Between the Covers with Jilly Cooper

PUBLISHED: 20:11 23 December 2020 | UPDATED: 20:34 23 December 2020

Jilly Cooper and her son Felix in 1972

Jilly Cooper and her son Felix in 1972

© Thousand Word Media

Jilly Cooper’s wildly entertaining new book is a no-holds-barred romp through marriage, children, uproarious parties, family life, cricket… and male strip­clubs

Jilly Cooper at her Bisley homeJilly Cooper at her Bisley home

Jilly Cooper is timeless. Utterly, wonderfully timeless. I’m far from the first to say it, I know.

I don’t just mean how she looks – though that, too. Today, she’s wearing a knitted penguin jumper with the elegance of Chanel (could be a Chanel for all I’d know), looking fresh as a daisy.

Nor her undiminished enthusiasm – for news, gossip, salacious chat, delicious morsels of titbit.

“Oh, oh!” she cries at a photo of Ruby the cocker spaniel, on my phone. “Oh, she’s adorable. Look at her lying there, languidly. Oh, I love her!”

Jilly Cooper at her Bisley homeJilly Cooper at her Bisley home

Her own Bluebell – an ex-racing greyhound from Ireland – is herself lying languidly on her bed, following a visit to the vet. (Age is sadly snapping at her waggy tail.) The Sunday Times the other week quoted her (Jilly, not Bluebell) as preferring animals to people.

Tish. I don’t believe it for a second – she dotes on her friends. But there’s no doubt people are classified on devotion to dogs.

“I love Julian Clary. He had a dog called Fanny the Wonderdog!”

And Cath Kidston. “She’s absolutely special and loves her dogs, too.

Jilly Cooper with elephants Raga and Chancal  at her Bisley homeJilly Cooper with elephants Raga and Chancal at her Bisley home

“Amanda,” Jilly says, as her PA (and friend) comes into the sitting room – every surface covered with photographs and books – carrying tea and slices of walnut cake, “There are a lot of sausages in the back fridge. Do take them back for the dogs.

“Now,” she continues. “What is Boris Johnson up to? He’s obviously been pulled down by Covid, hasn’t he?”

But – and here’s the point I wanted to make – Jilly Cooper is timeless in her work, too. At 83 (really?), she’s writing her latest novel, on the subject of football.

“Rupert Campbell-Black [the ongoing hero, who first appeared in her 1986 blockbuster Riders] is lovely in the football book. He’s chairman of this football team; terribly rude to the players. All I’m reading, at the moment, is football stuff – football biographies. It’s a very difficult subject. It’s so complicated; I hope I get it right. Do you understand football?”

Jilly Cooper and her Mum Elaine Sallitt at her 1st book signing in 1973Jilly Cooper and her Mum Elaine Sallitt at her 1st book signing in 1973

What’s frankly astonishing is how Jilly Cooper’s prose has stood the test of time. For the columns she began writing in 1969 for the Sunday Times have just been republished in a new book, Between the Covers: a (non-fiction) no-holds-barred romp through subjects of marriage, children, uproarious parties, family life, cricket, and (even) male strip-clubs. And they’re as funny, poignant, telling and, yes, as shocking at times as they were half a century ago.

The story of her discovery is now the stuff of legend. At a dinner party in London, she was placed next to Godfrey Smith, then editor of the Sunday Times colour magazine. Jilly and husband Leo were about to adopt their first baby; any serious journalistic ambition had been subsumed by expedient commissions to write romantic stories for magazines such as Petticoat and Woman’s Own.

But as she began regaling her dinner companion with hapless tales of married life – washing a red silk scarf with Leo’s rugby kit: “he boasted of being the only member of the rugger team with a rose-pink jockstrap” – Godfrey was entranced. There and then, he asked her to write a piece. “He was a divine man, Godfrey. Absolutely divine. Lived in Malmesbury.”

Only Jilly’s mum-and-circle were at all perplexed by that first prose outing: none had a clue what a jockstrap was.

Jilly Cooper's husband Leo with daughter Emily, in the early 2000'sJilly Cooper's husband Leo with daughter Emily, in the early 2000's

“She was wonderful, my mother. She once rang and told me, ‘Darling, darling, isn’t it heaven! Virginia Woolf has just won Wimbledon.’”

But the rest of the reading world learned not to hold its breath, either. Soon to follow were sweet tales of family life, interspersed with mentions of everything from vaginas to masturbation. The only piece Harold Evans – overall editor of the Sunday Times – censored was a depiction of a hen night in Wandsworth. Jilly’s image of an English setter waving his tail around when describing the gyrations of a well-endowed male stripper was “not the stuff of family newspapers”, Harry reprimanded.

