Old age? It frees us to be flirtatious, fun, outrageous, insists novelist Jilly Cooper. She even has a word for the special sort of liberties the passing years confer on the elderly. Larks. Enjoyable silliness.
The queen of the bonkbuster, now 83, has, it seems, become even more gloriously unrestrained and politically incorrect as she frolics through her ninth decade, propelled by a conviction that — bereft of the compulsion to be sexual — you can fall in love with both men and women.
‘Oh, the Tesco man came yesterday and we had a lovely chat,’ she rhapsodises in her thrillingly rich contralto. ‘I’m so used to patting [my greyhound] Bluebell and telling her I love her, I find myself stroking delivery men and telling them how gorgeous they are, too.
Author Jilly Cooper (pictured) shared her un-PC confession that she feels sorry for men at the moment and believes ‘people are so horrible to men’
‘And the postman is very, very handsome and so sweet, but I worry terribly about his legs in those shorts. Isn’t he cold?
‘Everyone has a tattoo these days, don’t they?’ she continues. Her words gush out in a flood, a stream-of-consciousness effusion that rushes off in different directions.
‘The man who came to sort out the moss had a tattoo. Would I have one? No! I don’t like pain. But he said to me: “It’s worth the pain. They’re beautiful.”
‘Flirtation is wonderful, isn’t it? It’s neither sexual nor asexual. I have lots of friends, male and female. Friendship is incredibly important. I sent 30 — maybe 40 — Valentines this year to my very favourite men and women just saying: “Hello and I love you.” People get quite sulky if they don’t arrive on time.
‘I fell in love last week with Lady Glenconner. Oh she’s gorgeous! We talked for about two hours and I just thought “Ooh!” She’s hysterical. Her book is so interesting.’
Anne Glenconner, 88, was lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret and her extraordinary memoir was a sensation last year. Having interviewed them both — Jilly several times — and enjoyed their gossipy indiscretions, I can easily see why they would get on so famously.
The 83 year old admitted she still sends 40 Valentine’s Day cards out ever year and she still flirts with the postman when he comes to her door. Pictured: Jilly Cooper enjoying a drink
‘Lady Glenconner is lovely, lovely. She’s so tolerant and just fun — such a lark. And do you know her book has been translated into Russian? Imagine Putin reading it!’
Jilly is, of course, most celebrated for her fictional Rutshire Chronicles, which have sold in their millions. Set in a bucolic England — not unlike the lush Gloucestershire valley in which she lives — where everyone, it seems, is in a permanent state of arousal, they are liberally spiced with her trademark puns, as well as allusions to Shakespeare and the classics.
Jilly is best known for her funny and often racy novels. Pictured, Jilly while signing copies of her book Appassionata in 1996
They are also funny, racy and underpinned by a deeply held moral belief that caddishness and bad behaviour do not prevail in the end.
But before the prodigious success of the first of the series — Riders — published in 1985, she was a journalist writing columns for a Sunday paper. They charted her chaotic life as working wife to a publisher of military books, Leo, and mother of two.
A collection of them are being released as an anthology, Between The Covers, later this month. She acknowledges that times have changed since she was a subservient newlywed, racing round doing the washing, cleaning and cooking before readying herself for nights of unbridled sex. Why, there were even suggestions of orgies!
‘Oh it was the 1960s, we had fun,’ is all she says on the matter, although she has admitted keeping diaries since the early 1970s which she hopes her children will burn because they are ‘pretty racy’.
‘I say to my children, “You know darlings, I don’t want to embarrass you, and I think they ought to be burnt,” she added.
But she’s clearly not losing sleep over her colourful past. ‘What fascinates me is how obsessed I was with sex and boozing,’ she tells me merrily. ‘At 38 I was thinking about how much longer I’d be able to attract men. I was worrying about it at 28!’
The mother of two touches upon her marriage to Leo, who she adopted two children with – Felix, now 52, and Emily, 49. Pictured, Jilly and Leo together at their home in 1991
She quite deliberately resists getting too serious about issues of ageing, preferring a stiff upper lip and a stiff drink.
Anyway, she adds: ‘At my age one wants people to like you. If you’re fun and have a history, people are quite fascinated. And young men probably enjoy having a chat to a granny like me because they’re a bit frightened of younger women.’
Recently she went further, commenting that married men are having gay affairs because they’re ‘terrified’ of women.
