Novelist Jilly Cooper’s home is an ancient former monastery in the honey-stoned Cotswolds, crammed with animal memorabilia.
Step across the flagstoned hall into the blue drawing room and you enter a museum of curiosities: the baby grand piano is freighted with family photos, the walls book-lined and every surface is busy with ornaments, acquired over four decades, reflecting Jilly’s love for all creatures great and small.
Ceramic greyhounds, elephant cushions, ornamental cats, a pig quintet, galloping horses, a brace of reindeer all jostle for space.
But what’s this? Incongruous in their midst is a framed England football shirt propped against the piano, signed by no less a luminary of the beautiful game than the manager of our national team himself.
‘To Jilly, Congratulations on finishing Tackle! Happy Birthday,’ proclaims Gareth Southgate chummily in an inscription on the shirt.
Jilly’s habitual literary milieu is the upper crust world of the horsy set. Her most famous novels, are set in a fictional county, not unlike her own Gloucestershire, where her aristocratic, jodhpur-wearing heroes romp through life in an almost permanent state of sexual arousal. But now, in her ninth decade, she has turned her gaze on a new world of WAGs
Step across the flagstoned hall into the blue drawing room and you enter a museum of curiosities reflecting Jilly’s love for all creatures great and small. Incongruous in their midst is a framed England football shirt signed by no less than Gareth Southgate
Jilly’s habitual literary milieu is the upper crust world of the horsy set. Her most famous novels, the Rutshire Chronicles (Riders, Rivals, Polo etc), which have sold in their millions, are set in a fictional county, not unlike her own Gloucestershire, where her aristocratic, jodhpur-wearing heroes romp through life in an almost permanent state of sexual arousal.
But now, in her ninth decade, she has turned her gaze on a new world of WAGs and multi-million pound transfer fees. Tackle! (subtitled If You Want To Score You’ve Got To Be A Player) is liberally spiced with her trademark puns. A weekly newspaper column on wives and girlfriends’ shenanigans is entitled The Wag With The Dodgiest Tale. Two gossipy WAGs are known as ‘the bitch invasion’.
It is funny, racy and underpinned by her moral belief that bad behaviour never prevails in the end.
Tackle! (subtitled If You Want To Score You’ve Got To Be A Player) is liberally spiced with her trademark puns
Her legendary fictional hero, improbably handsome racehorse owner Rupert Campbell-Black, is there at the centre of its pulsing heart as ever.
But this time Rupert decides to buy a languishing local football club so his daughter can return to Rutshire with her football star husband.
Hard to imagine, but in the interests of research, Jilly, 86, has become a late life football aficionado, immersing herself in the arcane language of assists, penalties, disputed calls and corners.
‘Every weekend during the football season I watch Soccer Saturday,’ she says. ‘Sweet men are always giving me football shirts. I have a Norwich one, a Man City one. I wear them in the summer.
‘I love Man City! I think Pep Guardiola, the manager, is wonderful. And I’m in love with (midfielder) Phil Foden. And Grealish is fun, isn’t he?
‘He’s one of those players who rushes up and hugs anyone who scores then smiles at the camera.
‘Another great friend is John Madejski [Reading FC’s former chairman]. He’s jolly attractive and has lovely glamorous lunch parties at Reading so you get to meet all sorts of celebrities.’
It was, however, the mighty Sir Alex Ferguson, former Manchester United manager, who inspired her to set her latest novel in the footballing world: ‘I sat next to him at a lunch. He’s so lovely. Very attractive. I told him a very naughty story and he roared with laughter. He thought it was hysterical.’
She has never regarded herself as a feminist and thinks it ‘terrifying for men now who put a hand on a girl’s thigh 20 years ago and it’s suddenly regurgitated and they’re accused of rape’. Pictured: Jilly Cooper in 1973
Her roll call of footballing greats continues — she met ‘lovely Steven Gerrard’ when she went to watch Liverpool with former Tory leader Lord (Michael) Howard, a lifelong supporter: ‘We sat in the stands. It was riveting. The fans took no notice of me at all.’
Talking of Tory leaders, I note that Rishi Sunak has also declared himself a devotee of Jilly’s books. ‘I was thrilled!’ she says. ‘He reeled off several titles. I was terribly excited and wrote to him, saying: ‘I hope we meet soon.’ He’s invited me to a party at Downing Street.’
Last time I met Jilly she was preparing to host a party of her own for players of her local club, Forest Green Rovers, and their wives and girlfriends, and pondering what she should wear.
It was tantalising to imagine her, resolutely upper-middle class and a brigadier’s daughter, gamely making her late-life foray into the bling and Lycra world of the WAG.
