Wednesday 23 August 2017

The one and irresistibly Jilly ...

The majority of characters in Jilly Cooper's bonkbusters are laid bare, literally, but the celebrated author manages to hide behind a cloak of disarming charm when it comes to her own life and choice of content, even as she publicises a new novel, finds Emily Hourican

Emily Hourican

Interviewing Jilly Cooper is a matter of squeezing questions in between her own many attempts to turn the tables. Famously charming to journalists, she does an excellent impression of really wanting to know all the details of their lives, and makes so many flattering remarks that, really, it's then very hard to wrest the conversation back to things such as political correctness and social responsibility.

Five minutes after we meet, to talk about her latest book Jump!, she presents me with a pink, sparkly watch she has found in St Stephen's Green while having her photo taken. When she doesn't want to talk about something -- husband Leo's adultery, the children's adoption, her own recent stroke -- rather than being churlish, she says: "I don't want to go on about it." Quite as if she's afraid of being boring and self-centred.

Before we've even sat down (we're hovering in the lobby of the Shelbourne, in case Bill Clinton pops back from Leinster House), and having seen me greet someone across the room, she is immediately interested. "Who's that lovely man?" He's my lunch date, I reply. "Really? Isn't he divine? What does he do?"

Later, upstairs in her suite, she tells me I'm beautiful and says: "You must get jumped on a lot, don't you?" When I say no, sadly never these days, she is straight in with: "I bet you did before you had babies. You're stunning." In between, she asks "have you got a lovely man?", demands to know why I haven't written a novel, and promises to send me a flat notebook, to start keeping a diary.

Now, I know this is sort of cruise control for Jilly -- dazzling journalists, offering to send them notebooks -- but it is nonetheless irresistible. Her measure of sympathetic interest in just about everyone seems inexhaustible. Even Tiger Woods and Wayne Rooney get dollops of it: "I hope Tiger's going to do alright this week, don't you? He looks so sad, doesn't he?" Elizabeth Hurley, a neighbour and friend, is "darling Liz", while Kate Middleton, who Jilly recently saw at Cheltenham, is "just faint-making. So pretty."

Frankly, the bad guys in Jilly World aren't those you would necessarily suspect. They're charity fundraisers, health-food fanatics, fitness freaks, often Americans. The good guys are louche and often unfaithful; they can be feckless and irresponsible, but are invariably kind. The Jilly code is to be generous with food and booze, be a good listener, kind to animals and never complain. And so the Irish score highly with her. There is a strong tradition of attractive, hard-drinking Irish men in her books, from Matt in Imogen, through to Declan in Rivals and now Rogue Rogers in Jump!.

"I love the Irish; I'm passionate about the Irish," she says. "I'm about an eighth Irish and I'm very proud of that eighth. I don't want to sound flannelly, but they are nice people, aren't they? Everyone is charming and friendly, and you can chat -- and you don't get that in England. Irish charm, that everyone in England regards as a confidence trick, is completely genuine good nature, merriness and desire to have a party. The plainest of people are attractive here ... " And then she breaks off, to say in worried tones: "I hope you're going to be all right. Is the recession awful?" Just as if she truly cares.

Jilly is an improbable 73-year-old grandmother now, but is still instantly recognisable: slim, with a thick halo of silvery hair and the trademark gap teeth. Jump! is her first book in four years, a whopping 739 pages, and, though it features many old favourites, such as Rupert Campbell-Black, it's really the story of Etta, a middle-aged widow whose horrible grown-up children force her to sell her home and relocate to a tiny Cotswold village, where she rescues a traumatised and starved racehorse.

The horse, naturally, turns out to have star pedigree, and begins to win big races for the local syndicate set up to own her. There is plenty of carousing, shagging, infidelity, double-dealing and intrigue along the way, before everything comes right. She delivered it to her publishers on April Fool's Day, and then, despite the fact that this is her 16th novel, waited on tenterhooks for their response.

"I was absolutely sick," she says. "I was so worried. I offered to pay back the advance if they didn't like it."

So does she ever get into trouble for her lack of politically correct attitudes? After all, we're a far more strait-laced bunch these days than back in the Sixties when she started writing.

"I'm amazed how much they have to drink," she says frankly of the characters in Jump!. "Everyone drinks too much. It's quite shocking. No, it's awful." But the drinking pales a little when compared with what amounts to a rape scene involving a teenage girl.

"I should have thought about it really," Jilly agrees. "Basically, there's a gang-bang and she gets horribly drawn into that. I thought I'd said enough because my hero rescues her, but I should have done more ... " She means she should have punished the guilty characters more stringently. (She also got into trouble with some UK reviewers for introducing a Muslim character, Rafiq, because it seems so token among the mono-ethnicity of the rest of the book. "But I love Rafiq," is Jilly's defence.)

This isn't the only time coercive sex has cropped up in Jilly Cooper novels, there have been a fair few borderline -- even slightly across-the-border scenes -- in previous books. Its the type of thing that passed more muster back in the Sixties and Seventies, before feminism wrote an admirably strict agenda on the idea of date rape. For Jilly's heroes, their behaviour is a kind of fantasy logical extension of the generally macho carry-on.

