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June 12, 2006

Ridiculous names, numerous romps and an unlikely plot - Harry Phibbs finds there is something to annoy everybody in Jilly Cooper's latest novel: Wicked! - Jilly Cooper

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Wicked! A Tale of Two Schools
by Jilly Cooper
Pp. 864. London: Bantam Press, 2006
Hardback, 17.99

All around us is meritocracy and opportunity. But the class divide still survives in its most significant form in our schools system - the big divide between state and fee paying school.

Often this has been used as an argument for abolishing the fee paying schools. I would have thought it was a rather better argument for levelling up rather than levelling down and making all schools fee paying with a voucher system to ensure everyone can afford them - just as the state provides Social Security payments to ensure we can all afford to shop in Tesco or Marks & Spencer.

One would expect Jilly Cooper to write about a public school with all her posh characters with double barrelled names speaking in mildly amusing puns accompanied by a light commentary of where they bought their clothes. Her books are hugely popular precisely because they avoid all the relevance and gritty social realism that permeates novelists anxious to take themselves seriously.

So for this latest effort to include a failing state school is something of a departure. Inevitably, Janna Curtis, the attractive young head mistress of Larkshire Comprehensive (who buys her dresses from Jigsaw) is "fatally drawn" to Hengist Brett-Taylor, the arrogant handsome headmaster of Bagley Hall, the neighbouring public school.

Incidentally, Cooper has told Waterstone's Books Quarterly that Martin Stephen, headmaster of St Paul's, was the model for

only the good and honourable bits
of Brett-Taylor. She adds:
The rest is invented.
The educational story line - that the two schools were forced to cooperate despite mutual antagonism - struck me as rather plausible. Under New Labour the idea of outlawing independent schools has been abandoned. But the resentment against them remains. In order to retain its vast tax concessions Bagley Hall must prove its credentials for helping the community.

Hengist comes up with the solution of sharing their facilities with Larkshire. For her part Janna compromises her principled opposition to independent schools and accepts because Larkshire is in such a desperate position it would otherwise face closure.

As Randal Stancombe, a local property developer, is persuaded to buy Larks a minibus so they can put on a joint performance of Romeo and Juliet, the plot thickens. This being Cooper there is plenty of sex. The class divide is felt to provide some extra spice. Mixing schools gives plenty of opportunities for flings that it is suggested are unsuitable and so more exciting. This book manages to retain its good humour amidst the biting cynicism of Janna's colleagues over her efforts to be optimistic about the prospects and potential for her charges.

Cooper spent four years writing this book which combines a lightness of touch in her prose style but producing a weighty volume of over 800 pages because there is such a lot of it. Even those who don't regard Cooper as a serious writer should acknowledge that she puts in a serious amount of work. Not just in the number of words but the research. If you spot Jilly Cooper sitting in on your child's lesson the alarm bells should start to ring.

She lists in the acknowledgements at the back the various struggling schools in Gloucestershire where she was allowed to sit in on lessons as well as talking to teachers. She has put in a lot of effort to pick up the slang of the former and the jargon of the latter. She went to Brighton College to witness their successful partnership with Falmer, a local comprehensive.

She even reads the Times Education Supplement -

who produce enough good stories each week to furnish a hundred novels.
Not that she gets everything right. One muddle she seems to have is in thinking that schools fail because of lack of money. At one stage in the story an anonymous cheque for 120,000 arrived on Janna's doorstep and that does the trick. In real life money is poured into failing schools to no avail. The idea of a state school being rescued by collaboration with a successful fee-paying school is plausible not for financial reasons but educational ones.

I wish Lefties were generally as remorselessly positive as the headmistress Janna. More typically they would be moaning about how unfair life is. Some of the names given to the state school children such as Feral, Paris, Kylie, and Graffi have an amusing but unlikely ring to them.

Not that the entire story is set in schools. Hengist ends up in prison to provide for some variety for reasons too complicated to go into here. The final chapter records:

Hengist was released from prison in January, to the sorrow of his fellow inmates. He had written their letters, sorted out their financial and emotional problems and, when pressed, regaled them with hilarious anecdotes of the great and famous.
There are plenty of references to real people - even The Queen has a walk on part visiting one of the schools.

I suspect Jilly Cooper's book will annoy virtually everybody who read it. But her fans may appreciate a variety in the background to the numerous romps.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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