The conversation went like this:
“But, when you were in your twenties, surely you had people following and emulating you?
“No, I was a rogue. I travelled, I went my own way, didn’t ask blessings, didn’t ask for endorsement.”
“But surely people looked up to you? Admiring what you did, and how you did it?”
“I don’t think so. I wasn’t trying to be admired. I was on a very wayward mission that greatly differed from any norm I was exposed to. I was a rogue”
“So you didn’t have followers who thought what you did was great and exciting?”
“No. I was a rogue.”
Right. And now I’ll have to explain, considering that I am such a well-adjusted individual, because it doesn’t seem to fit. Firstly, if you look up the word – rogue – in the dictionary, you come up with things like ‘deceitful, mischievous or anomalous’. These are qualities that one perhaps does not want to have attributed to oneself, (unless of course they were to overshadow more arresting concepts like ‘downright criminal’). So generally, by leading definition, a rogue is something negative and undesirable.
Talk about a rogue trader, and we mean someone who has gone loose making unauthorized financial transactions without heeding to caution or informing his employer. This rogue is not adhering to protocol, and may cost the outfit hard cash, with his unpredictable willingness to take risks. Unpredictable, undesirable. A rogue elephant on the other hand has separated from his clan, and is moving around alone; a vicious and solitary animal, fending for himself, becoming bad-tempered due to lack of sex and social preening. The rogue wave is an undesirable force of nature – it will loom up over you on an unexpected moment and swamp you and your boat, reducing it all to smithereens. You don’t want a rogue wave, neither. The rogue trooper is a dangerous one, too. A cartoon character by Gerry Finlay-Day and Dave Gibbons, the Rogue Trooper, is a genetically modified soldier who can withstand even the most deadly toxins. He is a deserter, operating alone or with three sidekicks, having gone AWOL.
So, why would I want to be associated with roguish-ness?
To me, the word has other connotations. My connotations, admittedly more flimsy and notional, are also reflected in some of the definitions: ‘unprincipled’ I like; or ‘solitary’, ‘rascal’ and ‘tramp’. Maybe ‘vagabond’ covers my bases. I think if I had lived in the United States in the 19th century I would have been one of those “tourists” who attached themselves to the chassis of trains, drinking soup out of my boot on dry days and hanging around with people who sang songs about “little streams of alcohol, hens laying soft boiled eggs and police dogs with rubber teeth”.
Well, back to ‘unprincipled’ and ‘solitary’ then. Groucho Marx once said “if you don’t like my principles, I have others!” In my twenties I harboured a fervent desire to reinvent the world and the way it could be lived in. And I firmly believed that it was my duty to inspect and endorse what the world was offering me – a tender representative of a new generation.
Technically, I was just a kid. Adolescents don’t know it, but they are often in a period of ‘sustained moratorium’ (James Marcia, 1966) and in the throes of what the great developmental psychologist Erik Erikson calls ‘fidelity and diversity’. This development is designed to culminate in a willingness to participate in the ‘motor’ of the nation. Moratorium takes place in late adolescence (approx.. between 18 and 23 yrs of age) and is signified by the adolescent searching for a conflict upon which to base his commitments in life, in order to reach “identity achievement”. The conflict supplies the turning point, is the moment of fidelity that a youth embraces when accepting the values of his society. But, if the youth is less willing to make that commitment to society, then the moratorium gets prolonged, until a suitable conflict sparks that fidelity. If certain lessons were not learned during earlier stages, some adolescents will find themselves searching for one worthy of commitment. During this sustained moratorium a whole lot of conflicts are possibly ignored, while the search for the one ‘in shining armour’ goes on. I reckon I was there.
Well, for me, it may have been a bit extreme: it was the reinvention of hot water. I had to build up a sense of decency from scratch according to my own findings and I despised anybody who innocently and brainlessly sold out to the old-money nation without sniffing the bills. Any qualities, virtues and rules of thumb handed to me were immediately subjected to inspection with the care, caution and suspicion of a quality check administered to a consignment of radios being delivered by a host of monkeys. Why? You may ask. Well, I was raised by parents who were aghast at the atrocities of war and the scrupulousness of lying politicians. People who believed that true values can never be marketed and therefore only found under beautiful rocks, by poets.
However that all may be, the financial world never really interested me, and politics only later. Some roguishness is just expedience – an excuse. I wanted adventure, undiluted, and without a credit card to keep ‘behind my hand’. Then it’s not real any more, you see. Indeed, I may have been a little exaggerated. I may have taken the concept rather far. Yes, reinventing principles that suited me was a handy expedient to see the world. I didn’t want to be “contaminated by the beaugoisie”. What drove me to all corners of the globe on a shoestring was indefatigable curiosity for all people, their ways, their sounds and their sunsets. I wanted to see it all – from the dismally addicted and the posh and problematic, to the old granny mumbling about her pet ostrich. I had the strength of youth and conviction to throw caution to the wind, the luxury of not having to fulfil the responsibilities that come with weighted heritage. I was free to see, to do, move. Nobody owned me, nobody held my contract, the world’s authorities numbly recorded a passing shadow when looking up from their desks, and accredited it to the stealth of a swallow in the wild skies which were the home of my finest musings.