Did Jilly ever hide behind sofas after the more daring pieces?

“I think so,” she says. But the more irksome phenomenon was when “people used to come up and make funny remarks, hoping to be put in.”

Jilly Cooper with Leo and family with a loaned Rolls Royce in the late 70'sJilly Cooper with Leo and family with a loaned Rolls Royce in the late 70's

The strange thing for me is that, although her tales are filled with tasks most women would balk at nowadays – coming home from work and having to wash the breakfast dishes; cooking moussaka until 1am; ironing so disastrous Leo switched to using a laundry; a flat described by a guest as ‘engaging squalor’ – she was a standard bearer for women columnists.

“Do you think I was?

“Katharine Whitehorn [Observer columnist] was there; and Lynda Lee-Potter, Jean Rook [Daily Express]. There weren’t many and I got paid very well. I got £3,000 a piece, or something like that, towards the end.

“Harry [Evans] was wonderful. I never went to the office. All my copy went over in a minicab.”

Jilly Cooper moving into her home. The Chantry, in 1982 - Collect pic by Mike CharityJilly Cooper moving into her home. The Chantry, in 1982 - Collect pic by Mike Charity

In that office were “a very grand bunch. They were very jolly. It was fun.” Hunter Davies; Robert Lacey; Sebastian Faulks; Molly Parkin.

“Then I went to the Mail on Sunday.”

Now that was an interesting move.

“I wrote a piece called Gone with the Wimp – this was in ’82. It was a piece that could be written perfectly now, about why men had got so wet and women so bossy. So feminist.”

Jilly Cooper getting her CBE in 2018Jilly Cooper getting her CBE in 2018

When it failed to appear in print, she rang her editor to ask why.

“’Ah! All Rupert Murdoch’s henchmen are marching up and down on the top floor, saying, ‘She’s got us wrong. We’re not like this’’.

“So I said, ‘Bye!’ and went to the Mail on Sunday that day. They’d been asking me if I would.”

And what about Leo, who died some seven years ago now – her kindly, clever, domesticated (he loved cooking; often took the children off so she could work), military-publisher husband? He features in so many of these pieces. Was he happy with their content? Did he even read them? (He always claimed he’d only read one of her novels – Prudence – when he was in bed with flu. It had made him feel worse.)

Jilly Cooper working from homeJilly Cooper working from home

“Romantic novels aren’t for men, are they?

“Funnily enough, he insisted on reading all of the Sunday Times columns, and he used to say, ‘Oh, god. This is awful. Change that’. I’d sulkily go upstairs and retype them very tidily and hardly change anything, and he’d say, ‘That’s much improved’.”

The only time Jilly remembers him being put out was at a Hatchards Authors of the Year party. “It was always terribly exciting because you met PD James and Barbara Pym. But Leo was sitting on a sofa and a woman said, ‘What’s it like being Mr Jilly Cooper?’ Poor boy. He wasn’t very happy with that. I don’t blame him either. A very macho man and a very good military history publisher. It must have been very difficult for him.”

What does she make of Sasha Swire’s throw-them-under-a-bus diaries?

Jilly Cooper in 1977, Collect pic copyright Peter SchommertzJilly Cooper in 1977, Collect pic copyright Peter Schommertz

“God! GOD!

“I’m flabbergasted. Upstairs, I’ve got diaries and diaries and diaries. I had a conversation with my children, saying, ‘Darling, I think they ought to be burned because they do sometimes set your mother in a rather louche, unsuitable light… On the other hand, they might make you a few bob.’

“Is she [Swire] still with her husband, or not? The famous one is David Cameron – I’m going to give you one in the bushes – I love that one, don’t you? He must be terribly embarrassed with Sam Cam sitting there looking beautiful.”

Jilly Cooper in the late 70's, Colect pic  copyright Jennifer Rima BeestonJilly Cooper in the late 70's, Colect pic copyright Jennifer Rima Beeston

The thing about your pieces, Jilly, I say, is that – even at their naughtiest – there’s nothing but warmth and affection.

“I hope so. I do bitch behind people’s backs a bit. Do you think that’s all right?”

***************

Heaven knows what’s in Jilly Cooper’s diaries – I wouldn’t ask – but there must be gold in them thar hills. For the anecdotes she regales me with are fantastic. Fabulous names. Delicious vignettes.

