JILLY COOPER – Brough Scott

One sultry summer afternoon at Sandown in the late seventies Jilly Cooper came before the ITV cameras in all her provocative, and at that stage bra-less, glory. When asked what a nice girl like her was doing in a place like this, she looked straight into the lens and said “but darling it’s so sexy. All that sweat and hot leather.”
Back then she was a magnificent tease. Her weekly column in the Sunday Times with its breathlessly funny, punning and, yes, sexy take on the challenges and absurdities of upper middle class life in London, had given her a national following. A piece on gardening would talk of “the Kama Sutra of the bedding plants” and her first book “How To Stay Married” had stressed the importance of keeping the bathroom door open. She was a burst of sunshine and showers on a landscape that was dull and grey. You thought she would soon blow through. She hasn’t. She has become one of the best loved and most bought authors in the country and is now launching JUMP!, her 43rd and latest book, all 728 pages of it, and this time fully focussed on racing’s land of “sweat and hot leather.”
It’s the most extraordinary rambunctious, passionate, hilarious, sensitive but exciting volume that racing has ever seen. In short it’s “Jilly Cooper re-writes National Velvet” starring a diminutive one eyed rescue horse called Mrs Wilkinson, a dashing double barrelled girl jockey called Amber, a heroic former terror suspect called Rafiq, and a syndicate from a zany Cotswold village called Willowood  as well as a much put upon granny called Etta whom, much though she may deny it, has in her an awful lot of Jilly  and her now 73 year old self.
A lot of energy for a start – for that horse and those three characters are just a tiny part of a circus which runs to a cast of no less than 85 individuals and 26 separate animals all listed at the start of the book, complete with pen portraits and a brilliant and necessary map. What’s more this is the 8th of Jilly’s massive, million selling “Bonkbusters” which started out with “Riders” in 1986 and JUMP returns us to “Rutshire” and of course a role for Jilly’s greatest, although now ageing and rather distinguished Lothario, “Rupert Cambell Black.”
To say “Jilly is amazing” is to drop into the “oh my gosh” argot which the whole “Jolly Sooper” phenomenon has spawned. But if you have any doubt quite how “amazing” an effort she has put into this latest work you should pick up a document which runs to 4,200 words and name checks 269 individuals. These are Jilly’s acknowledgments to the assorted people who have helped her over the four years it has taken to get “Jump” from an idea to a hardback, and the spirit with which she has approached the task is in the very first paragraph.
“No horse staggering past the post in the Grand National” she writes, “can have been more relieved than I when I finished JUMP! Yet I was overwhelmed with sadness that I would no longer have the excuse to devote myself solely to the heroic, thrilling, yet hugely friendly world of jump racing.” That’s the thing about Jilly, forget all the bonking and the raunchy bits – actually there’s not that much in JUMP although she is proud to have got in a gay sex scene between the vicar and the tree surgeon and there is a fairly extensive orgy when the syndicate stay overnight in Stratford – what she really wants to do is to put her arms around everyone.
She does it the moment you have descended the tarmacked cliff face that is the exit road to her house from the village of Bisley high on the Cotswold escarpment just to the west of Stroud. She, one of the world’s most famous authors, greets us as if it is we rather than she that are the royalty in the room – “not THE Edward Whitaker,” she says to the Racing Post’s trusty lensman, “oh how exciting. Your pictures are always so marvellous. I just don’t know how you do it. I am quite useless of course.”
This winning, rather giddy whirl of self-deprecation has always been a cloak-flourish of deception to conceal the brutal work load that lies beneath and which, for this book included the added burden of having to help her husband Leo in his fight with Parkinson’s Disease. To picture her close up, think of a quicker-talking, even funnier, much more “dogs and country” version of her friend Joanna Lumley for whom she once wrote a comedy series rejoicing in the name  of “It’s Awfully Bad For Your Eyes, Darling.”
For while she loves to dip in and fantasize about the glamorous world of mega millionaires and film stars, her own positioning is one of devotion to her family, friends and animals very much in song with JUMP’s sweet but embattled heroine, albeit without Etta’s utterly poisonous children and tyrannical husband who even haunts her from the grave.  The old house, hidden amidst the trees at the bottom lip of the village and with a sculpture of her favourite dog and cat on the wall, has love and books and pictures in it. But modern it is not.
