ST. ALBANS, Feb 9 – I read this story when I was on holiday with my family of three teens in a tranquil part of England during a very pleasant spell of sunny weather. This is how life should be, right? OK a teen is a teen is a teen is a teen. But on the whole my crew are model citizens. I try to be a good dad. I’m a lucky man.
So why do so many men mess it up? Why do so many of us screw up the lives of those we are supposed to nourish and guide? What makes a man like Richard the vile step-father in Jesamine James’ acutely beautiful SCRAG – UP THE HILL BACKWARDS turn evil? I guess a shrink might offer a load of reasons with footnotes to all sorts of studies. But the word evil works for me.
SCRAG is not about Richard though and it is not about his evil doings, few of which are detailed. The story is about Jes, his step-daughter, her suffering, intelligence, resilience, defiance, and survival.
I’ve read and heard a lot about evil men like Jimmy Savile preying on kids. If we are honest we all know it has gone on forever. It is one thing to be hurt by a stranger, but when the violator is a parent, or step-parent. How does a kid live with it? A kid doesn’t know how to front down the person who is supposed to defend them not destroy them.
SCRAG shows us how Jes works things out as best she can, how she copes, how she makes her little escapes, and then her big escape, and ultimately takes a very, very big step to deal with the evil man who is her worst enemy.
It is a harsh story. But it is also achingly beautiful because of the insight it gives into a normal kid’s spirit. Yes, she does some bad things. She sleeps around in a lovelessly casual way to ‘dilute’ her tormentor’s influence on her. She does glue with other messed up kids, at least one of whom dies young. She sneaks INTO a children’s home to find friends and solace. And when she is older, Mr.Vodka awaits: ‘I said, go easy on the mixer!’
The writing in SCRAG is intelligent and matter of fact. It is stripped of sentimentality. The story shoots straight and sparingly. It is coolly and sharply told. No words are wasted. And it is very convincing.
I could see the traces of pink paint in the knot swirls in the long case of one of Richard’s collection of clocks. And I could see the cobbler’s wooden lasts burning in the fire before which Jes is sitting in her trap of a home, scorching her leg.
The lasts for me were symbols of a more solid time. Naive I admit. But that’s what I felt as I read that passage. So, too, later on, Jes bemoans the loss of so many pubs – in part because she wants a drink – but, more significantly because of the loss of community spirit. Perhaps bad things are less likely to happen when we get out from the intensity of our self-contained little worlds. Maybe there is a message for all of us in this as our online lives see many of us sinking into potentially damaging isolation. For is it not in that isolation that men like evil Richard flourish?
Jes is not beaten, never beaten spiritually, though she is physically beaten. She plots her escape. This passage of SCRAG was top draw because it made me feel how it was for her, the sheer terror of what she was attempting to do .. to .. just .. get .. on a bus .. and go. And, ach, the pain of it when it all goes wrong for her. Yet she persists, this is the point .. she persists, keeps going. Until she finds herself in the shadow of another controlling man, a manipulative youth using religion to get his lustful way. Jes literally ends up on a slow boat back to her original tormentor, on a canal boat with a cunning exploiter at the tiller.
I learnt a lot and I thought a lot as I read SCRAG, which would make a powerful and moving stage or screen drama. It would show that Jes, through her art, had triumphed in a creative way over the destroyer who was Richard and over whom she does triumph personally.
Perhaps anyone who has suffered an evildoer like Richard would draw comfort from SCRAG. So the book deserves to be out there and read because its message is an important one of survival, and a slap for those of us who are complacent or dismissive about the things others less fortunate have to endure.
I also believe that reading Jesemine James’ story is a vote for her and for other survivors like her, and against the destruction wrought by the likes of Richard and Jimmy Savile. You will grow to love the way Jes leaps onto her beloved bike to get away from things, perhaps you would do the same in her shoes.
See SCRAG’s many great reviews on amazon.co.uk: http://amzn.to/190fmgG
review by R J Askew