She has never subscribed to the tenets of feminism and counters the #MeToo movement with her own no-nonsense prescription for repelling unwanted advances.
‘If a man wants to jump on you and you don’t want him to, just say “No” and walk out,’ she says crisply.
‘People are so horrible to men at the moment. They can’t put a foot right. They can’t wolf whistle or flirt. If you put your arm round someone 60 years ago, you’re suddenly sued for rape. It seems a shame.’
She is resolutely on the side of the beleaguered male: ‘Men have to get it up, but women can fake orgasms. The onus is on men [to perform in bed] and every other advert on TV these days is about erectile dysfunction.
Jilly said she fears embarrassing her children with her latest book and opened up about her colourful past and her obsession with ‘sex and boozing’ when she was younger. Pictured with Leo in 2001
‘Can you imagine taking too much Viagra? You’d be up forever like Salisbury Cathedral.’ (She hoots with laughter, and a pun occurs to her: ‘If someone has a leaky roof have they got tile dysfunction?’)
She is even indulgent of married actor Dominic West, 51, seen last week canoodling in Rome with co-star Lily James, 31, in a break from filming the Nancy Mitford novel The Pursuit Of Love. ‘Don’t you think he just got carried away?’ she asks. ‘His wife looks heavenly. You can’t really tell from the outside, but I’m sure they’ll be all right.’
Jilly’s own 52-year marriage to her adored Leo endured until his death in 2013 from Parkinson’s disease. Together they enjoyed and endured much — infidelity, infertility and the adoption of their two much-loved children Felix, now 52, and Emily, 49, after an ectopic pregnancy — but their shared commitment was inviolable.
The novelist also has controversial opinions about the #MeToo movement, claiming women should ‘just say “no” and walk away’
She wrote, in those confessional columns from the early years of her marriage, about her jealousy of Leo’s first wife — a siren in leather with black painted nails — and catalogued Leo’s undisguised yearning for sex with his ex.
I comment that Leo seemed emotionally cruel and she leaps to his defence: ‘He was never deliberately unkind. He was the love of my life; an absolutely marvellous husband.
‘Leo was terribly funny. He was once asked what I wore in bed and he said: “Dogs mostly. If you reach out for something furry, you get bitten.”’ She has a habit of deflecting painful memories with conversational sallies that end in torrents of giggles.
Perhaps it is another prerogative of old age to invest the past, whatever its vicissitudes, with a rosy glow. She swiftly quashes, too, the idea that she had an affair — hinted at in her articles — because she was insanely jealous of the former Mrs Cooper. ‘Oh it was just a terrific crush,’ she cries. ‘He was my boss; an incredibly glamorous man. It wasn’t an affair. But Leo was distraught about it and it made me realise how much he loved me.’
Age has freed her from the insecurities of her married years. She concedes now: ‘Leo’s first wife was absolutely gorgeous. Incredibly sexy,’ before adding, ‘She’s a friend of mine now. I love her.’
I wonder whether it is also a relief that the advancing years allow celibacy to go unchallenged, but she demurs.
Jilly and Leo were married for 52 years, which by the end saw Leo battling Parkinson’s disease until his death in 2013. Pictured: Leo and Jilly and their son Felix and his wife Edwina in 2001
‘I didn’t go off sex. It’s just been such a long time I’ve forgotten how to do it. And a lot of men seem to keep jumping on women whatever their age,’ she says. ‘They used to be called dirty old men but we’re not allowed to call them that now.
‘I have girlfriends, too, who have splendid sex lives into their 80s, so I don’t want to be categorical about this.’
I ask if she’s had a lover since Leo’s death. She bats away the question with good humour but without a denial. ‘That is impertinent!’ she cries.
Jilly’s home of almost 40 years is an ancient chantry, reached through winding country lanes bright with autumnal vegetation.
On the heavy oak front door a notice proclaims: ‘Dogs welcome. People tolerated.’ Dozens of pairs of gumboots are lined up as if she is expecting a battalion of inadequately-shod visitors for an impromptu country ramble.
Guests are welcomed effusively, although she confesses: ‘If, like me, you’re allergic to droppers-in the lockdown has been a blessing. It’s been a great relief to be left alone to write.’