In one room Leo is watching the Pakistanis at cricket, in what claims to be the office one of Jilly’s squad of local PA’s is taking calls about  the book promoting schedule,  at the kitchen table her son and racecourse guide Felix discusses that afternoon’s runners with a friend, and when we finally sit down to talk the elegant shape of her rescue greyhound Feather immediately folds his long limbs possessively beside his mistress on the sofa whilst behind him a smaller and inanimate object looks on with an equal sense of ownership. It’s is a blue Olivetti Lettera 32, one of the first portable typewriters which were a revelation in their time. But that was circa1974.
“That’s Monica,” says Jilly in that brisk, breezy, voice which reminds you that like Joanna Lumley she was the daughter of a Brigadier. “She is over thirty years old and still going strong. I do all the books with her and then my gorgeous ladies put it all into the computer.” All those No1 best sellers; all those “Emma,”, “Harriet” and “Bella” romances; the timelessly hilarious treatise that is “Class”, the moving and very serious “Animals in War”  which inspires the Animals War Memorial in Park Lane; all of those written on that slim and still perky portable over there. Look across and you swear you see a typewriter smirk.
In view of racing’s famously revolving relationships both human and equine it seems a wonder that Jilly hasn’t centred a book on us before. Especially when it emerges that as a pony mad teenager from Ilkley in Yorkshire she galloped racehorses on Salisbury Plain in a cure for homesickness recommended by the visionary Miss Pointon at Godolphin School whose other writing alumni include Dorothy L Sayers, Antonia Fraser and Minette Walters.
“Miss Pointon was marvellous,” says Jilly, the words gathering pace as the story grows. “She said, ‘I know why you are so miserable, you are missing your pony.’ So off we went in the evenings. I can’t remember what the trainer’s name was but we were on some sort of gallop and I remember being absolutely terrified but getting this terrific sensation of speed, of just how fast a racehorse goes.”
Any chances of Jilly actually making it on to the track were cut short soon after, not through a racehorse but by a pony called Geraldine belonging to a friend who could not make it jump. “I said ‘let me show you,’” Jilly remembers, “but Gerealdine stopped and I was thrown against a post and dislocated my arm. I went to the local hospital and they could not put it back properly and it was partly paralysed for two years. But it was the first time that I had morphine, which was marvellous, and I could not go back to school until half term which made me wonderfully popular.  When it got better I wanted to ride again but I got a crystal forehead of sweat every time I got close to it. And I still adore horses, just adore them.”
One of Jilly’s talents is to seek out and befriend key people in her book’s chosen parish and so it was that she met up with Richard Philliips at, in his memory, The Horse and Groom at Oddington, in her’s the Pheasant near Lambourn. “She had the idea of doing a book about racing,” Richard remembered this week, “we had a bottle of wine and she got out a notebook and an old red Bic biro without a top and kept scribbling notes which, to me, were absolutely indecipherable. She was very keen to try and get the terms right. She loves words, loves the idea of saying about a horse that ‘she travelled well’.  She’s fantastic. It’s amazing the trouble she took.”
Needless to say there is a moment in the book when Richard Phillips makes a guest appearance repeating  the  jolly gag about the first trainer who rings up the second trainer to hear the sad news that the second trainer’s wife has died. “Are you going to Towcester?” asks the first trainer. “Oh no,” comes the reply, “I am going to bury her.” Jilly hoots as she relates the story and then giggles again as she talks of her other founding father, the “insouciant” (her adjective) syndicate organizer Henry Ponsonby next to whom she sat at lunch and who, as it happened, “had just the horse for her.”
