One sure-fire way to guarantee that you’ve made it in life is when you’ve been awarded your very own epithet. It’s that short phrase that characterises you and before your name is even mentioned everyone knows what kind of person is being discussed. It’s even better if the epithet leads to you directly; surely there’s none finer than the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Lord Byron, and at the opposite end of the scale I’m sure that King Ethelred wouldn’t have been too happy with his own moniker ‘The Unready’. Harsher still is to be found in the list of Ottoman Sultans, where sandwiched in between Ahmed III (‘The Warrior’) and Osman III (‘The Devout’) lies the rather unforunate sounding Mahmud I (‘The Hunchback’).
Various people have been given the epithet ‘enfant terrible’, and it doesn’t seem to matter what field you are in. All of the following have been described as ETs at one time or another: you can be the enfant terrible of the kitchen (Marco Pierre-White, Tom Aikens), the enfant terrible of music (Jonny Rotten) or the enfant terrible of comedy (Ben Elton).
Marco Pierre-White ejected diners from his restaurant if they made negative comments about the food and cut open a chef’s whites when he complained of being too hot; Aikens had 2 michelin stars by the time he was 26, became obsessed by detail and even branded one of his sous chefs with a hot palette knife for failing to make his exacting standards; Jonny Rotten was the epitome of anarchic youth in the late 1970s and the face of the punk movement; Ben Elton was a lead figure in the alternative comedy movement of the 1980s, attacking Thatcher’s Government with his original brand of left-wing satire.
But what’s happened to these principled passionate firebrands now? Elton is more likely to be seen at the Royal Variety Performance, toadying up to the Royals as he counts out the cash from the uber-dull tourist trap Queen musical ‘We Will Rock You’. Aikens is now a ‘celebrity’ chef, appearing on the mind-bendingly awful ‘Ironchef UK’, Marco now advertises Knorr Chicken stock cubes and John Lydon has become the face of British butter. That’s right – butter. Growing up has never seemed more dull. Where once Lydon offered a voice for disenchanted youth, he now champions one particular brand of dairy produce. Where once Elton dripped with political satire, he now drips only with cash.
The enfant terribles have become national treasures by virtue of not dying along the way. We shouldn’t be drawing these washed-out folks to our collective breast, we should be putting them out to pasture, their work done. There’s plenty of quiet places for them to go, like weekends on radio 2. When the great old British eccentrics become simply part of the furniture, it is indeed a sad day.
And to give you an idea of what a proper enfant terrible looks like, here’s Ken Russell’s obituary:
Barking mad, and quite brilliant.