‘They all wear their skirts up to here.’ She demonstrates. ‘But I haven’t got the legs. Your ankles swell as you get older.’
I ask her if the footballing fraternity is as promiscuous as the horsy one. ‘Tackle! has less sex because I’ve forgotten how to do it,’ she laments.
‘And there is a limit to the number of ways one can do it. I think footballers are very rich slaves. They have fame, glory and masses and masses of money but the younger players live in hostels with CCTV and the manager bawls them out if they go out with Miss Stroud or Miss Someone Else the night before a big match, then play badly.’
There is, she believes, less overt masculinity now; less glamorising of virility. ‘Footballers look so poncy skipping around like ballerinas and having group sex every time someone scores a goal. Have you noticed how much men hug each other now?
‘It’s a ruthless game. They get sacked so quickly. Forest Green had the first ever female [elite team] football manager but she only lasted a fortnight. Interesting.’ She leaves the thought hanging.
She segues into one of her favourite subjects: the emasculation of men. One of her footballers is nicknamed Iron Man; not for his physical strength, but because he irons his domineering wife’s dresses.
‘Men aren’t allowed to be macho now. But stallions, rams and bulls are a different species from cows. They can’t stop being stallions.
‘We don’t want them to become whimpering drips. We should cherish them, shouldn’t we? And it should be reciprocal. They should cherish us.’
Jilly’s own 53-year marriage to her adored husband Leo, a publisher of military books, endured until his death in 2013 from Parkinson’s disease and during their five decades together they enjoyed and endured much — infidelity (on both sides) infertility and the adoption of their two much-loved children Felix, now 55, and Emily, 52, after an ectopic pregnancy —but their shared commitment to stick together was inviolable.
We’re chatting today in Leo’s office, which is lined with battalions of military books (his) and cluttered with the detritus of her research.
‘Crud’, she calls it, and vows half-heartedly to clear it up. She has decamped from her usual garden gazebo to write here now and her venerable typewriter Monica, which she has never abandoned, sits on the desk.
‘And my diaries are everywhere!’ she cries, casting a sweeping arm round the room and gesturing upstairs. ‘They’re full of awful things from my past. They’re quite unsuitable, some of them.’
‘Are they very raunchy?’ I ask.
‘Mmm. Good word. If you get to 86 you must have done a bit of raunchiness, mustn’t you? All my friends behaved badly, too. That’s all in them. And when I moved from Putney to Gloucestershire people behaved much, much worse. The upper classes never stop, do they? At it all the time.’
She once said she’d burn the diaries to spare her children’s blushes after she died. Now she takes a pragmatic view: ‘I think they might make quite a good story out of them. They can either decide to be rich and embarrassed or poor and feel safe.’ She chuckles.
‘What’s in them?’ I press.
‘Everything! All my life. I was married to Leo for 53 years and he was a bit naughty sometimes. We both were. It was a different age when we were married in 1961. People were worse-behaved then.’
Leo had an affair that became public in 1990 when his lover told the Press. Jilly, though utterly bereft, forgave him.
She invariably describes him as ‘adorable’ and this fondness persisted until his death: ‘He was the love of my life. A marvellous husband.’
‘People ask: ‘Is this your last book?’ No! I have to write another one. I like writing. It’s what I do.’
Infidelities happen even in the most successful marriages, she insists: ‘Being happily married does not stop you from falling in love with someone else.
‘Darling Leo was jolly attractive. So was she. To begin with you say: ‘No, no, no,’ and it’s always a shock. But you get over it.’
Jilly, too, was the family’s breadwinner; her books such dazzling commercial successes that Leo could not compete.
‘Elizabeth Jane Howard [the late novelist] once asked him how he enjoyed being Mr Jilly Cooper. It must have been difficult for him. He was so macho,’ she says, always empathetic.
Today, sweet as she is, she is keen to impress upon me that she was not guiltless either.
‘In the early days of our marriage I fell in love with a man I was working for in advertising,’ she says. ‘He was absolutely gorgeous and we had a little frolic.
‘Leo was upset. Terribly distraught. I’d been terribly jealous of his first wife who was very beautiful. But that convinced me that he was as bats about me as I was about him and it cheered me up.’
Ever loyal, she nursed him through the awful depredations of Parkinson’s. She was grief-stricken when he died but never weepy.
‘I’ve stopped crying. I’ve not cried for ages and I didn’t. Parkinson’s is such a foul disease and by the end I was saying: ‘Please God, take him’ because it’s not fair for anyone to suffer that much. And then you’d feel guilty because it was the wrong attitude.
‘I still talk to him a lot. I ask him how he is, how God is getting on.’
