Jilly Cooper: Back in the saddle
PUBLISHED: 13:40 14 November 2016 | UPDATED: 13:40 14 November 2016
© Thousand Word Media
Jilly Cooper’s latest bestseller, Mount!, is set in a world where the only thing that’s flat is the racing. Everything else – from busty women to vintage champagne – is fizzing. Best of all, dastardly hero Rupert Campbell-Black is back, as Katie Jarvis discovers
Listen. Before we get to the Pimm’s and the puns, there are a couple of serious things I’d like you to know. And they go like this.
Jilly Cooper – all those years ago – was my first big celebrity interview. I remember sitting at my kitchen table (watching the clock tick unconscionably slowly), readying myself to leave (unconscionably early), my hands shaking so that the coffee in my mug sloshed over the sides.
I needn’t have worried: it was instant fun. We talked country cleavages (“I would go to dinner parties with a dress down to my navel and find that everyone else was wearing wool up to their necks”); the Cotswolds (“I discovered the countryside did have things like dry cleaners, just like London”); and chocolate cake, insistently put in front of me in the Aga-warm kitchen of her Bisley home, during a delightfully gossipy tea-party after the interview had finished.
And then there was Leo – lovely Leo – who died in 2013, after more than 50 years of marriage. Once, when I arrived too early for an interview with his wife, he entertained me in his book-filled, overflowing study, asking about my offspring, one of whom – like Leo – loved history. A week later, a children’s history-book arrived in the post.
And then there was this year – a long while since I’d seen Jilly – when, one dark, icy night, the car in which I was a passenger overturned. Weeks later, flowers were delivered to my door. Puzzled, I read the note that accompanied them. “I’ve only just heard. Love Jilly xxx”
So. Those are the things I’d like you to know.
“Oh, look at that!” Jilly Cooper exclaims, suddenly gesticulating towards the garden. “The bastard of the neighbourhood!”
Golly – how exciting. My head whizzes round a near 360 degrees, eager to cop an eyeful of white-blonde curls, brown face, long blue eyes and Greek nose adorning a six-foot frame striding callously towards me. (Sardonic smile on brutally-determined mouth.) Or, if not the fictional Rupert Campbell–Black, then I’d make do with Andrew Parker Bowles as a back-up.
“A buzzard!” she elaborates, as a broad-winged predator soars overhead, on the look-out for dozy doves. “He hangs around all my bird-tables.”
Ah, right. That explains the sad sprinkling of feathers I noticed on the top lawn. Buzzard-victims aside, this is a place where animals flourish: from rescue-dogs – such as Jilly’s greyhound, Bluebell, who’s currently enjoying the chew-stick I brought for her – to the slug the size of a small hamster I stepped over in the grass earlier.
“SHOO!” Jilly shouts at the darkly wicked bird.
“Isn’t he beautiful? But isn’t he evil! You’ll just see a pile of feathers in the evenings. Doves, pigeons; anything. There are millions of buzzards, living in the wood…
“But isn’t he beautiful…”
She’s bang on, to coin a phrase. As Jilly Cooper knows, there’s something undeniably delicious about an absolute bastard. After a hard day’s graft as a human-rights lawyer, women might imagine they want to come home to a man who remembered to nip into Tesco for toilet rolls. But, (for bedtime-reading at least), let’s not kid ourselves: we want a Rupert Campbell-Black, with his deeply-penetrating… well, you know… eyes (at a bare minimum). A man who can ride any fast filly he comes across (it’s in your mind; Jilly does the puns – not me); a man who knows how to handle a whip.
Plus ça change, plus we lust for lamentably same choses.
“It’s like Fifty Shades,” Jilly says, as we sit on her sun-drenched patio, on a rickety (but comfy) bench of which the slats lift alarmingly whenever I stand. “I’m sure women fantasise about being whacked rather than wanting to be whacked…
“Have you interviewed him yet? He lives over there.” She nods across her garden, towards the slopes of the Toadsmoor Valley.
“I could ask him round for a drink for my young friends. Oh, you must go and interview him!”
