When I ring up Jilly Cooper to chat about a new collection of her Sunday Times columns from the 1970s and early 1980s, Between The Covers: Jilly Cooper on Sex, Socialising and Survival, she is straight into the compliments and why she is “totally in love with Ireland”.
She tells me I look very lovely in my profile picture, and when I assure her it’s entirely down to lashings of makeup, she gives such a glorious hoot of laughter I’d give anything to be sitting next to the 83-year-old author in her Cotswold-stone house in the Gloucestershire countryside — famously the setting for the home of the hero of her on-going Rutshire Chronicles, Rupert Campbell-Black.
“My adopted daughter Emily is Irish, my late greyhound Feather was a rescue greyhound from Co Offaly, as is my beloved Bluebell [another greyhound]. I adore your writers, the horses, Irish people”.
I note her Irish characters tend to be irresistible, such as Declan O’Hara, the passionate crusading TV personality in Rivals and Viking O’Neill, the charming horn player in Appassionata. “Yes, yes” she agrees, “Irish men are so very physically attractive, aren’t they? And funny and articulate, such soft voices, and they ride like angels”.
Jilly was a reporter and worked in publishing before her first book How to Stay Married in 1969 and soon after, aged 31, was asked to write her long-standing column in The Sunday Times on the strength of an article about the early years of her marriage.
It was commissioned by the editor of the magazine after he sat beside Jilly at a dinner and today, in her eighties, with her irrepressible sense of fun jumping down the phone, I can only imagine what sparkling company she was at a party 50 years ago.
She has penned seven romances, 27 works of non-fiction and four children’s books, but it’s her Rutshire Chronicles — which kicked off in 1985 in the lustful show jumping world — that she is best known for.
There must be few Irish homes without a copy of the first one, Riders, with its distinctive cover showing a man’s hand firmly resting on a pert bottom in white riding jodhpurs. Jilly has sold over 11 million books in the UK alone, and is a firm staple of the best-seller lists, and her many Irish fans will be excited to hear Jilly is beavering away on the next instalment, this time set in the football world.
Jilly says Tackle will be bringing back ruthless Rupert Campbell-Black as the chairman of a football club who remains, at age 60, “unbelievably rude and gorgeous, while devotedly looking after his adored wife Taggie, who is recovering from cancer”.
Between The Covers has Jilly musing on all sorts — house guests, department store makeovers, shouting like a fishwife at the kids. It showcases 30 of her newspaper columns and she loved putting it together, as it “brought back the past, when the children were young and when Leo [her late husband] was such a funny, forceful character in their marriage”.
“When Leo was sick he was incredibly brave [he suffered from Parkinson’s for more than a decade and died in 2013], it’s such a horrible disease, it’s such a shadowing thing”.
The columns are very funny but like all good confessional writing also deliver that emotional punch — the universal feelings we all relate to, whether we lead an exciting life filled with drunken dinner parties or not.
When I tell Jilly her writing style in this collection strikes me as a mash-up of PG Wodehouse, Maeve Binchy’s column style, Marian Keyes, Bridget Jones (or rather Helen Fielding) and Edna O’Brien, she is thrilled.
“I loved Maeve, whenever we used to meet up we really got on. Marian, I’ve only met a handful of times but I absolutely adore her, and Edna is a fabulous writer and so attractive, whenever I used to meet her the men would be falling over her”.
Jilly and Leo were married for 50 years and while her columns don’t shy away from the hairy patches — fights over finances, razors and holidays that went belly-up — there is no doubt they were incredibly happy.
“We had 50 years, I can’t believe it, as great an achievement as the Sistine Chapel. We did have terrible rows, there were up and downs but I think people should try a bit harder to stay together. He made me roar with laughter.
“You know, some journalist said Leo was horrible to me, but it’s not true — he was just outspoken, like Mr Darcy and a bit like Harvey Smith. You’re too young to know who he is but he was a very direct Yorkshire show-jumping champion”.
One column examines her jealousy over Leo’s ex-wife and it’s heartbreaking. This was before their successful adoption of their son Felix in 1968, followed by the adoption of Emily a couple of years later. Her infertility must have been difficult?
“It was appalling but if I could have had children I would not have adopted Felix and Emily, who I utterly adore. Emily is so Irish. Very kind and funny with very blue eyes.
“I was so lucky how quickly we were able to adopt. These days it is very hard. They need to make it easier and change the rules”.
In the same column, Jilly describes an affair she had which caused “appalling unhappiness” which rocked her marriage “to its foundations” but which ultimately made her realise “Leo loved her and needed her”.
“One should try not to let it happen [an affair], because it can hurt your other half terribly but it does not have to be the end of a marriage.
“The worst offenders are the awful do-gooders who feel it is their duty to tell you your other half is being unfaithful. Worse, once I had a friend who told her husband she was going to leave him but then had to slink back when the other man said he did not want her after all”.
Leo also had an affair later in their marriage which was “awful, very public” but they stayed together and survived.
What advice would she give to actor Dominic West, recently seen scooting all over Rome with actress Lily James? A plot line which would sit snugly in any of her novels.
“I truly don’t know what is going on, is it publicity? His wife is just gorgeous, gorgeous, isn’t she? Terribly embarrassing him going all over [Rome] on that bike”.
Two of Jilly’s columns, meanwhile, are about her love of poetry and reading. As a teen, she was reading the Greek tragedies — Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus — and in her early twenties poetry helped her as she “ricocheted from one disastrous love affair to another”. She writes how “you can lose yourself in reading and how it can be all things to all moods”.
Has reading helped her in lockdown?
“Of course — I was reading Yeats last night — and watching TV helps if you are a bit lonely too and I do believe in God. I ask him ‘Please, God, cheer me up’.’
For readers who need a bit of a lift, Jilly recommends Lady in Waiting by Lady Anne Glenconner, which she says is “terribly funny and full of royal gossip”.
What does she make of US politicians Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and British PM Boris Johnson?
“Trump is terribly spoilt. Going around suing and not giving the job up. Shakespeare would’ve written a great play about him. I can’t believe it, all my Republican friends are so upset he lost — because he was so good for the economy. We will miss him on TV, he is funny.
“Ireland will do much better this time with this president [Biden].
“Boris seems to have goofed a bit. His sister Rachel is absolute heaven. It is one hell of a job though.
“He is a brilliant writer and perhaps should have stuck to writing.”
At the end of our chat, Jilly tells me I’ll have to “shout a bit as the hearing aids from Boots that cost a fortune are playing up”, so I very reluctantly wrap up.
I loved Between The Covers and our chat brought alive Jilly’s madcap, entertaining and very brilliant essence that infuses her writing. What a legend.