When Jilly Cooper speaks, she does so in the slightly clipped manner of Noël Coward (not entirely surprising, given that she is the daughter of a Brigadier), but at much greater speed and more quietly. She also jumps from subject to subject, in the zig-zagging way in which a wild hare crosses a field, meaning that it can be very difficult to keep up with her. What comes to mind is that Mastermind sketch in The Two Ronnies (“Your specialist subject is answering the question before last, correct?”). Refreshingly, she also swears as much as you’d secretly hope she does: ‘f’s abound, not even the ‘c-word’ is off limits and she uses ‘wanker’ so casually and so often that it must be one of her favourite words.
Why am I telling you this? Because I already know what you’re going to ask: what’s Jilly Cooper really like?
And the answer is that Jilly is ace. An hour in her company is something of such sustained brilliance, entertainment and impromptu, rabbit-warren conversations that by the exhausted end of it you feel as if you’ve been out on the town with someone you’ve known all your life or a contestant in a panel comedy show on Radio 4. For example, when our conversation somehow turns to Lord Bragg, she steers it around to what his name would mean in Cockney rhyming slang. I volunteer that in both ‘fag’ and ‘shag’, what we’ve hit is a double-word-score square, that a reader’s letter to the editor of Viz comic could contain something along the lines of: ‘My wife and I often enjoy a Melvyn in bed after we’ve enjoyed a Melvyn in bed.’
“Brilliant – but you could do even better!” says Jilly – and among the thousands of books in her house knows exactly where to find a dictionary of rhyming slang, which offers an entirely different meaning (“‘Slag’ – and that’s got nothing to do with coal heaps!”). And all this at the age of 85 and within less than half an hour of my arrival here.
The ‘here’ is important – it’s an idyllic fourteenth-century former monastery between Cirencester and Stroud and it serves to bookend Jilly’s career as queen of the ‘bonkbuster’ novel. She has lived here for just on 40 years and it is full of the sedimentary layers of a family life well-lived, with stalagmites of books, stuff, papers, ornaments and clutter. Amongst the flotsam and jetsam and wellington boots, this is where Jilly and her late husband Leo raised two children; and it’s also where she wrote the ‘Rutshire chronicles’ books including Riders, published in 1985 and perhaps the most famous of the lot. Indeed the red-blooded exploits of their hero, Rupert Campbell-Black, formed the bulk of what constituted teenage sex education for a generation of schoolgirls.
Despite reaching 60 and often being as bloody-minded as he is beautiful, Rupert is still the peak of perfection for most women and plays a starring role in what will be Jilly’s latest novel Tackle, which is set in the world of football.
“These things seem to take a hundred years, but hopefully it’ll be published next year.” she says. “In the new book, Rupert’s just as bossy as ever, shouting abuse at his footballers at half-time – and most of the time; but he does have a lot of sweet moments.”
When once asked what Jilly wore in bed, Leo replied: “Dogs, mostly. If I reach over and touch something furry in the middle of the night, I get my hand bitten
What Riders, Tackle and all the books in between also have in common is that they were all written here, on an ancient dark grey manual typewriter called Monica. (Wonderfully and daftly, in a small concession to modern technology, Monica has a ‘cut and paste’ function – but it’s a pair of scissors, tied with a piece of string.) And indeed it was Jilly’s exploits with Monica which secured the house, too.
“Leo and I never seemed to have any money,” she reflects. “I wrote a book called Class, and when that came out it sold pretty well and saved our house in Putney. Not long afterwards, we thought about moving to the country. Leo went to see this house, and I remember him coming back and saying, ‘Darling, it’s heaven – we’ve got to live there.’ It cost £180,000, which was a fortune at the time and a massive undertaking.
“And I remember our bank manager, here to stay for the weekend a year or two after we’d moved in,” Jilly continues. “He sat out on the terrace and said, ‘What a lovely old property. What a shame you are going to have to sell it, and don’t think that dirty little book you’re writing is going to get you out of trouble.’
“Well, that ‘dirty little book’ turned out to be Riders – and we took great delight in staying here and moving to another bank soon afterwards!” Jilly says that these days she’s “totally in love with Weatherbys Bank, the best bank in the world” – but before I can ask her why, she’s off again, in leveret style, and suddenly switches back to talking about a summer weekend at Longleat. “The late lovely Alex Weymouth invited us to stay, and we took our dogs Barbara and Mabel with us,” she says. “Our bedroom was known as the Kama Sutra room, because it had a huge rhino horn on the bedhead and pictures of people in every kind of sexual position all over the walls, along with a huge mirror on the ceiling. We went to bed at perhaps two o’clock in the morning, pretty drunk after a very merry evening, with Barbara lying between us in the bed. At about half past four, with the first light, she caught sight of her own reflection in the mirror, wouldn’t stop yapping and managed to wake the whole house up!”