And more generally, men are men in Jilly World, demanding, controlling and tough. "Well, Leo's quite overly directive," she says when I ask about her attitude to men. "He's macho, he's Aries, he's a darling, but he is quite bossy. And my father was very bossy, so I'm obviously attracted to bossy men, though it irritates me at the time. I don't mind wimps for other people, but ... I'm allergic to beards, which is rather awful. I like men to have grace under pressure, to be attractive and strong, like my father was. He was very, very brave. He went to Dunkirk and he was very stoical when he was ill. I love stoicism; it's very attractive."

And then she counters this with an almost complete volte-face: "Men never stop saying they're tired, do they? Women never do grumble about that and do ever so much more." It's very Jilly. She clearly adores men and makes no secret of the fact, but she's no traitor to her sex.

With the boundless charm come huge dollops of self-deprecation -- Joanna Trollope once pointed out that Jilly does her damnedest to prevent the world from seeing how clever and cultured she is -- so when I tell Jilly I think she's very hard-working (16 works of fiction and 27 of non-fiction is an impressive tally), she responds: "I'm very hard-working because I'm very stupid; I'm very slow." she says adding, disarmingly. "When you're old, you don't remember what you wrote in the last chapter, so you always have to re-read everything."

Memory-loss isn't the only challenge she has faced in producing Jump!. Leo was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease eight years ago, and the challenge of looking after him is obviously considerable, though Jilly will never say so. "Leo wasn't well. It has been a tough four years, with a lot of sleep deprivation," is as far as she will go, because of never moaning and she much prefers the more generalised, sympathetic response: "My darling Leo, it's a bleak thing for him because it's a horrible disease. He's very funny, a very nice man. But he's had a horrid time. I hate seeing it."

Jilly had a slight stroke recently, and her children Felix and Emily have asked her to make the next book shorter. The children, now grown up and married themselves, were adopted by Jilly and Leo after they discovered they couldn't have children, when Felix was six weeks old and Emily five days. And Jilly reserves her most sympathetic response for the two women who gave up these tiny babies.

"Both the children had mothers who adored them, and they only gave them up because they had men they loved who didn't want to marry them or it wouldn't have worked out, so we had the privilege of adopting them." Did she meet the mothers? "No, I just knew their names. They were obviously two lovely girls. One wants to write a little thank-you letter every day of the week ... "

In 2004, Jilly was awarded an OBE for Services to Literature ("so touching getting the certificate saying 'trusty and well-beloved subject'. I wrote back to the man who sent it to me, saying 'I sound like a Labrador ... '"), though lots of begrudging types sniggered publicly over the "literature" bit. What they overlook however -- and can even be forgiven for over-looking, because Jilly does encourage people to dismiss her in a way -- is that, although she writes bonkbusters, Jilly is hugely smart and erudite.

Her books bristle with quotations, everyone from Lewis Carroll to Milton. In fact, following the early, short novels -- Bella, Harriet, Emily, Octavia, Imogen, Lisa & Co -- she could have veered off in a quite different direction, even challenging Nancy Mitford as queen of social satire, concentrating on shorter, more mordant books, rather than the slightly bloated epics that followed.

When I put this to her, instead of being offended, she responds: "Nancy is my icon, she's brilliant." Then: "In an ideal world, one would do everything. I'd love to write an historic novel, but it would be awful. The nearest thing I got to serious was a book called Animals in War. And Class was fairly serious, so I had a go. But at the moment, I seem to be hooked into these ones ... "

She's already planning the next, in which Rupert Campbell-Black turns 60: "I love the idea of him having a 60th birthday. He'll be so cross."

Despite the bucolic idyll of Jilly's life -- the big house in Gloucestershire, a small battalion of staff to help with her writing life and Leo -- and the seeming ease with which she made a career for herself (she met the editor of The Sunday Times at a dinner party in the Sixties, and he was so taken with her tales of life as a young wife he instantly offered her a column), the drama of her books isn't always vicarious.

Ten years ago, she was involved in the Ladbroke Grove train crash, in which 31 people died, and had to crawl through a derailed carriage to get out. "We stormed Sainsbury's, trying to get a drink at 8.30 in the morning, but they would only give us coffee," she says. "Then I suddenly realised I'd left some chapters inside the train, so I rushed back, and a man said: 'Terribly sorry, we're digging out bodies. They are a very low priority, your chapters.'" Then she laughs: "Perhaps he was a Jeffrey Archer fan."

Another mine that exploded in her life was the revelation of Leo's long-term mistress, many years ago, about which Jilly behaved with perfect dignity. "Aside from loving him," she explained at the time, "I like him so much."

So, given that most of us, when we're having a bad day, curl up in bed with a Jilly Cooper novel and a bar of chocolate, what does Jilly herself do? "I take Feather (her rescued Irish greyhound) out and walk down the valley. It's so beautiful, it reminds me of that Wordsworth quote: 'Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.' And then, in the evening, I have a large drink." Wordsworth, dogs, and lots of booze. How very Jilly.

Jump!, published by Bantam Press at €25.05, is out now

Sunday Independent

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