State”.

Whenever I truly fear for humanity ... whenever I think about human beings being pinned down by a natural disaster or a plague or an alien invasion ... I think of Eddie Chapman and people like him.

So I do not endorse the actions of these night-clambering miscreants. I condemn them as roundly and as unsparingly as my lawyers would have me condemn them. But it is the good citizen and the responsible public figure in me who condemns them, and I confess that not all of me is a good citizen, and very little of me is a responsible public figure, and the part of me that is a different kind of human being thrilled with pride and delight when I saw their dim speck of light.

(I say Table Mountain, by the way, but I say that in a general sort of way, to shroud the actual location. Perhaps it’s Signal Hill. Perhaps it’s Lion’s Head. Perhaps it’s actually Johannesburg. I am no snitch.)

Let me tell you why they delighted me. It is because whenever I truly fear for humanity or even for a corner of humanity, whenever I think about human beings being pinned down by a natural disaster or a plague or an alien invasion or an East German surveillance state, I think of Eddie Chapman, and people like him.

Eddie Chapman was a thoroughly antisocial fellow. He was a rogue and a small-time villain, a con-artist, a forger, a safe-cracker. He was in prison in Jersey in 1940 when the Nazis occupied the Channel Islands, and offered himself to the Germans as a spy in order to get out of prison. After being trained in France he was parachuted into England, where he promptly turned himself in, declaring himself loyal to England and offering his services as a double agent. Eddie was decidedly ill-suited to civilian life. Before the war he was untrustworthy, feckless and never met a law he could abide. In wartime, code-named Agent ZigZig, he was magnificent, courageous, steadfast and true. He did things that no ordinary person would have done, sending misinformation to his German handlers and sabotaging their schemes, facing down danger and destruction with cheerfulness and charm.

He ended the war a straight-backed hero, and promptly slipped back to a life of dissipation and squalor. (Though his charm persisted — he remained good friends with his German spy-handler, Baron Stephan von Gröning, who seemed to hold no grudges after having been so thoroughly deceived, and even attended Eddie’s daughter’s wedding.)

Eddie is just one of my favourite cases; the same is true of countless other mavericks and daredevils and jackasses — people who are ill-fitted to our ordered societies, who chafe against authority, who are weird or selfish or criminal, but who are often the ones, when the rest of us are cowering fearfully under our beds, who are at their most splendid and fulfilled, the best versions of us.

This right now is not the historical moment for people like Eddie Chapman, but I am thrilled they exist, all the endless ill-conforming individual versions and mutations of them, because they are the unpredictable seed, the weird, spiky misfitting hybrids that life throws up in all its inexhaustible variety. They are the real essence of humanity — the infuriating, unplannable parts of us that refuse to be controlled, that are divergent, unpredictable, that flourish like weeds scattered among paving stones, and that ensure we will have enough cussedness and ingenuity and spunk to survive, no matter the circumstances.

So yes, yes, stay home and keep the lockdown, and do all of those good things you really don’t need me to tell you about, but I’ll be watching that dark slope looming over the silent city, watching for that little flicker that gives me joy.


Previous Article