High-minded detractors dismiss her out of hand. Admirers consider her a magician, weaving deliciously trashy content into compelling tales peopled by unforgettable characters.

Jilly Cooper is best known for her racy novels, including Riders (1985), Rivals (1988) and Polo (1991), which have sold 11 million copies in the UK alone.

Sex, power, horses and money are her key ingredients. With wit, empathy and exquisite social commentary, she seduces readers into the glamorous worlds she depicts. It speaks volumes that, in 2018, she was awarded a CBE for services to literature.

But before she was Jilly Cooper, queen of the bonkbuster, she was a hapless journalist with a column in The Sunday Times Magazine about life as a young wife and mother in London in the sixties and seventies.

Sunday Times readers did tend to like or loathe what I wrote, with my first column upsetting them so much, Harold Evans [the Editor] was able to fill my next week’s column with their furious letters,’ she says.

Her latest publication, Between the Covers, is a small selection of those columns. With a voice that is notably but charmingly dated – political correctness hadn’t yet been invented – Cooper describes how she navigated work, children, marriage and a relentless social life from her happy home in Putney.

Mostly, it is a pleasure to read of her simple, soulful life. It is easy to relate to the eminently likeable author. Warmth and joie de vivre wrap themselves around stories of her awful cooking, chaotic housekeeping, frequent hangovers and poor management of money.

Between The Covers - The World According To Jilly Cooper

The downside of the collection is Cooper’s irrepressible love of a bad pun. In her novels, these clunky jokes are bearable because they mostly come from the mouths of characters you don’t like. Plus, they are diluted by the vitality of the rest of her writing. In the flimsiness of this book, they jar.

On the topic, for instance, of how moving she finds poetry, Cooper writes: ‘I realise it is a passion that lays me open to ridicule. I suppose that is why it is called po-wet-try.’

Or how about: ‘I have pipe dreams (I wonder if cardinals have Pope dreams) about being left a fortune or writing a bestseller.’

During a visit to Crufts, she found the majority of dog owners intensely irritating and writes: ‘I left suffering from a fit of Peke.’

Forgive the terrible gags and you will find Between the Covers an endearing read. Amid the turbulence of 2020, it cannot help but make you feel nostalgic for a world in which you bought your food from a grocer who knew your name, travelled to work on a bus without a mask and bribed your children with sweets caring not at all about their sugar content.

Having reached the grand old age of 83, Cooper lives in Gloucestershire with her rescue racing greyhound, Bluebell. She clearly struggles to give up the habit of a lifetime. Rumour has had it for years that she is working on another novel. The book is said to be called Tackle and to focus on the lives and wives of mega-rich footballers.

If the rumour turns out to be false – and you are fan, not a high-minded detractor –Between the Covers is a perfectly good consolation prize.

By Becky Ladenburg
November 2020


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