Interviewed by Sue Leonard
Jilly Cooper welcomes me with her trademark, gap-toothed grin. A youthful 73, she’s still a natural flirt. When the waiter delivers our tea to her suite in the Shelburne Hotel, she reads his name tag, Julius, and says,
“Ah! Like Julius Caesar! I hope you don’t behave like him.” She smiles, admiringly, as he leaves the room, saying, “look at that swagger!”
Jilly’s niceness, and genuine interest in people makes her a sometimes frustrating interviewee. When you ask her what she thinks, she turns the question back and asks for your view. She can be utterly persuasive. We talk about the hunting ban in England; the Pope’s visit - Jilly found him utterly charming; and the glut of lesbianism in London.
“I’ve heard London is wall to wall lesbian. All the women are having affairs, but having them with women and the men don’t mind. I’ve been thinking about that quite a lot.” There are none in her new book, but there’s a gay vicar and a graphic gay sex scene.
Softly pretty, charming and effusive, Jilly reminds me of Etta, the vague, put upon sixty-something heroine of ‘Jump,’ who finds a tortured racehorse in the snow in a wood.
“My son, Felix, calls me Etta all the time. He’s so naughty,” says Jilly, denying that there’s too much of a resemblance. “She’s much nicer than me. I don’t make scones for workmen.”
Jilly invented Etta, a woman bullied by her high flying children, to highlight granny abuse.
“I see it all the time. These women have interesting careers. They have three children and the wretched mother is summoned from anywhere to look after them and they’re not paid. And they get so tired. It’s awful.”
Etta leads a huge cast of trainers, owners, jockeys, stable lads and lasses, actors, businessmen, and plenty of nubile teenagers, in this 700 plus page blockbuster. It’s set in fictitious Larkshire, around the world of National Hunt racing. Winning ownership in a court case of the one eyed horse, Mrs Wilkinson, the animal besotted Etta forms a village syndicate, and the horse starts winning races.
There’s plenty of sexual intrigue and moments of high comedy, and there are appearances from established characters, like the now famous Rupert Campbell Black.
“He’ll have a bigger role in my next book, about flat racing. He’s going to be sixty and he’s appalled.”
Jilly joined two syndicates during her exhaustive research.
“That was blissful, and terribly funny. You all get together and you have jolly lunches. We had this lovely horse who won races, but he broke down in Worcester and that was awful. We were all cheering, and it just collapsed. We charged across, like Princess Diana in the mother’s race, and cried all over it.” It’s a scene replicated in the book.
Her research brought her to Ireland too; to Leopardstown and to the Shelburne, where there’s a raunchy sex scene in the Parnell Suite. She gave her adopted daughter, Emily, a weekend here when she was twenty, along with her boyfriend of the time. Emily, she explains, is Irish.
“I wanted her to get a sense of that. She’s so beautiful. I love her to bits.”
Jilly has four grandchildren, but the photo she puts proudly on the table, is of her beloved greyhound, Feather, who was rescued from the Dublin streets.
“Look at my Irish boy. Isn’t he awesome? You have to admit he is lovely.” He’s sporting a huge red rosette. But he hadn’t won it.
“I was the judge at a dog show for a lovely trainer called Richard Phillips where there were 500 dogs entered. Feather was with me on a lead. I couldn’t give a prize to everybody, so I had to tell all the dogs, ‘I’d love to give you first prize,’ and Feather got lower and lower. He hated me chatting up the other dogs, so they gave him a rosette to cheer him up.”
Jump has shot straight to number one in the English best seller lists, and that’s a huge relief for Jilly, who found writing the book a struggle. Her husband, Leo, has Parkinson’s disease. He has carers, but Jilly looks after him at night.
“Leo is so sweet, but I don’t get much sleep. I was lacking energy and I thought the book was awfully bad. I’d been paid a large sum of money to write it, and I’d passed my deadline. I was worried. I get into a muddle too. I think it’s age.”
Jilly writes in a gazebo in her garden in Gloucestershire for seven or eight hours a day. She says it’s like being surrounded by her family. When I ask if she enjoys parts of the writing, she turns the question back to me.
“Do you enjoy writing?” I say I’m not a ‘real’ writer, and this sparks a discussion on journalism. Jilly first became famous for penning hilarious columns for The Sunday Times. Deeply personal, they told of her life as a young working wife. She later wrote for The Mail on Sunday.
“This book is because of journalism,” she says. “One of the things I do absolutely brilliantly is to keep my sentences short and my chapters short. I leave air on the page. That is advice I would give to any writer. Journalists are taught to be readable, aren’t they?”
When I commend Jilly on her dignity through tough times; and her openness in talking about her lack of fertility, and later, the public unveiling of Leo’s long affair, she dismisses these difficulties.
“I didn’t give birth to kids, but to get a career and adopt two babies at the same time was a miracle. If you don’t give birth, you must write because it’s so satisfying when books arrive at the printers. Counting this book I’ve had 40 babies.”
She’s won awards too. Honoured with an OBE for services to literature, last year she added an Honorary Doctorate of Letters, awarded by the University of Gloucestershire.
“It’s hysterical,” she says. “And now I’ve got an award for services to racing. That is faint making. They say the book will help young people to come to racing.”
What, though, would she most like to be remembered for?
“For cheering people up.” In which case, she has more than succeeded. I know of several eighteen year olds who read Jilly’s books to relieve the stress of exams. And reading Jump, with its horses who wander round drink’s parties, it’s dogs who inhabit beds, and goat, Chisholm, who ends up with a hangover, it’s possible to forget all the gloom and doom for an hour or two.
This latest in the line of Rutshire Chronicles shows a sense of community, with niceness and decency at its core. We’re talking on ‘black Thursday,’ and it’s been the best possible antidote.
Jilly dedicates my book to Rufus, my black Labrador, saying that Labradors are next to God. She hugs me as I leave. I tell her she’s my role model.
“Your roll in the hay model,” she says, and her laughter follows me into the corridor.
Jump by Jilly Cooper is published by Bantum Press.
© Sue Leonard 2010