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I misjudged this book. I thought the airport fiction promised by the literary editor would take me nicely to New York, where I was going the next day. However, at 846 pages, weighing in at one kilo, Jilly Cooper’s Wicked! is long enough to get you to Australia. On my second evening in America the waitress, after reciting in a sing-song monologue the specials for the evening, added, ‘And I also must recommend that you see Wicked, the musical, while you’re here.’ ‘What’s so good about it?’ I asked. ‘Oh, the flying monkeys,’ she said. ‘They’re marvellous and they really fly.’ It turned out to be a different Wicked. There are no flying monkeys in this book, although plenty of monkey business, some of which is described below.
Jilly Cooper’s tale of two schools adds another famous public school to the list of those in which fictions have been set. Rugby has Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Sherborne The Loom of Youth and Shrewsbury Bending of a Twig. Eton and Sherborne share le Carré’s Murder of Quality and Fettes inspired Ian Hay’s wonderfully funny Lighter Side of School Life. It is the immaculate playing-fields, mansion, lake and golf course of Radley which are brought to mind by Bagley, Jilly Cooper’s co-educational boarding-school patronised by over-rich and over-sexed parents with offspring who take after them.
Headmasters, P. G. Wodehouse once pointed out, come in two classes: ‘the workers and the runners-up-to-London.’ Bagley’s headmaster is in a third category. His principal occupations — how unlike those of the Wardens of Radley I have known — are scheming to become Secretary of State for Education and plotting the seduction of the local comprehensive headmistress. He finally pulls off the second of these aims during a joint field-trip to a castle in Wales, where the two heads frolic on a four-poster bed while their pupils do several hundred thousand pounds’ worth of damage trashing the rooms below. Hengist, for that is his name, invites the local comprehensive to take part in joint plays and projects and to send its kids over to bond with his posh boys and girls at Bagley. This will justify Bagley’s charitable status and help to protect Larkminster comp from its ghastly local authority and the even more ghastly firm brought in, ostensibly to help run a failing school but actually to close it down. They plan to sell it to a property-developer, a Bagley parent as voracious in his pursuit of a good-looking Bagley girl as of the Larkminster comprehensive’s site.
The pupils require no encouragement to bond. The Acknowledgments reveal that the author spent four years learning about schools while writing the book. She clearly knows the research which claims that teenagers seldom pass seven minutes without thinking of the opposite sex, and her teenagers are eager to prove that they can do a lot more than just think about it. One Byronic 17-year-old even sets up the glamorous female member of the school’s governing body in a nearby cottage for ease of access. Drugs, drink and sex are principal extracurricular activities. There is not much about idealism or the good things teenagers achieve in that fascinating decade when they emerge from childhood into adult life.
It is rumoured that Winchester and Shrewsbury, which at the moment are all-boys’ schools, are toying with the idea of going co-educational. If their governors happen to be taken in by Wicked! they may want to think again. Any young and impressionable readers, too, who might be turned towards teaching by the exciting goings-on in this book should be warned that this is not an accurate picture of school life. They will find teachers dedicated to their students, as in both Jilly Cooper’s schools, but not the pervasive culture of financial and sexual monkey business nor the same proportion of spoiled, self-centred, nasty people. If they want all that, they would be well advised to look elsewhere. To a career in parliament perhaps.