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Jilly Cooper jumps to it!

PUBLISHED: 15:01 08 December 2010 | UPDATED: 18:16 20 February 2013

Jilly Cooper at home in Gloucestershire.

Jilly Cooper at home in Gloucestershire.

Jilly Cooper's latest book is full of the loves of her life. Katie Jarvis talks to her about the fantastically fun research programme she embarked on to write 'Jump!'

Jump to it!

Im greeted, as I arrive at Jilly Coopers house in Bisley, by the most enormous of smiles. A teeth-bared, Im so delighted to see you, kind of smile. But, then, we have met before, Feather and I, so I guess were old buddies.

After this joyously effusive welcome, he stretches his lithe greyhound body and hops onto a sofa in the posh sitting room, where he teeters on a huge pile of cushions. It looks precariously uncomfy but hes obviously a highly-practised soft-furnishing gymnast.

If you move that cushion, Jilly says, pointing to where Im sitting, youll see a hole behind it. All the sofas are ripped to pieces by him.

Theres not a smidgeon of crossness in that lovely deep voice. In fact, the only person who looks at all put out by the subject is Feather himself. Darling, look at you glaring at me! He has a furious look; he woke me up in the night and glared at me for about 10 minutes because the cat was sitting on my bed.

Jillys latest book, Jump!, is full of the loves of her life dogs, horses, birds, grandchildren. Indeed, the romantic heroine, Etta, is a grandmother herself, recently widowed after years of marriage to Sampson, a raging, egotistical tyrant.

I love Etta, Jilly says. Everybody says its me but its not because shes nice. And Im very happy with Leo and Leos not a bit like Sampson not a BIT like Sampson. But it was interesting because I could put my love of animals and nature into her character and have her feeding my birds. Im not 21 now and Id love to write Bellas but I cant. Im going to try and get a younger character into the next book but its so much easier to write about what you are.

Not that she knew a huge amount about the subject of Jump! - the world of horse racing when she started her book four long years ago. But that gave her the excuse to embark on a fantastically fun research programme with a very willing accomplice her son, Felix, who lives with his family just down the road.

I went and visited Paul Nicholls [the Somerset-based trainer]: great fun; I think hes wonderful. I saw Denman and Kauto Star jumping round this tiny school I think horses are absolutely irresistible if theyre very large or very small, and Denman seemed a great, gorgeous brute.

Were privileged in the Cotswolds, arent we? Weve got Jonjo, too sweet, sweet man. Very modest.

Just looking around yards, of course, wasnt nearly enough, so Jilly also joined a syndicate the 30-strong Thoroughbred Ladies - which owns Island Flyer, trained by Tom George whos based in Stroud. The Ladies are very attractive women, I think of a certain age though some are a bit younger. But theyre all lovely and pretty grand as a collective lot, and they all know quite a lot more about horses than I do. I slightly lower the tone. But we all get terribly excited when we win Weeeeee! Island Flyer won three races on the trot, which was terribly fun.

Everybody has this fantasy, dont they, of leading in a racehorse its a dream that seems only obtainable to a very rich man. But, actually, its perfectly attainable to anybody because you can join a syndicate. I wrote in the book that its terribly important to stand next to the person you fancy so you can hug them when you win... It cant happen to Thoroughbred Ladies, really, because we love each other and we hug each other like mad, but theres not a lot of lust around.

Lust... Now there you go. Fans of Jillys books know that you cant go too long before a bit of good, old-fashioned lust is bound to surface seduction scenes in Jump! include a spinster whose plump high breasts are concealed in tent dresses until Harold Pocock strips more than just the ivy from her cottage; and then theres the gay vicar branching out with a tree surgeon. Well, take it from me: a conversation with Jilly is equally as entertaining. We leap in easy steps from dogs to dogging: All that dogging going on on the hill at Birdlip. I love it! What a marvellous county we have the festivals, the wonderful races, the cheese rolling, and then we have a National Dogging Area, too. And then theres talk of Leos beautiful cousin whose mother was married to a Naval Commander: He always used to nudge her in the middle of the night with, Wakey, wakey, here comes snakey!