“We were asked to lunch with Kingsley [Amis] and Jane [Elizabeth Jane Howard]. I’m sure you did it, too, but I rang them back and said, ‘Could we possibly bring the children?’ There was a long pause and then, ‘Oh, yes, all right, then’.”

Martin [Amis, Kingsley’s son by his first marriage] was “brought in from somewhere” to play football with Jilly’s children, Felix and Emily.

“We were leaving – nice lunch – and I suddenly realised I’d left Emily’s cardigan behind. I ran back in the house, and Jane had Kingsley in her arms, saying, ‘There, there, darling. It wasn’t that awful, was it?’”

I love the way she assumes I’ve an equally distinguished acquaintance list: “Prince Andrew? I don’t know him, do you?” she asks.

“Fergie’s father [Major Ronald Ferguson] I adored. He was so excited when she got engaged to Andrew. He helped me enormously with a book I wrote called Polo; so kind. There was a song, The Galloping Major, and he used to hum it.

“… Shall we have a glass of wine?”

Jilly Cooper is, of course, nowadays feted for her novels – and rightly so. According to her website, she has sold more than 11 million books in the UK alone (and rapidly counting, I’d imagine), awarded a CBE for services to literature and charity in 2018. They’re glorious, raunchy reads – phenomenally clever, too; peppered with puns, literary allusions, and swoon-worthy characters.

But this latest book – Between the Covers – reminds you of how very good her non-fiction is. The few interviews (more the shame) she did for the nationals were not only entertaining but, unsurprisingly, insightful, too.

“I interviewed Robert Redford in a hotel at midnight; he had just come off a plane. He was furious because, having seen his cuttings beforehand, I wrote that because he was obviously more interested in the environment than women, I hadn’t bothered to paint my toenails. Redford complained I bitched him up because I was disappointed not to have got him into bed.”

Neil Kinnock tried to make her laugh with pithy observations – “Wedgwood Benn is so wet, he couldn’t knock the skin off a rice pudding” – but his jokes fell somewhat flat amongst his party when they came out in print. “I felt very guilty about that.”

“The first time I went to interview Thatcher, I got stuck in a traffic jam in Whitehall and arrived a quarter of an hour late, which is unprecedented for me. I was in floods. I went in, saying, ‘I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry!’

“’Just sit down. Get Jilly a cup of tea. Now, my dear, it would be much more fun if you came and talked to me in Chelsea next week.’

“And so she gave me three hours in Chelsea. She was absolutely sweet.”

Wasn’t she terrifying?

“No, not really. She was just very, very nice. The children kept coming in and out, which was rather rude. Carol was all right, but Mark… not so good.”

***************

She’s terrified of being politically incorrect, Jilly Cooper tells me.

Yet the observations she makes don’t condone bad behaviour; they rather mourn a closeness she perceives has gone from between the sexes.

“I feel so sorry for people trying to find men. Because men are so terrified of women; they just take off into the woods like badgers – run away. What’s wrong with a wolf whistle? Lovely. Please! Bring it on!

“The sexes should celebrate each other and love each other. That, I think, is the sad thing. Cherish – to love and to cherish: the five most beautiful words in the English language. Whether it’s children or dogs or husbands or friends.”

Who are her current real-life Rupert Campbell-Blacks, I ask.

“I rather like that man in Mr Selfridge. Grégory Fitoussi: he’s absolutely divine. I want to write a film for him because he’s so beautiful.

“Colin Firth is lovely. He introduced me, saying, ‘Darling, this is Jilly.’ Awful thing – one shouldn’t be flattered by it but I was.

“And John Krasinski. He came and had a drink on the terrace.”

Wait! Jim? From The Office?

“He’s so friendly and giggly. I love men who are giggly. He’s married to Emily Blunt [Felicity, her sister, is Jilly’s agent], who is gorgeous.”

***************

So, yes; some of those columns are more than half-a-century old. Way before Jilly and Leo bought their beautiful, historic house near Stroud, where she lives to this day.

And while those columns still document the way we live and love – relationships between the sexes; envy and insecurity – they also bring back a time that seems to have vanished. Particularly now. Of dinner parties and unrestrained crowds at rugger; riotous celebrations; seaside holidays; unashamed flirting.

What do they bring back for Jilly?

“Leo,” she says. “They were heaven to me because they brought back Leo.”

Between the Covers, Jilly Cooper on sex, socialising and survival, is published in hardback by Bantam Press, price £14.99

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