Bonkbuster queen Jilly Cooper is republishing her classic Sunday Times Magazine columns in a new book. Decca Aitkenhead finds her in rip-roaring form at 83.
In her 51-year career as an author, Jilly Cooper has published well over a million words, but she congratulates me on my "amazing vocabulary!" before I've even taken off my coat. "'Empirical' — very good word."
Cooper is a human fountain of compliments, showering me in them from the moment I arrive. She has been reading up on me, and everything from my height to an article I wrote in 2016 wins her effusive approval. Her colleagues nicknamed her Jolly Super half a century ago, and it still seems to suit her today.
At 83 she looks startlingly unaltered by time, as does her home, a mouthwatering Cotswolds house near Stroud crammed with books and welly boots and all the sedimentary layers of a long and happy family life. She has lived here for nearly 40 years, and with her late husband, Leo, raised two children, who live locally — "a cricket ball's throw away". She still types everything on an ancient typewriter she calls Monica; her beloved greyhound Bluebell is "now 84 in dog years" but you'd never guess it. Everything seems mysteriously enchanted.
She has been a staple of British bookshelves since the early 1970s. Her first novels were modestly well read, until Riders came out in 1985, introducing us to a dashingly glamorous horsey set whose insatiable libidos provided generations of teenage girls with an eye-opening sex education. A pioneer of the bonkbuster genre, Cooper has since taken readers on a romp through the bedrooms of polo players, classical musicians, show jumpers and headmasters, and sold 12 million books.
Before becoming a novelist she enjoyed a prolific career on Fleet Street as a columnist. Finding herself seated beside The Sunday Times Magazine's editor at a dinner party in 1969, she made him laugh so much with tales of her newlywed ineptitude that she was promptly hired. Her columns entertained readers almost as much as they irritated her rather stuffy male colleagues, who took a dim view of the comic blend of observational reportage and domestic confessional.
"I think they were quite cross I was there," she recalls not unhappily, sipping champagne in one of her several book-lined living rooms. "But I'd much rather cheer people up than be literary." Half a century later those colleagues' names have long been forgotten, whereas Cooper's columns are about to be reissued in a new book, Between the Covers. Reading them today, what's remarkable is their timelessness.
She writes about disastrous dinner parties, the politics of Christmas cards, friendship etiquette, her husband's first wife. She visits Crufts, Sotheby's, Kenya and a hen party, sending everyone up with waspish amusement — "middle-class ladies with cropped hair, red veins, gin-soaked voices, cigarettes slotted in their lower lips and massive trousered bottoms".
Cooper pretty much invented the columnist persona of the sharp-eyed ditz; the book could practically be called Bridget Jones's Mother's Diary. The only puzzling theme in it is her endless preoccupation with her weight. "Oh yes, endless!" she agrees. Why on earth did she worry so much? "Because I've never had any self-control." If she hadn't spent so much time obsessing about dieting, she says, "I'd be 100 stone". A sudden thought occurs to her. "You know, I rather like Covid because I think everyone's put on a bit of weight [under lockdown], and when nice men come to your house they can't hug you and feel it." She gestures to her midriff. "There's got to be something good."
She has barely left the house for six months, shielding since lockdown began ("If I was 21 today, though, I think I'd be breaking the rules. Not being able to kiss a lovely young man, it'd be awful"), so she has been working on her next novel about footballers, who she adores. She is riveted by Rio Ferdinand, enthralled by footballers' wives, and when I ask if the goalposts on the lawn are for her grandchildren she looks amazed. "No! They're for grown-up football. Tony Adams comes here. He's lovely."
I suspect it helps that footballers are so handsome, for physical beauty counts for everything with Cooper, so much so that it seems to function as her moral compass. I think she could forgive anyone anything if they were sexy enough, and nothing pleases her more than discussing celebrity crushes. When I nominate the Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp she wrinkles her nose and says she wishes he would dress more smartly.
She has an air of mischievous intimacy that would make you tell her anything. And judging by the unprintably scandalous rumours she comes out with, people do. "Oh, I love gossip! Now," she leans in conspiratorially, "what do you think about Boris?" She's rather keen on Keir Starmer — chiefly, I'd guess, because she thinks he's good-looking.
The daughter of a brigadier, she speaks in the cut-glass accent of her great friend Camilla Parker Bowles, but swears like a trooper. "Do you know, my absolute favourite word, which I use again and again, is 'wanker'. Wonderful word," she says, savouring it like a fine wine. "I mean there's so much wanking about now, isn't there?"
She will cheerfully deploy the c-word, too — but to infer feminist liberation from this would be misleading. Despite having been a working mother and main breadwinner, and earned a fortune from writing about highly liberated sex lives, she has always been defiantly old-fashioned when it comes to gender politics. Cooper believes "men should be full of confidence and strong, and women happy", and disapproves of feminism.
"Do you know why I left The Sunday Times? I wrote a piece in 1982 about the feminist movement being so strong that men would be gone with the wind. And there was a deathly hush. But the editor rang me up and asked what I was writing the next week, and I said what about my women piece?" He told her some senior executives had taken offence at the suggestion that men were being emasculated. "Yes, they were stamping about. And I thought, f*** it. So I rang up the editor and said I'm leaving."
Cooper has made a lifelong Olympic sport out of political incorrectness. "I was really frightened by you coming today," she says, disingenuously, "because I thought I must keep my trap shut. You can't say anything about anybody now." Her publishers, she laments, are "going through my books at the moment. I said a girl was fat, they said could you say large, please?" She casts a look of baffled despair. "And the whole racism business," by which she means anti-racism, "has suddenly got rather out of hand."
