Jilly the filly buster
At 76, author Jilly Cooper, queen of posh bonkbusters, is still working away and has the fight to defend the rich against what, she says, are cash-seeking allegations against pals such as Rolf Harris
Usually when she’s quoted, it’s “Queen of the bonkbuster Jilly Cooper” or even Jilly “bonkbuster” Cooper, as if the word for naughty – but not quite filthy – books is her middle name. She hoots with laughter when I ask if she minds and she’s right, it’s an absurd question when we’re sitting in the house that bonkbusters bought. It’s a gorgeous 10-bedroom 16th century manor surrounded by acres of magnificent gardens, just outside Stroud on the fringes of one of those picture-postcard English villages.
It’s in very posh part of Gloucestershire – the horsey area full of double-barrelled types that has been the thinly veiled location for Cooper’s famously randy Rutshire Chronicles which started with Riders in 1985.
She and Leo, her husband of more than 50 years, moved here from London in the 1980s. Because a larger of version of the house is the home of her great hero, the dashing, devilishly attractive, sexually insatiable Rupert Campbell-Black, fans might know what to expect.
What is a surprise though, is quite how busy it is at 10am on a May morning. At 76, and looking at least 10 years younger, Cooper, enviably trim in velour leggings, Ugg boots and a trendy jumper with a dog motif, is back from walking her rescue greyhounds, Feather and Bluebell.
One came from the Orchard Greyhound Sanctuary in Co Offaly, run by Mary Jane Fox: “Do you know her? Very sweet.”
The kitchen, like the rest of the house, is a riot of clutter, every surface crammed with photos, pictures, notes, stacks of newspapers, figurines – and just about every piece of decoration has a horsey or doggy theme.
Cooper, bustling around, preparing food for the elegant dogs, is instantly recognisable: the gap in the front teeth, the impish ready smile and the thick thatch of grey hair with a fringe.
It’s a style she’s had for years, explaining “my grandmother always said you must have a fringe, it hides the wrinkles”.
Then there are Leo’s two carers – he’s had Parkinson’s disease for 13 years and the past 12 months have been particularly bad. He’s bed-bound in the room down the hall, in what was once his office. One carer comes three times a week, the other lives in and is at the Aga making his breakfast.
Also crowded into the small, low-ceilinged kitchen is the housekeeper who has worked for the family for more than 30 years and Cooper’s secretary of many years who comes in every day. She is tiny but like a Pretorian guard when it comes to minding her boss.
Everyone is rushing around making sure I’ve enough coffee and croissants. Later the gardener will arrive in the back door, stick the kettle on and join in the chat.
Twenty minutes in and surrounded by such good humour, warmth, friendliness and Cooper’s infectious enthusiasm and slightly daffy persona, you can feel your spiky critical edges turning to a slight mush. And that, it turns out, is a good thing because later when her take on many things – from divorce to Margaret Thatcher – is so different from our own, you’re sort of swept along so that it seems like frightfully bad manners to contradict.
In such a buzzy house it’s a wonder she gets any work done, but she does – great, big doorstops of giddy books get written, filled with razor-sharp social observance and with a bewilderingly large cast of characters.
She’s also written children’s books and non-fiction but it was Riders all those years ago – she left the first draft on the bus and it then took her 15 years to finish – that made her a household name. The most recent instalment of the nine-volume Rutshire Chronicles, Jump! , set in world of jump racing, was published in 2010. We move to one of the drawing rooms, where the walls are covered with pictures, every surface is crammed with framed photos and horse- and dog-themed bits and pieces. The greyhounds install themselves on the sofa, so we have to sit quite far apart.
A large black-and-white portrait resting against a table leg, taken perhaps in the 1990s, catches her eye: “Isn’t that a divine picture of Leo and me? Isn’t he gorgeous, it’s very good to have,” she says and a less jaunty Jilly breaks through with a melancholy that seems to catch up with her every now and again. Her next novel, Leading Sire , once again centres on Rupert Campbell-Black but this time it is set in the world of flat racing.
“Jockeys are like Jack Russells, ” she says, “terribly oversexed. Jockeys love sex, it keeps them out of the larder.”
It’s a very Jilly Cooper line – gossipy, authoritative, a bit rude and funny, and she delivers it well, but it’s hard to forget that Leo is in the next room in a hospital bed and that his illness has had a profound impact on their lives. “I find writing in this sort of atmosphere very difficult,” she says.
She delivered the outline of Leading Sire – nearly 300 pages – to her publisher last November. She writes such long, detailed outlines because, “if I don’t, I won’t remember what the last chapter was about. I have to have some sort of blueprint.” It’s been slow going and her publishers haven’t given her a deadline.
Her adult children, Felix, a property developer, and Emily, a make-up artist, live close by. Both have young families and pop in regularly. After proclaiming that she is a “terrible granny” she does what any proud granny does, she reaches for a stack of photos of the five gorgeous children – although these were taken when Hello did a shoot in the house, so not your usual granny photos, then.
