A Review of Wicked by Jilly Cooper: published May 2006 by Bantam Press
Sex, ponies, tea parties and romance
Sitting in my best suit in a greasy spoon near Manchester’s Piccadilly station, I order my breakfast and await my friend’s arrival. He will bring me his one pair of cufflinks as my teenage daughters have insisted that it is not alright to use Treasury tags as cufflinks when going to meet the celebrated author and friend of the rich and famous, Jilly Cooper.
My friend arrives and cufflinks intact we discuss my interview with Jilly about her latest novel, Wicked. He looks at me a little quizzically as I enthuse about the book with its hero, Paris, a teenage boy in a children’s home. I know he is not a fan of Jilly’s and wonder whilst the publisher has not aimed the marketing of Wicked at the social care world, there are many in and around that field who mistakenly consider Jilly far too frivolous for them. “Isn’t she just about sex, ponies, tea parties and romance?” I reassure him that the book has a strong message about young people in care, and neglected children in general.
Jilly Cooper’s Paris Alvaston is a bold and important attempt to carve a hero out of teenage trauma in the care system. Having read her satire Class, I began reading Wicked with a little apprehension. In Class, Jilly had been rather crude when writing about the working classes and Black and Asian people, so I wondered whether she could manage a teenager in care without the normal media stereotyping. I had discussed some of the issues already over the past year or so, and knew she had read my childhood autobiography on being brought up in care, The Golly in the Cupboard, and Paolo Hewitt’s The Looked After Kid. Nevertheless I was nervous for her.
Paris is introduced as a teenage schoolboy who has already spent 13 years in care, suffering continual moves between foster placements and children’s homes. He has been living very unhappily in a children’s home for a few years and although he suffers horrific abuse by men visiting the home, just having a stable placement allows him to form friendships at his sink school. Jilly introduces him as one of the feared young gang, the Wolf Pack, who, when they are not truanting, terrorise the school staff.
Whilst Paris is extremely intelligent with a great interest in literature, allowing some escape from his misery, his best friend, Freddie “Feral” Jackson is a young, very athletic black tearaway whose single parent mother is continually off her face on drugs and living with his uncle, a notorious and violent drug dealer. The arrival of Jana Curtis as head of their school with a passionate belief in encouraging children to develop their full potential, signals a turnaround for the Wolf Pack gang. Paris is encouraged to further indulge, his love of literature.
When Paris shines, playing Romeo in a joint production between the two schools of Romeo and Juliet, he becomes a young star, is adored by all the young women and is poached by the public school’s headmaster as a brilliant prospect for Cambridge. At the public school, Paris demonstrates that he is not only bright but tough, securing a place in the rugby team.
“I can’t bear the thought of children not being loved”
Fostering and adoption is a strong theme throughout Wicked and I am given an insight into Jilly’s passion for the subject when I meet the author and I’m introduced to her adopted daughter, now pregnant with her second child. Unable to have children herself, Jilly and her husband, Leo adopted a baby girl and boy.
“I wanted to write about children in care because I have two adopted children who I love passionately. I adopted because I couldn’t have children of my own. They were a wonderful gift. I can’t bear the thought of children not being loved,” she said.
I find Jilly to be a lot slighter in build than I had imagined, and much warmer than one would expect of such a “celeb”. I am still a little uncertain whether she had meant for Paris to be the hero, or whether my background in She said simply: “I always wanted a glamorous hero, and Paris was that.”
I can now relax but we have a new problem in that we just want to talk and talk about care – the interview almost gets in the way of this.
She is very aware of a lot of the issues children in care face and is keen to highlight the importance of stability and friendships in young people’s lives: “It’s terrible that some children end up having 10 or more foster homes, as Paris does. We need to stop the constant moving on of children and find them permanent homes because it’s the terrible disruption that screws kids up. Paris’ children’s home is grim but at least he has some stability.
“I created a Wolf Pack of school friends with different problems. Paris is in care and people make assumptions about children in care. Feral is black, handsome and a bit of a tearaway and people often wrongly assume that people like him must be up to no good. Graffi, I like. His main problem is that he has to work hard to earn money and even steals to help his impoverished family. Pearl is a compulsive self-harmer with scars decorating her arms, and Kylie at 13 has already had her first child. They are friends and rely on each other for comfort and support. Paris’s hardest time is when he has to face up to going to a new school and leaving his pals behind.”
“I didn’t want to go on holiday with them or spend Christmas with them”
Paris has to accept being fostered in order to gain entrance to the public school. This proves to be a difficult transition for both the teenager and his new foster parents, Patience and Ian.
“Patience wanted to be a mother, but Paris is not sure that he wants a mother. Ian is a bit of a bully and wants to be an authority figure, but Paris doesn’t want one. When children get older fostering or adoption both become more difficult. It’s more difficult with teenage children because you are trying to establish your authority as a parent when children are trying to form their own identity and pushing away their parents. So it gets difficult but, like your own children, they are just testing you,” Jilly commented.
Refostered out to a middle class couple at 15, I never made that transition. I only accepted fostering to escape from the abusive children’s home. I explained to the couple that I saw myself as a lodger, and, no, I didn’t want to go on holiday with them or spend Christmas with them. I wanted to be left alone to my studies, and to have access to their drinks cabinet when they were away.
Jilly said: “I realised from reading your book and Paolo’s that it must be so difficult for the young person when they are forced to stay with people that they don’t like.”
Eventually Paris, Ian and Patience work out there relationships. I didn’t. Instead, I was out of foster care within the year, and put, at last, into a bed-sit in an area of the town known as Death Row.
Wicked also explores the issue of young people in care often facing bullying as Paris experiences at the public school. Young people in care often face bullying because as soon as it is known that they are in care, the assumption is often that they must be tough. They get “started on” and if they win the fight for the top dog spot they face exclusion, if they lose they face bullying.
Is it realistic or a Jilly fantasy?
Overall I found Jilly’s book carries a strong message that children and young people when encouraged rather than stifled and exploited by adults can blossom, whatever their class. The young people even break through the class barrier, and begin to see one another’s value. Once or twice I found lines generalising about children in care that jarred, but the overall impact is a big plus for young people in care.
Many may question whether Paris’s tale is realistic or a Jilly fantasy? Barnardo’s at one time considered sending me to a boarding school, so I found myself fully able to empathise with the teenage hero. Indeed, in 2003, Charles Clarke, then Education Secretary, was considering plans to send children in care to private boarding schools to raise levels of educational achievement and this issue remains under discussion.
I actually went to a middle class grammar school proud of its Oxbridge entrance rate. I secured a place in the Rugby 1st XV. I studied hard and took my Oxbridge Entrance exams whilst living in the bedsit. I didn’t get to Cambridge but I know of young careleavers who have so it isn’t just a fantasy.
Paris’s story is not so far fetched or irrelevant, and should inspire other adults not to overlook the potential of neglected or abandoned children. Paris is worth more than a mass