Whatever happened to the enfant terribles?

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.

Anarchy in the UK

I was rather too young (one, in fact) to remember the Sex Pistols singing Anarchy in the UK, and even if I could remember it, I ‘m pretty sure that I was a placid baby and therefore wouldn’t have been stirred to acts of wonton destruction in the name of Anarchy. Even now, the song strikes me as very School band-ish, and the most subversive and daring thing about it is the attempt to rhyme Antichrist with anarchist (or anarch-iste, as John Lydon strains to put it). The fact that he’s lately been seen advertising butter, and appearing on itv flagship reality TV goes to show that it’s tricky to remain an anarch-iste all your life, and maybe we’ve all got to grow up sooner or later.

Incidentally, an anarchist is defined as follows:

a person who advocates the abolition of government and a social system based on voluntary cooperation

The reason I’ve waffled on about this is as a result of the riots in Piccadilly at the weekend. This was nominally a protest march about government cuts, though it seems to have been split into two parts, with the Milliband-approved quiet protest (and if there’s ever a voice more soporific to calm a protest, I’d like to hear it) and the subsequent more radical anarchistic protest.

Let’s look at them in a little more detail:

Protest 1: peaceful, clear purpose, organised, involved people exercising their democratic right.

Protest 2: violent, not quite sure what the point was, chaotic, criminal damage, fighting with police.

The first protest involved people intent on making their feelings known to the coalition government. There’s a certain amount of courage required for this, and a desire to stand up for one’s beliefs. These people wanted to be seen, they were happy to show their faces and for their point to be made, forcibly and fairly.

The second protest involved people intent on smashing things up. This involved smashing banks, and taking over the roof of Fortnum and Mason. This second act was particularly bizarre, bearing in mind that you only have to walk through the front door and there’s pretty much a free lunch to be had at their food hall, given the number of tasty morsels on display. What’s on the roof to eat? Bird shit? How very anarchistic.

The fact that these people refused to show their faces meant that they were clearly intent on criminal activity from the outset. Just what point is being made by throwing paint at the police? What point is being made by smashing the window of a bank? Surely the point is that you like smashing things, hence you are anti-social, poorly brought up and with worrying issues of anger. You are also of course a massive coward, since you would presumably not do this sort of thing without the cover of a large mob behind you. It really is amazing how some of the meekest people develop a brave/stupid/violent mentality with the protection of a crowd. The daubing of the anarchist symbol was surely more about the fact that it looks quite cool than any actual political statement. It’s hard to see how a ‘social system based on voluntary co-operation’ can be achieved by sticking a table leg through the front window of Millett’s.

Part of the problem with protesting is that it seems to be becoming a social day out, and less about the reason behind the protest than the sheer joy of protesting itself. I remeber being invited to protest in Hyde park for the first Iraq war, and was told to come along because it would be fun, and ‘after all, it’s such a nice day for a walk’. A walk!? So that’s how we get more people to protest. Make sure it’s a sunny day, thrown in a park and a stroll past a cheeky deli, and you’ll have the great and the good of Hampstead screaming for the abolition of speed humps in no time.

Perhaps I’m becoming old and miserable, and maybe I’ve always been somewhat institutionalised (public School, university, public School isn’t the greatest sight of the real world), but it does seem as though there’s none more misguided than the anarchistes these days. Bob Dylan would be turning in his grave (have you not seen my dead pool, Bob?)