She laughs. ‘If any of our friends arrive in heaven I expect him to be there waiting with an enormous glass of red wine or a whisky. He was such a hospitable man.
‘I always love the thought, too, that in heaven all our dogs are running across a green lawn to welcome us and our favourite dog is leading the pack.’
She has had a succession of them: greyhounds Feather then Bluebell, who died nearly two years ago; before them Barbara, a mongrel, Fortnum, rescued en route to Battersea Dogs’ Home and setter Maidstone.
‘I’ll get another dog now I’ve finished Tackle!’ she promises herself. ‘A rescue greyhound, a whippet. Or something. I love greyhounds. They’re so lazy.’
I ask her if she would contemplate a lover as well as a dog. Has there been one since Leo died?
‘No,’ she says with finality. Then she considers for a moment and adds, ‘I’ve had the odd person pounce but not very hard. If someone makes a pass you can’t tell them to F-off, though can you?
‘I don’t think I’d go online,’ she continues. ‘I’m such a drip if I met someone and they were awful I’d feel really mean saying: ‘Sorry, I want to go home now.’
‘I’m such a soppy date I’d be stuck with them because I hate hurting people. But two women I know — both 89 —went online.
‘One told me she’s now having the best sex of her life and she realises how terrible her husband was in bed. I think I’d be embarrassed. I wouldn’t be attractive enough to do it now.’
I assure her, on the contrary, she looks glorious. With flawless skin and a whoosh of thick, dove-grey hair, she sits straight-backed and slender, her gossipy, confiding manner, irresistible; the cadences of her rich, plummy voice swooping from conspiratorial whisper to delighted laughter.
‘If someone really heavenly came along you couldn’t not, though, could you?’ she concedes. So you’d be open to offers? ‘Absolutely.’
She has never regarded herself as a feminist and thinks it ‘terrifying for men now who put a hand on a girl’s thigh 20 years ago and it’s suddenly regurgitated and they’re accused of rape’.
However, in her 20s, when working for London publisher Collins, she was jumped on by an author who had taken her to lunch.
‘He tore my clothes off and tried to seduce me in the back of a taxi. He was a grey, bearded goat and I was a junior member of the publicity department.
‘I was in floods of tears when I came back and I ran slap into the managing director.
‘He said, ‘Poor Jilly, poor Jilly’ and got me a cup of tea. When I told him it was one of our authors who had tried it on, I was ticked off and told to keep my trap shut. I was out of his office in two seconds because he was an important author who’d sold a lot of books.’
Any suggestion that she might resurrect the incident is briskly dismissed. She is far too resilient — and also too sensitive to the feelings of the late author’s family — to publicly name him 60-odd years after the event.
I wonder if she has any intention of retiring. ‘People ask: ‘Is this your last book?’ No! I have to write another one. I like writing. It’s what I do.’
In fact, the next plot is already forming in her mind and its theme is infidelity.
‘It’s about Sparta, the only place where it was OK to commit adultery. Everywhere else in Ancient Greece it was a terrible crime. Women were thrown out for it and never seen again. It wasn’t too good for men either.
‘I’m toying with the idea of a classical scholar, a rather glamorous man, going there with a male friend to have a competition: how many people can they commit adultery with?’
Meanwhile, her 1988 book Rivals is being adapted for a Disney+ TV series. ‘Other series have been made of my books and they’ve never been much of a success but this is absolutely sensational!’ she cries.
I tell her I heard there were two intimacy coaches on the set. ‘Hysterical!’ She giggles. Then she’s off again: ‘Imagine having one on your honeymoon night: ‘Put this in there.’ Awful!
‘Did you know there’s a new word for vagina now? Bonus hole! It’s terrible. Wokery,’ she chunters, referring to the fact that it is a term used by trans men.
‘But you have to keep up to date with these new words. We said ‘bonk’ in the 1980s which was a bit hearty. Rather nice. Now it’s ‘shag’.’
She has five grandchildren — her daughter’s sons Jago, 19, Lysander, 16, and Acer, 14, plus Felix’s daughters Sienna, 14, and Scarlett, 12 — to whom she has dedicated Tackle! ‘with huge love and pride’.
‘The tragedy is Leo would be so enchanted by his pretty granddaughters and absolutely blown away by Lysander who is playing cricket for Gloucestershire now,’ she says.
Does she fret that they will be embarrassed by their granny’s lively preoccupation with bedroom antics? ‘There’s nothing horrid. No smacking or ghastliness,’ she says. ‘I don’t think they’ll be shocked. Not at all.
‘In fact I think they’re quite pleased I’m writing about football.’
- TACKLE! by Jilly Cooper is published by Bantam on November 9