I am not here ostensibly to talk about sex, even if readers who are old enough will remember Jilly’s character on the TV series Spitting Image which just said that one word over and over again. However, everyone knows that Jilly Cooper writes books about sex. And everyone knows that plenty of her books feature horses. Inevitably, sooner or later there would be a book about horses having sex – and it was Mount!, set in the world of flat racing and breeding and published in 2016.
Instead, I am here to ask about how she did it. Doing so opens the lid on all kinds of gossip on racing and bloodstock people, not all of which (sadly) is for publication. “Do you know Teddy Grimthorpe?” she asks, and seems genuinely pleased to hear that he lives in the next village to me. “Isn’t he lovely? I went to Banstead Manor Stud, where Teddy took me to meet Frankel and Oasis Dream in the stallion yard and we were greeted by George, the stable cat.”
Sadly Jilly won’t be drawn on whether Rupert’s star stallion in Mount!, Love Rat, is based on either Frankel or his sire Galileo, both of whom she met. But she laughs when telling me that in Tackle, “Rupert is amazed that a good footballer can earn £200,000 a week, which is more than one of his stallions gets for a shag.
“What still amazes me is that when I was writing Mount!, nobody seemed to mind me turning up,” she says. “I went to all kinds of places – racecourses, trainers’ stables, stud farms – over a period of six years and people were so generous with their time. Even Henry Cecil, who was already very ill by then, said ‘it’d be great to see you’ and let me wonder around Warren Place as I liked. People were incredible – I’d just say, ‘could I come and see you?’ and they’d all say, ‘yes, come and stay’.
“Horse-pitality, I call it,” Jilly says – and then the names come thick and fast.
“Mark and Deirdre Johnston are so friendly and so wonderful. They had me to stay for a long time and were endlessly patient with all my questions – and now Mark and Charlie train a horse called Jilly Cooper, who has won at Hamilton, Wolverhampton and Lingfield. What an honour! And they’ve got a dog called Gnasher, too…
“When Nicky Henderson heard I was writing a book which puts Rupert in charge of a football team, he told me that I must help him sell all these football people some racehorses, so that he can introduce people who are otherwise extremely successful to the novelty of failure! And do you know Sir Mark Prescott? He is so charming, as is Sir Michael Stoute, and the lovely Richard Phillips. Hughie Morrison and Robert Cowell were unstinting with their guidance and help, too.”
Becoming a member of an ownership syndicate gave Jilly another perspective and gave her further inspiration for Mount! Discussing it sets us on a course of pondering whether being raised on a diet consisting exclusively of fillet steak is what has made Harry Herbert so tall.
“Harry’s wonderful, isn’t he?” Jilly says. “Owning a horse in any syndicate can be so exciting: getting to go on the gallops and to the races. Harry’s is the supreme experience, though, isn’t it? It wasn’t quite Downton Abbey but he invited me to Highclere Stud for the yearling parade, and all kinds of wonderful people were there. You get to see all these amazing horses, and there’s a fantastic lunch, and then suddenly, before you know it, someone’s putting another glass of champagne in your hand and there you are being introduced to Jodie Kidd….”
She lets slip that bloodstock agent Ed Sackville nearly bought a house just a stone’s throw from hers (it was a honey-coloured pile with sash windows, exactly the kind of house you’d imagine would suit an Earl’s younger son), only to be pipped at the post by another buyer.
“Although the new owner is delightful, it would’ve been huge fun to have had Ed here,” Jilly says. Indeed, with a hundred friends in common, you can imagine the two of them chortling and putting the world to rights on summer evenings as the sun falls over the valley.
“It’s the trainers’ sons who make me laugh,” she reflects. “Not naming names, but it’s fascinating to see the way they react to their fathers. The sons get very grand and rather snooty. Their accents change completely and then they get terribly embarrassed when their parents say ‘fook off’ and things like that. Meanwhile jockeys starve themselves and drive endless miles for a small percentage of often tiny prize money. Frankie Dettori limits himself to one square of chocolate a day. All his wife hears is the fridge door opening and closing… and I adore York racecourse. You know Teddy Grimthorpe, don’t you? Isn’t his wife nice?”