Shes not only screamingly funny to chat to; shes also one of the kindest people around though shed almost certainly deny that if you put it to her. Im far from the only person to have received one of her hand-written notes saying thank-you for some media mention, or enquiring after a family member. Hows your mother, Katie? Or, in the middle of a series of questions about her writing, But I want to know about your life. Are you all right?

The conversation is sparkling, occasionally bawdy, and filled with glamorous characters and gossip. And Laurence I love Laurence and Jackie [Llewelyn-Bowen]. Have you been to their house? Ah! Isnt it awesome? Hes gone off his kitchen, which is apple-green, though the dining room is blue with butterflies. Its that sort of taste which one had forgotten about - London taste that was so brilliant in the 60s and 70s when I was on the Sunday Times and used to go to peoples houses and faint with admiration. And the children all these beautiful teenagers floating about. Indeed, theres not a bad word for anyone. Edward Gillespie... [MD of Cheltenham Racecourse] Isnt he awesome? Hes so calm and so appreciative and so helpful. Even when talk turns to one of my children, who refuses to work for exams: Ah, she sighs, appreciatively. Dont you think lazy people are terribly glamorous...

She chats about her four grandchildren (and one on the way) who range in age from one to five. Im a lousy grandmother. I love them but I cant look after them and I never know what to say to babies. Its very strange having adopted children [Jilly and Leo adopted their two children as babies]... no, its not strange, its wonderful because its their first blood line. Emily is a wonderful mother and Felix is an incredible father. Im so proud of them.

Shes also very close to her daughter- and son-in-law, to whom Jump! is dedicated. My nightmare would be for my children to have married someone I didnt like.

But you, being you, would have liked them, I say.

I would not, she replies, emphatically. I was very polite to everybody they went out with until they ditched them.

Shes so good at bigging other people up, it comes as a surprise when she reveals her own vulnerability. Shes been genuinely appreciative, for example, of the great reviews shes received for Jump!

It took four years to finish. Awful, awful. And I was convinced it was rubbish. I typed it on the back of the proofs of Riders from America and I kept turning the pages thinking, Oh god, why cant I write like this? Why cant I have characters that are alive like this? I was so low, I promise you, that I went to my publisher and said, Look, Ill pay the advance back if its no good.

When the subsequent thumbs-up were given by papers from the Guardian to the TLS, she was, she says, absolutely knocked out. I tell her about a reader review on Amazon, which begins, I must start by saying that Jilly Cooper is my favourite author along with Tolstoy.

That isnt as absurd as it seems well, it is completely absurd. What I mean is, the only thing Tolstoy and I have in common is that we love beautiful people: Elena and Anatole and Anna Karenina. Theyre all stunningly beautiful, arent they? I must say, when I read War and Peace, I did tend to skip the war bits, though.

She writes, she says, because she has to financially. Leo is no longer very well, suffering as he does from Parkinsons Disease. And Jilly herself had a brush with illness in the form of a small stroke earlier this year. Typically, though she makes a passing reference to her own mortality pointing to her neck scar where they scrubbed up her arteries - she brings out the funny side.

Gloucester Royal was just impeccable. This one sweet nurse was telling me her husband is a detective constable called DC Parrott. When he was in court, recently, everyone giggled like mad when the inspector called to give evidence turned out to be DI Chicken.

Shes already talking about her next book, which will bring back her enduringly popular hero Rupert Campbell-Black as a central character. Its going to be about the old steeplechase course up on Cleeve Hill; I didnt know anything about it, did you? Evidently, one of the vicars thought that racing corrupted the working class so had it closed down. And then the grandstand got burned down. Isnt that an extraordinary story? In my book, its going to be haunted. A family gets killed and the vendetta goes down to the 21st century.

And then theres a childrens book running through her head, inspired by the gulls she heard screeching while she was recovering in hospital. They make the most frightful din, but I do love them. I thought Id write a story about a seagull that wouldnt shut up. Hed form a pop group and enter the X Factor, win, and save all the seagulls from being culled. I just need a Christian name for him. Cedric. Or C. Gull, perhaps.

As she muses, theres a flurry from the sofa. Feathers had enough. First a cat on the bed; now a book about seagulls. Theres only so much a greyhound can take.

Jump! by Jilly Cooper is published by Bantam Press, price 18.99.


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