The fabulous Jilly Cooper sits down opposite me, resplendent in pinks and lilacs, and eyes my drink with the utmost suspicion.
‘What’s that?”she says, with a conspiratorial twinkle.
It’s an energy drink, I reply, earnestly. With strawberries and bananas and honey.
‘Nothing at all alcoholic?” she enquires, incredulously.
No, nothing alcoholic, I assure her. Won’t you have some?
“Good Gawd no. Absolutely not,” she looks quite repulsed at the notion. She’s having a glass of white wine which she pushes to one side. ‘Ahym aawffffff the drink, eeeectually. Part of the Cabbage Soup diet. Lawst a stone already, it’s maaaahvellous.” All of this said in a gorgeous Rutshire accent, with the air of a schoolgirl discussing pop gossip.
I appraise her trimness, appreciatively. And sympathise. That can’t be pleasant. It’s not half as disgusting as it sounds, she says. And surprisingly easy to do. She had worried that there would be this dreadful stench of boiled cabbage, like at boarding school, but actually it’s a vegetable soup, which you eat twice a day and then for dinner you eat normally. I’m half tempted to go down the road of comparing fad diets, but decide that we can find better things to talk about. She looks fabulous on the cabbage soup, I tell her and very fit. It must be working. But surely she doesn’t need to diet?
“Oh, I was getting decidedly porky,’ she says. ‘I must have weighed nearly ten stone.”
I myself weigh more than ten stone, but I decide not to mention it. And we push on, settling comfortably into armchairs, in her bedroom. She tells me I couldn’t possible be thirty -seven and I tell her that she couldn’t possibly be over sixty. Her complexion is what was once known as ‘Peaches and Cream”. She giggles. Jilly Cooper is a delightful giggler. Absolutely wicked, you can tell. Despite being an old age pensioner, now. There’s a knock at the door, and a maid appears with a sky blue linen suit, beautifully pressed. The girl hands over the garment and disappears. Jilly runs after her.
‘Come back! Where do you think you’re going?’ A tip must be found immediately, she says, rummaging in her handbag, because ironing like that must be appreciated.
‘Isn’t that the absolute best ironing you’ve ever seen?’ Jilly asks, holding it up for me to inspect. It most certainly comes close, I agree. But it’s not the best I’ve seen. We discuss hotel laundries, momentarily and then I insist on switching on my tape machine.
‘Oh, how boring, ‘ Jilly sighs. ‘I do wish we could just chat.’
We can just chat, I say. Only I’ve got to record something. Or I won’t have a story. To cheer her up I tell her about the Jilly Cooper Nude site that I found on the internet.
“Do I look good?”she asks. “That’s wonderful. It’s such a pity that I haven’t got the internet.”
I’ve read that she doesn’t use a computer, but sticks to a manual typewriter, instead.
‘It’s so wet of me, I know it’s wet of me. But I have this typewriter called Monica that I bought for the Tory Party Conference. And it’s typed all the books, since ‘Riders” and it never goes wrong.”
“Riders” was Jilly’s first novel, which was famously lost when she took it out to lunch and left it on a bus. If she’d had a laptop, there would have been a back-up copy and the course of history would have been altered. But who knows? Perhaps the original ‘Riders” wasn’t as thrilling as the one she eventually published and perhaps the timing was wrong. Whether it was fated or merely an accident, ‘Riders” was a number one bestseller when it did appear and so were all her other books. She has now sold more than eleven million books in the UK alone and if you just think of all the airports and train stations all over the world where Jilly Cooper novels change hands, you can imagine how many she must have sold in total. The formula never fails, because it’s as mercurial, eccentric and impossibly stylish as Jilly herself. Oh, and unlike almost all her competitors in the Romantic Fiction genre, Jilly’s hysterically funny. And raucously ribald. Even I am shocked by her sex scenes and of course I’m dying to ask if they are thoroughly well researched. But we’re still talking about typewriters.