The gossipy nature of it all is heady, marvellous and great fun. Don’t be fooled, though – when writing about horses, Jilly was never a one-trick pony. Instead, the froth and silliness conceal the fact that it must have taken remarkable skill to notice a thousand and one small details about racing and breeding and then take them, magpie-like, and know exactly where to put them in Mount! to bring the book to life. For an ordinary person to accumulate all this knowledge would take years and years of hands-on experience. Ars est celare artem (‘the art is to conceal the art’), then.
“Writing a novel is like wading through a raging river,” says Jilly. “On blissful occasions you find a stepping stone that helps you on your way.”
She’s too modest to dwell on it, but what must have made writing Mount! especially hard was the downhill struggle that was Leo’s illness. After 52 years of marriage, he died when Jilly was only halfway through the book. “He was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2000 and died in 2013,” she explains. “The end was a mercy in some ways, because I loved him so much, but if someone is that ill for that long then at the end you say, ‘Please God, take him, because this just isn’t fair on him,’ and then you feel terribly guilty for thinking that.”
Listening to Jilly talk about Leo, it is also clear that he was the perfect foil for her, the Flanders to her Swann. When once asked what Jilly wore in bed, he replied: “Dogs, mostly. If I reach over and touch something furry in the middle of the night, I get my hand bitten.”
For all those years of Jilly’s writing, indeed almost all of her life, he was an integral constant in the back story. As she wrote in a Sunday Times column more than forty years ago: “I fell in love with my husband at a children’s party when I was nine. A girl called Louise was rabbiting on about how many more acres her father had than anyone else’s when my husband, then aged twelve, suddenly picked up a strawberry jelly and hurled it at her. His aim – as now – was true.” What annoys Jilly? A lot, it seems. She doesn’t like the cruelty of social media, and remains miffed that Leading Sire, the title originally proposed for Mount!, was rejected. Don’t even start her on ‘wokery’, and she seems genuinely lost for words when revealing that Tackle will have to be approved by a ‘sensitivity editor’ – whatever that is.
“I love my own sex,” she goes on, “but men are getting such a bad press today,” she says, “It’s awful. They should be strong and full of confidence but these days, a man can’t put his hand on a woman’s shoulder without getting accused of sexual assault, can he? In contrast, as Janey Lloyd-Foxe, a character in my books, says, some men aren’t attractive, so you tell them to eff off; and some men are attractive so you tell them to eff on!”
And suddenly there it is. As Jilly is talking, on a bookshelf and less than twelve inches from her head is that time capsule from the 1970s, The Joy of Sex (and perhaps both appropriately and appositely, it’s next to Equine Stud Management). She laughs when I point this out.
“I must tell you,” she adds, “In Tackle, Rupert’s wife Taggie is wiped out by chemotherapy, so exhausted she can hardly get out of bed, so her six-year-old step-granddaughter Sapphire has been reading to her, just children’s books like Tracy Beaker and The Cat in the Hat. Then Rupert comes in roaring with laughter, saying: ‘Sapphire looked at The Joy of Sex but told me she’s decided not to read it to Granny, because it is so boring. There’s no proper story and it’s full of people wearing no clothes and who don’t have names, except one called Master Bate...’”
Perhaps we have reached peak Jilly at this point. One last question, though: does someone whose life has been all about writing still have an appetite for reading what other people have written? “Actually, I want to read more than ever now,” she replies. “Shakespeare in particular. Perhaps that’s because I haven’t got that much time left.” And she passes me a passage by Stephen Grellet, a French-American Quaker missionary, written in the nineteenth century:
“I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing that therefore I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow-creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” It brings us full circle, rather. And it’s also kind of the point. What’s Jilly Cooper really like? She’s kind-hearted, good fun and never dull. An hour spent in her company would never be an hour wasted. One of her books is never going to solve the energy price crisis, inflation, the war in Ukraine or any of the other bad things going on in the world. But nor was it ever meant to.
No, the biggest disaster and the worst thing that could happen in the whole wide world of Jilly Cooper books would be getting caught with an unplanned erection in public, or having old underwear on when suddenly and unexpectedly being presented with the opportunity to get lucky, or the point at which all the suppliers of ink ribbons for Monica either retire or go out of business due to lack of demand.
What Jilly stands for is fun and escapism, and all of that still has a point and a place in the world. Perhaps it’s more important now than it has ever been. As is all the infectious happiness and laughter and helter-skelter daftness.
“It’s quite some way from here to Newmarket,” she says as I leave, before asking in pretend seriousness: “How far is Teddy Grimthorpe’s house from yours, then…?”