by Jilly Cooper
Published by Bantam Press, ©2006;
Wicked! Jilly Cooper’s latest work is a tour de force of a tome, a really big read.
A story of two schools, it appears at first a rather daunting prospect at 838 pages, but it races along in true Cooper style, carrying us effortlessly through the story of two very different English schools.
One is a top-drawer school, a boarding school for the offspring of the fabulously wealthy. The other establishment is barely surviving, a day school seemingly full of no-hopers, children of down and outs, most appearing to have little or no chance of changing their lives.
Along comes Janna, a new, young headmistress, to save Larks, the comprehensive school struggling to survive. Can she turn around this god-forsaken wreck of a building, help its legions of troubled children, enthuse parents, most of who are beyond caring?
Over at Bagley Hall, the wonderfully named headmaster Hengist Brett-Taylor loves his life. As head of one of the most prestigious schools in the country he enjoys a magnificent house to live in, a beautiful and supporting wife (who he cheats on at very opportunity) and the political world is already beckoning, should he want to change careers. Could anything challenge his glorious existence?
Jilly Cooper has produced yet another tremendously readable big book. It is stuffed full of characters and incidents, trials and triumphs and takes a look at society through the eyes of the characters. In both schools there are winners and losers, brilliant children and not so bright ones. Parents of Larks children are either in jail, drunk, drugged or unemployed. On the other side of the divide, at Bagley Hall, there are children who arrive at school by helicopter, spend weekends in Sardinia, whose parents take a better class of drug, rig elections and seem to spend their time running after someone else’s wife or husband or worse, someone‘s child.
We have the old guard; good minded, solid people struggling now to keep up appearances, while holding on to that peculiarly English thing, class. Aging people who have fallen on hard times, being obliged to sell off valued family possessions in order just to keep going. There are the new rich, who go from strength to strength without the interference of morals or scruples to stop them climbing ever upwards.
Now and again Wicked! makes for depressing reading, because society in England, such as it is, has changed out of all proportion over the last thirty years. After only a few decades, it seems life has become for some, in spite of their incredible wealth, no more than a sordid existence of one-upmanship, of total reliance on drink and drugs, and for others, the no-hopers, a lesser kind of drug coupled with no ambition at all, except to ape a sort of celebrity lifestyle. This is assuming they are not already mothers and fathers at thirteen. In a startling line, a girl is sorry that the boy has used a condom, because, if she had become pregnant, she would have been entitled to a free flat under the welfare system. Another girl has a second baby before even finishing junior school.
The street wise activities and high-jinks of almost all the pupils at both schools, who are aged between approximately eleven and sixteen years old, are both hilarious and terrifying. One of the child heroines is eleven-year-old Dora who sells scurrilous stories to the press and already is a font of knowledge on sexual behaviour. Her mother, a widow, appears to hop from man to man, depending on the fortune he has amassed. Dora at times is in cahoots with an appalling individual called Cosmo, a rich student, who receives a Ferrari for passing his exams, regularly takes drugs and seduces all around him including the mother one of the other students.
Paris, having been found abandoned as a tiny infant, is a handsome, blond, pale twelve year old who has lived all his life in various institutions. He is introduced to the world of the classics by a superb teacher. A magic world opens up to him. He loves poetry and the gentle things of life, but has not always had the gentlest of people looking after him. Through him, Jilly shows us the problems of the child who has reached almost adulthood without ever having been loved.
The book has a vast number of set pieces built around the main characters, including a school production of Romeo and Juliet, a hot air balloon day, a rugby match, an away trip involving both schools that includes an orgy, a night at the Teaching Awards, various dinners and special school days and, last but not least, a superb account of a visit by Her Majesty the Queen to Bagley Hall.
This long, long book revolving around the story of two schools is of course about much more than that. Cooper has an eye for the human condition, with a thorough grasp of the political situation and a genius at revealing how politicians are ruining the countryside and tearing apart an education system. She shows how unscrupulous developers regularly climb into bed, literally sometimes, with those who can give them the go ahead with their appalling destruction of rural life. Her research is scrupulous, painstaking work and her need to get details correct knows no bounds.
Wicked! lifts the spirit too; it is full of wonderful classic poetry quotes, descriptions of music you can almost hear, imagery of paintings, incredible detail of clothes and interiors and, as ever, Jilly Cooper uses nature to a great extent.
This is a very cleverly worked out book and it is a super read, keeping us in suspense right to the end as we cheer on the real heroes of both schools, the children.