Thank heavens for bad little boys

Admit it: a bit of the runaway, the tearaway and the teen rebel still lurks within every one of us

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It takes a long prison sentence to take the glamour away from bad boys. Moralising and admonishing cannot do it, which may explain why so many people are so disgruntled at the news that Peter Kerry, who set such a bad example to his peers by running away to Malaysia on his father's credit cards, may be rewarded by a trip to the United States as a guest of Channel 4's The Word.

Mary Aspray, of the National Missing Person's Helpline, attacked The Word for being "irresponsible", and worries that the glamour of Kerry's trip will encourage other children to go missing. The Tory MP Harry Greenway harrumphs that the boy should not be made a hero or rewarded for his "silly, misguided and ultimately reprehensible conduct".

Too late. It is not for The Word to confer heroism on Peter Kerry. He already is a hero for demonstrating all those qualities that are so disturbing to grown-ups and so desirable to youth. If we were being perfectly honest we would admit that they were attractive and heroic to adults as well, though we might admit it only in private. Inside every fortysomething man (or woman) lurks somebody who would like to be monumentally irresponsible, run away to the tropics, sulk in grand style. We don't do it because we have become too socialised. It's not just that we don't have the nerve. We have become so tamed by responsibility that we couldn't separate action from awareness of the consequences even if we tried. Teenagers aren't so inhibited.

So instead of doing as we damn well please and letting everyone else go hang, we cling to the status quo and disapprove of the ones that got away. But the intense interest which they arouse is a giveaway of our ambivalence. The bad boy of the week, indeed, of the year, is not Peter Kerry but Nick Leeson. As he began his slide towards his mind-boggling losses Nick Leeson may have been able to separate himself from the realisation of the consequences. Just how those consequences dawned on him as his decline became more swift and more irrevocable is undoubtedly being scripted at this moment by some Michael Crichton figure for the nail-biting, blockbusting movie of high-finance to come.

Nick Leeson was not "one of us" to the grandees of Barings, not in background, education or class. He is being held personally responsible for a financial disaster that has brought great personal distress to thousands of people, but he has the makings of a popular hero, too. Bad boys, until they turn criminal, are useful to society. It was his very qualities as an outsider, a legitimised Las Vegas gambler on a breathtaking scale, that made him so very valuable to the scions of the historic banking house, though they may not like admitting it.

I remember waiting on tables in a very expensive restaurant at the time of the Great Train Robbery and overhearing a group of diners discussing the crime. Someone said, as people all over the country were saying, that it may have been criminal but it was clever. "Not clever," said a patrician voice, reprovingly, "cunning".

At what point did Nick Leeson stop being clever and become cunning, I wonder? The narrow margin between brilliant young chap and blackguard comes at the point when he ceases to get away with what, until then, has worked so well and been so profitable.

There is nothing quite like the shock of an establishment that has done very well by keeping a tiger by the tail when the tiger actually carries its wild behaviour through to a logical conclusion. Is there a better example than the downfall of Eric Cantona, carried off to a chorus of boos when the explosive temperament that had been so productive when reined in became unacceptable off the leash? By a happy irony the thoughts of the previously great, but now discredited, Eric are currently being published under the title "La Philosophie de Cantona".

La Philosophie de Cantona might be comforting reading for bad boys on the run. Here is the authentic voice of the sullen self-justifying rebel. "Children are drawn to sincerity and authenticity," writes Cantona. "The way I work and pursue my career, I don't betray them and they know it. I don't see any good in teaching them to deny their emotions for the benefit of the established order."

This could be the Thoughts of Chairman Mao for a generation taking their hats off to Peter Kerry and secretly admiring Nick Leeson. You only have to look at the photographs of Kerry, sullenly and silently sandwiched between his smiling parents, to know that he is ahead of Eric here. Fourteen- year-olds don't have to be told not to deny their emotions. They are simply a conduit for them.

What happens to those emotions as they grow is more complicated. Delinquency is no longer a matter of apple scrumping and walking down the road with your possessions in a red-spotted handkerchief. As the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, said this week, "technology has created criminal opportunities beyond Fagin's wildest dreams, both in the number of goods worth stealing and in the way technology can be used to commit crime".

Bad boys are much more sophisticated than they used to be, and more removed from the real consequences of their actions. Both Peter Kerry and Nick Leeson, 14 years apart and moving in different worlds, are fluent in the language of the computer and the credit card, the path of the microchip and the modem which leads to new countries and new identities when times get sticky. They inhabit a world where the old boundaries and the old loyalties lose their meaning. No wonder the old people, the ones who stay at home and wait for them to return, feel both rage and envy.

Nick Leeson was given the power and freedom he enjoyed because he moved freely in a world where others had lost their nerve or which they failed fully to understand. He received the treatment bad boys often receive as long as they don't go too far, which is indulgence. Peter Kerry is being treated indulgently, too. His parents have apparently agreed to let him go to the US, a decision many will criticise as soft but others will see as going with the flow of his obvious talents for travel and adventure. Give a boy his head and he may go far, which is undoubtedly what they said about Nick Leeson at Barings.

So far, both these wild boys have physically, if not emotionally, survived their troubles. The maturing process gets bad boys in the end, whatever the process of justice does in the meantime. It is possible that they may turn into the kind of stiffened-up old buffers who murmur indulgently, "Boys will be boys", as long as it is not their apples that are being scrumped or their shares which are being devalued. Or they may stay as mavericks all their lives, which is what Eric Cantona, still jumping with testosterone, intends to do.

"Growing old," writes Cantona bravely, "doesn't mean you have to betray your youthful excesses." Oh, but it does, Eric, it does, and those who betray them most are those who did best by exploiting them.

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