So began the short and bitter sweet saga of the Nicky Henderson trained Monty’s Salvo, second beaten a short head at Worcester one day, pulled up with life threatening injury on the same track a fortnight later. “Agony and ecstasy in just two runs,” says Jilly. “We were all so excited and hugging each other the first day and then next time we were all rushing across the course in floods of tears. But that’s what I loved about the syndicates. Everyone was so involved. Everybody cared so much about the horse. I just loved it, loved going to Nicky’s where everyone was so sweet to me, the stable lads and everyone. ”
In search of recompense Jilly went three miles west to the hillside village of Slad immortalised by the poet Laurie Lee and now the base for Tom George’s successful jumping stable. Sophie George found a place for Jilly in the select and splendid ranks of the Thoroughbred Ladies syndicate and the handsome Irish point to pointer Island Flyer duly ran so deplorably over hurdles at Warwick that the best rider Tony McCoy could say was “very disappointing, I hope he will do better for you.”
Switched to fences Island Flyer was a revelation winning three races in three weeks in March 2008 and the words whizz as Jilly remembers that first victory at Newbury. “It was absolutely thrilling,” she says, “all these ladies running across to the unsaddling enclosure, everyone hugging and kissing. We were even taken up to the Royal Box and given the most heavenly glass of champagne.”
It was just the gunpowder that Jilly needed. With her imagination, even if not quite so fevered as before on the bonking front,  the possibilities offered by assorted syndicate members and their varying relationships with trainers, jockeys, stable lads and each other, were limitless. Add to that her real passion for treating animals as personalities in their own right and you have a heady mix unlike any other. She can even insert one of her trademark puns when one bossy character sticks up a misspelt notice on her village lawn – “do not let your dog defect here.”
There are times, particularly in the middle of the book when all the characters are talking to each other, when you need both the map and the list of characters, and probably a note book, to know what’s happening. But then that’s typical Jilly, the ideas and jokes and joy and sadness all coming out in a glorious, gushing stream.
“What I wanted to catch was the vitality and the humour of it all,” she says. “For instance I noticed with the syndicates that people would take trouble to stand next to someone they liked so that they could throw their arms round them if they won – mind you in the book I do that with the vicar and the tree surgeon. I love all the characters in racing. I adore Nigel (Twiston Davies) and I think Bob Buckler is wonderful. Then that man took his best horse away. Bob’s daughter rang me up and said ‘Daddy’s been betrayed.’”
The edge in that last remark and phrases like “bankers have always been pretty repulsive” remind you that while Jilly is famously soft hearted she is a long way from being a soft touch. Within all JUMP’s rollicking pages there is no disguising the passion and indeed contempt for those who treat both animals and people unkindly.
In her four years of embracing the game she  met up with everyone from broadcasters to blacksmiths, from owning giants to a goat rescue centre and, typically, she found herself something of a mother confessor to female stable staff. “I thought they were lovely,” she says, “so hard working and brave. I think they often have to cover up for their bosses a bit but they are so loyal.” As ever the possibility of heaviness gets diverted as other, spicier thoughts come tumbling through. “I am told the women are phenomenal in bed,” says Jilly, “because their legs muscles are so strong.  They dress up beautifully but you can exfoliate with their hands as their palms are like brillo pads.”
She laughs, loving the naughtiness of it. There is a lot of laughter with her but, for all her jollity and her deliberate ante-intellectualism, you should never doubt her love both of words and of how they can pin the deeper beauty of things. Looking at racing, she has supped full of both its heroics and its squabbliness, but beyond all that she has seen the simple wonder of the turf we tread. “Cobwebs,” she writes describing an autumn trip to the stables, “silver with raindrops, stretched from grass like fairies dartboards.”  Laurie Lee would be proud of that.
Before we part Jilly’s flypaper memory and writer’s eye pulls up one final vignette which, as with so many of them, makes its happy way into the book – see page 692. It’s of the cautionary sign at Aintree vainly beating out its message to “a swaying, limping forest of Liverpool ladies carrying their stilettos and queuing up to buy flip-flops while drunks slept peacefully in the gutter.”
The sign read – “John Smith thanks you for drinking responsibly.” She has a final giggle at the glorious absurdity of it all, and that gap-toothed smile gives a hug and a farewell kiss. There’s only one criterion that really works when it comes to judging people. It is whether you feel better or worse after spending time in their company. Jilly Cooper passes it every time.

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