Horses, dogs, David Cameron, Boris Johnson and that notorious Riders cover – all this and more featured in Jilly Cooper’s hilarious, hour-long conversation with Rachel Johnson at the Cheltenham Literature Festival yesterday.
I can’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than listening to wonderful Jilly. She is 78 now, a slim figure in a white trouser suit, a glass of white wine in her hand and a spark of mischief in her eye. When Rachel Johnson introduced her as “my all-time heroine” and thanked her for “the fun, laughter, entertainment, galloping prose and giggles – all without saying one unkind word about anyone,” Jilly instantly quipped “Oh, I have.”
The talk began with a resumé of Jilly Cooper’s early days as a Sunday Times columnist, when she wrote about life as a newly-wed (her husband Leo Cooper died in 2013) and the exhaustion of trying to juggle work, household chores, cooking and make love all night.
“Every column took 15 drafts,” she said. “I was put on fortnightly columns because I was too slow for weekly ones. Leo would read a draft and say ‘this is bad.’ Then I used to go and type the same draft more tidily and he’d say ‘oh, much improved.’”
Later on she revealed that Leo never read her fiction, except for Prudence, which he read when he had flu. “He said it made him feel much worse,” chortled Jilly.
Jilly’s first forays into fiction – with Emily (my all-time favourite), Bella, Harriet, Prudence, Octavia and Imogen – originated as magazine stories and were called “permissive romances. Jilly remembered her daughter Emily, who was at boarding school at the time, telling her that her books had been banned at school. “I rang the head up and said ‘Mrs Farr, I hear my books have been banished. How am I going to pay the school fees?’”
She also recalled the moment in 1969 when she caught the bus home to Putney after a long lunch to find she’d lost the first draft of Riders. After that she wrote The Common Years, her diary of walking on Putney Common, and eventually returned to Riders, which was published in 1985 and soared to the top of the bestseller lists.
Riders, of course, hit the news earlier this year when the cover of the 30th anniversary edition was digitally altered by publisher Transworld. While the original cover was far more racy, with a man’s hand provocatively resting on a woman’s skin-tight, white jodhpurs, the cover of the new edition was changed to show the hand chastely placed on the woman’s hip.
Jilly Cooper revealed that the supermarkets “didn’t like” the original cover and thought it was politically incorrect but assured the packed audience that when the book was reprinted the hand would be restored to its original position. Peter Brookes, the celebrated Times cartoonist, marked the furore by producing a cartoon of David Cameron resting his hand resting on Angela Merkel’s bottom. Jilly recounted how she rang The Times to ask if she could buy the cartoon and was told “no. David Cameron has already bought it.” She added later on that she had met David Cameron and “he is terribly attractive.” Mind you, she thought the same about John Prescott. She likes Rachel Johnson’s brother Boris too. “He is funny and clever and jolly and occasionally stroppy,” said Jilly. “He is never stroppy,” declared Rachel Johnson.
Jilly Cooper fans will be thrilled to hear that she is hard at work on a new book about flat racing called Leading Sire. It will feature some of her best-known characters, including Rupert Campbell-Black (“is he faithful to Taggie?” asked Rachel Johnson. “Ish,” said Jilly), but less sex. “Is there lots of rumpy in the new one?” “No,” said Jilly. “I’m too old. I can’t do it any more. I’ve forgotten. I will try. There is lots of horse sex with the stallions.”
To the delight of the crowd the conversation moved on to the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, which Jilly and Rachel Johnson have both won in their time. They both egged each other on to read the excerpts that won them the title, Jilly wiping tears of laughter from her eyes as she read from The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous.
Rachel Johnson asked which of her books is her favourite, to which Jilly replied: “I love them all. They are all my children.”
She admitted that the sexual revolution of the 1960s had given away to a new prudery and that she’d been interested to meet a young man at a party who told her: “I look for a person, not a gender.”
“Political correctness has done for us all,” she added. “Everybody has got to have issues. As soon as you have a hero they have to go and see a therapist. I think everything is far less jolly.”
PS. My favourite story of the afternoon was Jilly’s anecdote about taking her beloved dog for a walk and forgetting to take a lead. Jilly’s solution? She goes behind a hedge, takes off her bra and uses that as a lead. Then she bumps into someone who says to her “that’s a nice lead you’ve got…”
PPS. My second favourite line of the afternoon was the way she stuck up for journalists. “I love journalists,” she insisted. “They are the guardians of morality.”
PPS. What is your favourite Jilly Cooper novel? Do let me know.