To those of my generation, mention foster care and the world of Tracy Beaker comes to mind. Tracy has to deal with her share of hardships of course, but everything turns out well in the end, right? Oi You Fucker is a far cry from Elaine the Pain and the Dumping Ground, instead, it exposes the childcare system as
“a system of brutally horrific regimes, founded upon extraordinary levels of inhumanity, cruelty, violence, fear and intimidation, propagated against some of the most vulnerable people in society”.
The story of Snowball, the protagonist of this brutally shocking memoir, is a hard one to stomach. Removed from his abusive, drug-addled mother at an early age during the 1960s, he makes a miraculous recovery against all the odds. Moved into foster-care, he ends up on the Fylde Coast with a loving family and the life that you’d associate with a picture-postcard seaside town. But after an incident with a foster sibling, he is ripped from his parents’ care, and taken to Melbourne House, an abysmal foster home run by the positively evil Mr and Mrs Rivers. Mrs Rivers makes Miss Trunchbull look like a loving, caring woman. A sadist of the highest degree, she beats children to within an inch of their lives, and her evil is matched only by her husband, who is a sexual predator, and Snowball’s anecdotes of the young girls he abuses hit particularly hard. Managing to survive the unsurvivable, Snowball is moved to a family group home in Stockport, where conditions are far better. However, I found sections such as these hardest to read. Despite the glimmers of hope, you know that something terrible is around the corner (in this case it’s a prison-like foster home called the Manors in Manchester), and often, because of the narrative style, you have to keep reminding yourself that it is not fiction.
Even when it seems like Snowball seems at least temporarily safe, you can see the profound impact of such a broken system on such a young, vulnerable person. When talking about Aunty Beryl and Aunty Anne, his carers in Stockport, I was almost moved to tears when he confesses that “there were times when he wanted them to hit him, to abuse him”, so entrenched in abuse is he. The punishing detail of Snowball’s suffering never lets up and is needed in order to convey truly just how endemic abuse was and is within the childcare system. The only thing that the book needs at points is an edit. Punishing detail sometimes turns into meandering trails of thought, but despite this, Snowball’s often witty tales of the children he grew up with make you laugh out loud at points. My favourite depiction in the entire book was that of the Smithers twins, who are described as
“the human manifestation of mumps and measles”.
One thing is present throughout the book. Hope. In defiance of all the times he falls, Snowball picks himself up and continues to fight against the ‘fuckers’ time and time again. Bleak though his world is, he keeps going, never giving up, never be broken. Oi You Fucker is a much-needed tale of resilience in the face of adversity, and although it leaves you feeling sick at times, you cannot help but join Snowball in saying “fuck you” to his oppressors.
But this was the 1960s! Surely things have changed! Although the constant headlines of sexual abuse were rife in that era have faded, a different problem faces the British childcare system, one that may even lead to a relapse into the past. Cuts to foster care mean that there are less social workers to visit more children, and more and more quality childcare professionals are jumping ship to private agencies. Although Oi You Fucker may be a cautionary tale from decades ago, reading between the lines, it is an essential call for change.
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