OK, focus. It’s so easy to get distracted. I want to talk about Mount! – Jilly Cooper’s much-anticipated new novel, which covers the speedy, flirty, lucrative, ruthless world of flat racing, where the horses are far less fast and loose than the flighty humans. And Mount!, of course, brings back her most enduring hero, Rupert: “Bloody Campbell-Black, thinks he’s got a divine right to all women. A light to lighten the genitals. He’s nearly sixty, for Crissake,” as one character puts it. The dastardly lothario we first fell for in her 1985 novel, Riders, is now a devastatingly handsome silver fox (pronounce that as you will).
Her heroes, she once said, are written in defence of the terrible bullying of men by the media. Interesting, then, that rather than defend them by endowing them with compassionate values, she endows them with, well, other things. And loves them the more for it.
“Yes, good point,” she says. “You see, my father was a broad-shouldered brigadier, who got a First in two years at Cambridge, and would have been a rugger Blue, if he’d been there a bit longer. He was divine, and very shy, but very macho. I’ve been surrounded by those kinds of men.”
Not that Jilly herself was particularly attracted to buzzards in real life. There’s a love-seat across from us, right under the study window, etched with: Leo and Jilly, 7 October 2011, 50 glorious years. To try to claim that Leo was a New Man goes beyond my remit; but, goodness, he could rustle up a mean vindaloo. “When the war started, his family couldn’t afford a cook any more. His father said to Leo, ‘I think we’re going to have to learn to cook, old boy, because your mother can’t.
“And they did. Leo could do dinner parties without batting an eyelid. Very good at curries. Very good at shellfish. He did it slightly like Toscanini, though, because he was very good at bossing people around. He would tell my daily – who’d be pouring with sweat – exactly what to do, just like one of those chefs. A brilliant cook.”
Which men does she think attractive nowadays?
“Rufus Sewell is lush, isn’t he? And that man from Castle, the TV programme. But don’t you think the Tom Hiddleston thing is a bit odd?”
Yes, probably. Which bit?
“Well, how can you have anybody called Taylor Swift? They all have surnames for Christian names, don’t they?”
Just like her books – which so teem with characters that there’s a helpful, dictionary-long list of principals at the beginning – you have to be on your toes to keep up. Jilly Cooper’s conversation is hilarious, gossipy, but never unkind.
“Have you done Rebekah yet? Is she Cotswold? She’s married to Charlie Brooks – very happy. Sweet together. I love her. I love him…
“I only met David Cameron once and he was charming. Very, very good looking in the flesh. Surprisingly. But what he needed was make-up because he’s somebody who puts weight very easily on his face, which was too pink.”
I love interviewing Jilly for – oh - lots of reasons. Everything is posh but in a charmingly ramshackle kind of way. She and Leo even first clapped eyes on their Bisley home – an ancient place where long-ago monks offered up song for the souls of the dead – while staying at Longleat (where else?) with Alexander Bath (who else?). “At lunchtime, somebody happened to mention, ‘Suna Boyle’s house is on the market’. Leo went to look at it and came back very pale, saying, ‘Darling, it’s the loveliest house I’ve ever seen!’”
You might raise your eyebrows – people do – when she says about Mount!, “I’m slightly pissed off this time. A lot of the reviewers have gone on and on about me only writing about upper-class characters. And this is garbage! I have had lots and lots of appallingly poverty-stricken characters. I mean, Jake [a gypsy hero in Riders] was terribly poor. But because of the Cameron Government and Osborne, people are much more anti anybody above ‘middle’ now. They hate it.”
But in many ways, Jilly Cooper has always been strangely democratic: the antithesis of Hello! magazine. It’s now practically apocryphal, the story of how she leapt to national prominence. She met Godfrey Smith, editor of the Sunday Times colour magazine, at a dinner party in 1968, where she regaled him with stories that didn’t stop at glamorous bed-hopping; they went on to detail the inevitable drudgery of having to wash and iron the sheets afterwards. Being a young working-wife was pants, she explained to the bemused and amused Godfrey. She’d spend all day at the office, shop at lunchtime, rush home to clean the flat and cook, and then have to make love all night.
Godfrey loved her slightly batty stories, and commissioned a series of columns (that ran for more than 13 years) in which old men would rub their hands up and down young women’s legs under tablecloths, but no one really seemed to mind.
“I saw a film the other day called Working Girl,” she tells me, “which was heaven! It was like things used to be. You went to a party to meet a lovely man, who was hopefully going to make a pass at you.”
And rather than striking him in the groin with your vape (in a move you’d learned at the women’s centre assertiveness class), you’d have been mortally offended if he hadn’t?