The only real crimes in Cooper's book are egotism and being a bore. In my experience the worst offenders in these departments are seldom women, but she is having none of it. "Women never stop grumbling now, do they? So many women in the papers keep going on about the menopause. I just think, shut up!" She gets depressed by all the TV adverts for erectile dysfunction medication — "I think it's sad" — and feels desperately sorry for men since #MeToo. "A lot of men are frightened of jumping on someone in case they're accused of something."
Why, if men are too scared even to make a pass, are so many women still being assaulted, harassed and raped? "I don't understand," she murmurs vaguely. "It's awful." I get the impression her anti-feminist polemic isn't always compatible with her compassion; when they collide, she tends to change the subject elegantly.
Then again, she can be gloriously unkind. She hasn't a bad word to say about a single man; even President Trump gets nothing worse than "Well, he's quite mad, isn't he!" — despite having "humiliated" her at a party in Palm Beach years ago. "I was quite pretty in those days, but he obviously didn't think I was worth another glance. He looked me up and down and walked off," she laughs. Women, however, come in for all kinds of jibes. So-and-so is "silly", that one's a "bit up herself", another is "rather grand", another "ghastly" and so on. The cattiness is at odds with the effusive flattery that seems to come to her as naturally as breathing.
"Well, I always like to make people feel happy," she says. But she loves bitching behind people's backs? "Oh yes, absolutely," she replies cheerfully. Cruelty to animals is the only thing that genuinely upsets her, and I don't think she's entirely joking when she adds: "I like animals better than people."
Her only real worry, other than her weight, has always been money. She must have pots of it, so I'm not surprised her children, Felix and Emily — both adopted in infancy, due to her infertility — are apparently keen for her to sign it over now, to avoid inheritance tax, "because you have to give it seven years before you die, don't you?" But Cooper is still haunted by the memory of her bank manager telling her she had to sell the house, just before Riders came out, "because your grubby little book won't get you out of trouble".
The book made her rich for the rest of her life. "So I know it sounds silly, but I worry about it running out." Does she ever worry about anything else? "I worry," she mutters, with perfect comic timing, "about having to stay alive for the next seven years."
She doesn't believe in God, and supports voluntary euthanasia, so I wonder if her unsentimental pragmatism towards death extends to having planned her own funeral. "No, no, no. Who would do that?" I know people who've written their own eulogy. She looks horrified. "Well that is wanking, isn't it? So many people are so up themselves, aren't they?"
Seven years ago she had to organise the funeral of her husband, Leo, who had Parkinson's. His junior marital status, as the publisher of obscure military history books, was always at odds with the masculine dominance Cooper prescribed for romantic success, and she thinks he "probably" minded more than he let on. "For a man to be married to a woman who is very publicly successful must be very difficult."
In 1990 she was devastated to discover he had been conducting a six-year affair with a gallingly beautiful woman, and for a while Cooper's world fell apart, but their marriage survived. After he died, she told a mutual acquaintance of his former mistress: "Give her my love. I hope she's not too sad." When a card arrived bearing the words "Dear Jilly, thank you", Cooper was both relieved and faintly embarrassed to find it gave her "that awful word: closure".
It clearly did, for she adds unexpectedly kindly: "To fall in love with somebody who then stays with his wife must be very irritating, mustn't it?"
She has never cried about Leo's death. "I haven't cried for ages about anything. I don't cry any more." She says she isn't lonely. In addition to her assistant, Amanda, she has two "darling" carers who visit every evening to cook and care and keep her company. Lately she has been watching Succession with them. Of course she adores all the monstrous male characters but can't stand the daughter, Shiv. "Such a bitch, isn't she? Her poor husband!"
There has been no new love interest since Leo, and she says she wouldn't want it. "I can't think of anybody wanting to go to bed with one any more, do you know what I mean?" She is, however, appalled to hear I am single, and tells me all about her Cossack plan. "My ambition would be to go to Russia and buy 55 Cossacks. They would be Cossacks who'd been to university — and they would be glamorous and extremely intelligent, and between the age of 50 and 45. I'd bring them back in a suitcase sort of thing, and I'd keep them here and I'd give them to all my girlfriends as birthday presents. I have so many gorgeous girlfriends who are single, because somehow the men are just either going gay or their morale's so bad they're going for 20-year-olds."
By now we've had Bollinger and paella and sloe gin fruit salad, and sitting in her garden I feel bold enough to risk an impertinent question. Her writing back in the 1970s made references to all the wife-swapping and shenanigans in her Chelsea circles. Whenever she has been asked if she and Leo ever jumped into bed with anyone else together, her denial always sounded unconvincing. So, did they?
For once, Cooper looks suddenly serious and prim. "I don't want to talk about it." Because of her children? "Yes," she nods cautiously. "My children wouldn't like it. I mean, there was an awful lot going on then." Her gaze drifts away and she murmurs: "The Sixties — they were quite different. And I just don't think I ought to talk about it." A twinkle returns to her eye when she points up towards a bedroom window and adds: "Also, my diaries are upstairs. Pages and pages and pages."
Hold on — Jilly Cooper has kept a diary? "Yes, I suppose since the early Seventies," she says vaguely. "Something like that. But I say to my children, you know darlings, I don't want to embarrass you, and so I think they ought to be burnt." I hope they don't agree. "No, they think they might make them a few bob! But I think they probably ought to be burnt. They are pretty," her voice drops, "well, pretty racy."
Written by: Decca Aitkenhead
© The Times of London