Speaking to FEMAIL, Jilly revealed the jealousy she felt about her husband’s first wife, described as a ‘siren in leather with black painted nails’, and the fact Leo used to yearn for sex with his ex. Pictured, Jilly and Leo in 1990
Resolutely un-techy, she does so on an ancient typewriter called Monica. Her next novel is about the world of football and she has researched assiduously — of course she has! — by inviting lots of hunky young footballers from her local team, Forest Green Rovers, round for drinks and parties. (Pre-Covid, of course.)
‘One gorgeous footballer — Aarran Racine — sent me a book, Football For Dummies. The next day he rang up, distraught. He said: “I didn’t mean you were a dummy.” Young men are lovely to talk to!’ she adds, thrilled.
We segue into the vexed issue of what is appropriate in terms of dress when you’re an octogenarian national treasure hosting a party for footballers and WAGs. She is far less prescriptive than she was half a century ago when she fretted about the age at which it would be proper to cut her long hair.
Today her signature mane is still luxuriant but now snow white; her milky skin remarkably unlined and her penchant for leopard-print and sequins unabated.
‘Now I’m too wrinkled to show a cleavage,’ she laments, ‘but when I was younger my son Felix used to say: “Do up your dress, mum. Everyone will be able to see your tits.”
She reconsiders. ‘In certain lights I may show off a little bit of it. But short skirts? No! Besides, your ankles swell up when you get older.’ Her weight has been a constant preoccupation, although she’s slender as a willow wand and sits ramrod straight.
Jilly’s home of almost 40 years is an ancient chantry and on the heavy oak front door a notice proclaims: ‘Dogs welcome. People tolerated.’. Pictured: Jilly at her home in Gloucestershire with several dogs, date unknown
Every inch of space in her home is occupied with the memorabilia of a life richly lived. The walls are crammed with paintings and photos, and on the vast acreage of bookshelves, sandwiched between Homer’s Odyssey and a tome by Greek tragedian Aeschylus, is EL James’s Fifty Shades Of Grey.
And is it any good? ‘No!’ she cries, before back-tracking: ‘I don’t want to attack anyone. They’re wonderful books because they keep my publishers going and they deserve all the help they can get.
‘But last night I watched the film — with one of the lovely ladies who stays with me — and I didn’t think it was very erotic. I thought, “Poor girl! She must be sore from all that whacking.”’
These days, aside from her ‘wonderfully kind’ PA, Amanda, Jilly has two women companions who stay overnight with her. ‘I’m so lucky!’ she says. ‘Felix lives a cricket ball’s throw away and Emily is 20 miles away.’ She has grandchildren, too, and is magnificently vague about their ages. ‘Oh, they’re quite old now,’ she breezes. ‘Acer is — wait a minute — nine. Or is he 12? I’m bad at sums. Lysander is 14. Jago 1….’ Naturally they are ‘lovely and gorgeous and we giggle a lot.’
But she has always been a resolutely ‘hands-off’ granny, deploring the trend for harassed parents to deposit their children on ‘exhausted’ grandparents.
‘I’ve got a dear friend who says: “I wish my sons were gay. Can you imagine? I’d have lovely men bringing me flowers and chocolates. Instead all I get is a very bossy daughter-in-law dumping the grandchildren on me for weeks on end.”
‘A couple of days is lovely, but grannies get terribly tired,’ she says. ‘Emily and Felix never did it. They knew I’d lose them. It’s a good deterrent.’ She chuckles.
These days, aside from her ‘wonderfully kind’ PA, Amanda, Jilly has two women companions who stay overnight with her. Pictured, Leo and Killy at a polo match, date unknown
These days her adored Bluebell (84 in dog years) is her constant companion. She used to sleep next to her on her bed. ‘But she suddenly got very bossy and started taking up nine-tenths of it, so now she sleeps by me on the floor in her own bed,’ says Jilly.
A bit like those long-married couples, perhaps, who opt for separate beds when the depredations of old age — snoring, nocturnal loo visits, insomnia — become too disruptive of peaceful sleep.
‘Marriage, I’ve always believed, is kept alive by bed-springs creaking as much from helpless laughter as from sex,’ Jilly is fond of saying. And her capacity to have a ‘terrific laugh’ with friends remains unassailable and undiminished by the passing years.
Doubtless it will sustain her into a champagne-fuelled tenth decade filled with merriment, ribald jokes and risque reminiscences.
n Between The Covers by Jilly Cooper is published by Bantam, £14.99, on October 29. © Jilly Cooper 2020. To order a copy for £12.74 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £15. Offer price valid until November 5, 2020.