“Disappointed,” she confirms. “Very disappointed.
“Everybody was smoking and drinking – and I know that’s not a good thing, but it’s all got so prim now. A sweet man told me recently he got shouted at because he opened a door for a woman: ‘I don’t need doors opening for me!’ Stupid, don’t you think?”
“People are there to love and cherish each other. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dog or a cat or an old man or a young girl. We should just want to be friends with everybody.”
And she does – and she is – even when it gets her into trouble. Such as when she was nice about Rolf Harris in an interview with the Irish Times recently. “I said he was a friend of mine. I loved him. When he got what’s-a-named, I wrote a letter saying, ‘Dear Rolf, I hope you’ll be all right. I’m so sorry about this.’ And then, of course, it was all over the paper that I was sticking up for him.
“Lord Longford [whom, in her own journalist days, she interviewed] was very wise. He said, ‘Hate the sin but love the sinner’…
“But it’s a tricky one.”
Now, aged 79 (she looks wonderful but don’t be altogether fooled: she spent yesterday in Gloucester Hospital with a painful hip), I feel she finds the world a slightly sadder, less fun place. No more Feather Parties, such as her brother used to hold in Minety in the 60s, “Where they had a counterpane with a feather in the middle; whoever the feather landed on had to take a garment off.”
It’s not just the world that’s changed, though; she’s experienced a fair few sobering events, herself. Such as the stroke she had in 2010. And the ordeal poor Leo went through with the Parkinson’s that eventually killed him. Or the 1999 Paddington train crash in which she was involved.
“I don’t want to be boring about it,” she demurs, when I ask, “but the train turned over and everything was flaming, and this man landed on top of me. And then I waggled my legs and - that wonderful moment when you’ve had a fall - I realised I was absolutely perfectly all right, except that my ribs were a bit sore.
“So I got up - everybody crying their eyes out – and I, like a stupid creature, went round saying, ‘It’s all right! You’re alive. You’re alive!’”
She was due for lunch at the Courtauld, where there was an exhibition of paintings about the Holocaust. “And I thought, ‘God. Compared with what they went through…’”
When she got home to Bisley, the house was filled with hundreds of bunches of flowers. There’s not an ounce of self-pity in her recounting.
“You see, one is cushioned by – it sounds an awful thing - being famous; but it does help. Now I’m a geriatric, I walk through Gloucester and people will look at me because they’ll say, ‘Oh is it her or not?’ That’s quite a cheer up.”
“Because, if I wasn’t who I was, people wouldn’t bother.”
She’s still writing, of course; no slowing down on that front. The next book – rumoured to be called (about) Tackle - is football-focused, for which she’s been spending vast amounts of time with Forest Green Rovers and their owner, Dale Vince. “They’re my best friends now! They’re so sweet and it’s great fun. It’s like a drinks party every time. They took me to Wembley and it was wonderful. We all got in the bus – though we were a bit sad on the way home.” They lost 1-3 to Grimsby Town in May.
We go into the kitchen (where a note on the wall orders, ‘Just say no!’) for lunch - a meal Jilly has insisted on: “Hot, because the weather is turning cold.”
And we talk about – oh, a thousand things. That The Taylor of Gloucester is the greatest love story ever. That Brad and Angelina should sort things out. “Having adopted children myself [her treasured Emily and Felix, whom she and Leo adopted after the trauma of infertility] – and there was no reason why we were going to split up, anyway - you move heaven and earth not to be divorced. It’s not fair to the children…
“Poor William Hague hasn’t said anything. He’s got rather a crush on Angelina.”
And that everyone is huge nowadays, other than jockeys. “’Frankie’ Dettori allows himself one little bit of chocolate a day. His wife says all she hears is the fridge opening and shutting.”
Ah, yes, self-control is splendid – unless it’s pourable. I shake my head at the offer of a top-up of wine.
“Oh, of course; driving, driving. So boring, isn’t it,” Jilly Cooper sighs. “Everybody when I was young just drove around absolutely legless. That’s probably why people don’t have as much fun - because half the room is sober.”
Jilly will be appearing on the evening of Thursday November 17 as part of a day of romantic fiction at Stroud Book Festival
Mount! By Jilly Cooper is published by Bantam Press in hardback at £20