The adventures were superb. Convincing Mozambican border patrol of my right of passage into Tanzania in Swahili, approaching the decaying Portuguese villas on the island of Ibo from the bow of a diesel trawler, hitch hiking and getting a lifts with everything from a donkey cart to a microlight aircraft, throwing up in Death Valley. All these and more were the welcome adventures which dot the 20 or so years I spent On the Road, in the spirit of Jack Kerouac. In all those years I clocked some 45000 kilometres travel without own transport. And many more beyond that. Being a rogue was in fact so enjoyable, I wasn’t sure at the time if I would be returning to a cultivated existence.
Some roguishness is just common sense. Why believe the sell-by date on an unopened packet of yoghurt? Just because it says so?? Who teaches us to believe in little printed numbers? Yoghurt stays good forever! Why leave home on a journey at 10 am when you can leave at six, and watch the land of the sleeping in peace? Why say goodbye to your bobbing pumpkins when you know there’s a woman with a bucket in that house over there? Why cry for dishwashing detergent when you can use a piece of coal from last night’s fire to rub that pan? It’s not roguish, it’s just the common sense of unconventionality.
Of course things change. And then they want you back. The government wants your taxes, the nation that spawned you wants its compensation for stamping your birth certificate. But more importantly, one’s own growth takes a new turn. The ‘Identity phase’ of young adulthood fades out and is replaced by Erikson’s fidelity stage: intimacy versus isolation. Rogues do not come in pairs, you see. Being a rogue does not inspire credibility. Society welcomes collaboration, the ability to compromise your personal values to include those of others. This is the mark of civilisation, of the health of the functioning community in cooperation, where we broaden the playing field, drink alcohol for merriment and display our wit, our feathers and the aptitude endowed upon us by the generations of smart ones who went before us. We are not solitary, but will find the group that we are destined to nourish. Most importantly, children need adult parents.
I knew a colony of die-hard hippies once, living in “Phantom Valley” in the hills just north of Knysna (say: Nize-nah), along the wild and lush southern coast of South Africa. Most of them were in their early twenties, and had had at least 2 kids with any given member of the group. They baked cupcakes for a living, sold crystals on strips of leather thong and did sparkly light installations at hippy festivals. Their ‘spot’ in the hills was a huddle of shacks in dismal state of neglect amongst the glorious wild Knysna forests. The children of the colony ran dirty-cheeked and barefooted like wild animals through muck and dirt, sleeping when they felt like it, on the dog’s rug. The colony parents laughed, played guitar or something, and agreed with one another on issues like the energy in the cosmos.
I had known these strange feral beings from earlier years in Cape Town, and passing through the area, thought it amusing to stop by. When I pulled up in a borrowed 4×4 Toyota pick-up truck I was greeted with carefree glee yet careful disdain: I was driving, after all, and had a mobile phone. This meant I had obviously sold out to the banker-world, and had become a plaything of established society. They always knew I was going to go that way. It started way back, on that first journey into Mozambique. I had had a camera, a map and travellers checks. Now a phone! What is the world coming to!? I did not stay long. Their ranks wanted the company of those who would agree without posing alternative realities. This is the paradox which is the die-hard hippy: posing as free-thinking, open-minded and tolerant, they sing to the full moon, worship the tides, star-signs and oversized Alpaca jerseys. But the truth is, they are as conservative as the Bible Belt, and are still lingering forever in sustained moratorium.
But, did I have followers in my time? Did people look up at me? I certainly had admirers of my uncompromising sense of adventure and resourcefulness. But the roguish antics of a late adolescent does not inspire a following. Operating outside the normal or desirable controls of established society is unpredictable and unreliable, remember. I recall the reserved expressions of parents, asking me where mine were. The rogue must leave the wandering, beggarly way of the solitary animal to reach cognitive closure on the issues that were tested. This amounts to adulthood, and needs to be presented to ones kind. The unprincipled actions will gradually take recognisable shape, resembling something said before by people smarter, more influential and with greater perseverance. Just like the Swaythling milk bottle opening first recorded by Fisher and Hinde in 1949, in which UK sparrows collectively learned to pick open the foil lids of milk bottles, as a hemisphere-wide sparrow epiphany, we will find that our ideas are never so unique, and nor our struggle. Which unites us once again.
Today I know that much of the lie my parents suspected the world of is true. Luckily, we have determined young journalists (the likes of Naomi ‘Shock Doctrine’ Klein) who go for an education and expose such things. They didn’t need to go AWOL first, or anything. It pays to be alert and be well-behaved to one’s sponsors. And to admit that we mostly don’t notice social inequality or cultural vicissitudes unless we muster some enthusiasm beyond the 8 o’clock news. More reading and less teevee. Mostly, the “system” will be having us working so hard nine-to-five, we won’t have time to think about good and bad as more basic fundamental qualities. But precisely these qualities represented the starting notion with which I attempted to enter adulthood the first time. I perceived that formulating a unique approach and discovery of sustainable values in life was my right and duty. And that, to me, amounts to first going forth, being unpredictable, unprincipled, scorned as a scoundrel by modern social standards, a tramp, maybe even a barefoot hussy at times, a fire maker, and a hitchhiker in America, Europe, Asia, and mostly up the endless African single lane highways. But now I have settled down and, like Groucho Marx, have other principles.
Amber Nowak Delft May 2012