When the mummy-porn phenomenon took off with 50 Shades of Grey , Cooper, as the mother of raunchy rude, was the go-to writer for a quote. She thinks its success is down to the scarcity of macho men: “Men are being taught to be caring and sharing and all that nonsense. The truth is that women fancy sh*ts, even if they may not want to marry them,” she says.
She didn’t think much of the sex in the book but can quote it: “ ‘He drew a condom over his enormous length,’ I mean really, ‘and he poured himself into her’.” She laughs. “But well done her, really,” she says of EL James, its author.
So will its success make her go for more explicit sex in her next novel? “No. I don’t think I can do raunch any more, because it’s such a long time ago. You can only write about what’s going on at the moment.”
She lives quietly she says. She had a stroke in 2010 from which she has fully recovered, “But I’m 76. That is old. I’m fine, I don’t feel old. I’m less steady on my feet. I don’t want to have another stroke. Strokes are a nightmare.” The only residual impact is that it’s slowed her up a bit, and “my memory is shot to pieces. If someone tells me something, I don’t remember it. It’s bloody boring.”
Nights are spent in with Leo watching TV. She loves Brendan O’Carroll’s Mrs Brown series – “hysterical, very clever” – but she abandoned the crime drama Broadchurch “paedophilia again” and The Village : “A man force-feeding a girl while fiddling with her; horrid. What’s this obsession with abuse? I don’t understand it.”
Some of her long-time friends have been in the news lately embroiled in the investigation into sex abuse. “Sweet Rolf Harris, he’s such a friend.”
Won’t the accusation change her view? “No,” she says firmly, “I love him. In my day it was called making a pass. It’s a rich hunt” – she pauses mid-flight – “isn’t that good? Rich hunt?
“All these women who were teenagers saying ‘who will we get’? It’s governed by money. Oh gosh, let’s get £100,000. It’s completely anonymous. Jimmy Tarbuck is sweet, too.”
Some of it is, she acknowledges, “repulsive”. She mentions Jimmy Saville who she didn’t know, but returns to her theme.
“It’s what we called ‘making a pass’. It was the 1960s. Can you imagine some couple like me and Leo sitting in front of the fire and the police turn up accusing him of jumping on some girl 40 years ago?”
All part of a wider fashion for “grope therapy” she says, agreeing that maybe, yes, she is a little out of step with the modern world – a true-blue Conservative.
She goes on to rail against men crying on TV, divorce, the fall-off in Christian religious observance and the rise in “toff bashing”. The reaction to the death of Margaret Thatcher, who she greatly admired was, she says, a perfect example of toff bashing. “It was egalitarian spite. People loathe her. It was horrible: beastly, beastly.”
Gossiping about someone she is due to meet on her trip to Ireland the first question she asks is “is he very left”?
At times like this she doesn’t sound like someone who writes books where women are “slippery with longing” or with a nude tennis match where cock rules (best not ask) apply.
She says she must make her Will before her impending visit to Ireland. She says it so often I start to think she expects something awful to happen but, no, it’s the anxiety brought on by her experience of ill health.
She rarely travels. “I feel so guilty. It’s horrid for Leo when I’m away. I do love him.” Her trips now tend to be corporate gigs usually around horsey events such as a Cartier Polo or this week’ s jaunt to Co Meath for the Tattersalls International Horse Trials and Country Fair.
Ireland will feature in Leading Sire so it’ll be a busman’s holiday: she wants to do some research into flat racing. She’s been at Leopardstown for the races – “heavenly” – and the Dublin Horse Show, but never the Curragh.
Her wish-list includes a visit to Coolmore Stud and she’s hoping to meet some of her idols, including trainers Aidan O’Brien and Jim Bolger: “But he doesn’t drink and maybe he won’t approve of me.”
But knowing her work – even by reputation – aren’t serious professional horse people a little nervous of meeting her, concerned they’ll be transformed into tight-buttocked Lotharios having it away with ladies with double-barrelled names? “Usually when they meet me it’s alright, I keep saying, fiction, fiction, fiction.”
Does she see herself being like the queen of romance Barbara Cartland who was writing well into her 90s? “I don’t think so. I hope not. I don’t want to be a nuisance to anyone. I love my children so much and I have divine in-laws. I don’t want them to go off me, and if you are a nuisance people go off you,” she says as another flash of melancholy sweeps across her usual upbeat, optimistic demeanour.
By now the dogs have sloped off, and the morning is nearly over and then, having refused a glass of wine at 11.30am, it seems reasonable, an hour later, to accept one before leaving the house to its busy ways.
Jilly Cooper will be attending the Tattersalls International Horse Trials & Country Fair in Ratoath, Co Meath from May 30th- June 2nd.