‘I know I reeeeeeallllly should get a computer,” she’s saying.
If something’s working, don’t fix it, I say, truthfully.
‘I’ll tell you a good tip,” she leans forward conspiratorially.
What? I ask, expecting a sex tip for girls from one who knows.
‘Irish watercolours are going to be the next big thing, according to all the London dealers. Go and get some.”
I mention that my fathers, both of them, trade in paintings. She wants to know all about my paternal peculiarities, because in ‘Pandora”which is her latest novel, a character called Emerald, who is adopted, searches out her real parents, with unusual consequences. I explain that I met my real father when I was thirty, for the first time. She says I should write a novel. I say I’m trying. We discuss Charles Saatchi and whether or not he’s attractive. She’s been researching the art world extensively and Charles Saatchi is the best known and most important collector of Brit Art. Nigella Lawson, his girlfriend, is, she tells me, absolutely divine. A really, really, really nice person. Yentob, who interviewed Saatchi for the Channel Four documentary of which we are speaking, is sex on hairy legs.
‘You wouldn’t believe that, would you?’ she giggles. No, I concur. I wouldn’t. What makes a man sexy? Jilly’s heros are generally unrealistically handsome and much too good in bed to be believable.
“I’ve always had a thing about beauty, ever since I was a fat little fourteen year old. I think it helps the story along, if the characters are beautiful. But what makes a man sexy? I think that some men have a way with horses, and can make them relax. And some men have a way with women and can make them relax. But sexy men can be quite unpredictable, some of them. Leo, my husband is unpredictable. You are never quite sure what sort of mood he will be in. I think that’s quite interesting, don’t you?”
Leo, her husband must be something special. They met when she was eight, at a party and he impressed her by throwing a jelly at another kid. They got married in 1961 and have been married ever since. Her first non-fiction book was about how to stay married, and did rather well. I am tempted to read it, I say.
“What sort of men do you like?” she asks me
All sorts, I say.
“Irish men are sexy, because they have wonderful voices. Don’t you think? And they’re very funny. Gabriel Byrne is very attractive and Henry Mountcharles. And Desmond Guinness, all the Guinnesses. Everyone talks about Irish charm as if it was a sort of connivance, but actually it’s just a desire to please, don’t you think?”
I’m not sure. It’s possible, I say.
“Do you know who is a lovely man? Pierce Brosnan. A wonderful thing happened to me at a Polo match. I was sitting with my son Felix when suddenly this apparition walked by, touched my shoulder and said ‘Love your stuff,’ and drifted on. Can you imagine? Oh, I didn’t recover for weeks, months, even!”
I am most impressed with her girlish enthusiasm for the opposite sex, I say, maybe that’s what keeps her so young?
“Of course I’m ancient now,” she sighs, dreamily. “ So there’s no possibility of anything, but you get a flicker of joy, don’t you? I live in the country, so I only see badgers and foxes. One doesn’t see much talent. Is there any talent in Dublin?”
I mention some Brazilian Capoiera guys who I saw on Grafton Street. She nods, like a connoisseur of fine wines on hearing that I have sampled a 1982 Petrus.
“Ooohh. It’s lovely to fantasize about somebody amazing, isn’t it? Colin Firth is sweet. I met him at Polo, too.”
And what about Prince William? I enquire, thinking he would make great Jilly character, what with being so tall and so pretty.
“My daughter in law was talking to him at a party the other day and he asked her who the prat was on the go-kart. That was her husband, my son Felix! She said he was really sweet, and very beautiful. I’ve never forgotten Diana, I met her at a Welsh Guards party, before she married Charles. She was walking along and I was behind her. The guards were all lined up in their red tunics. And she reached a thoroughly nice looking bit of rough trade, slightly sweaty, but with burning eyes. And suddenly their eyes met. And I watched the blush travel all the way down her neck. She was only eighteen, and so voluptuous. And I thought God, Charles hasn’t got a hope in hell of holding onto her. But of course it wasn’t that way around, was it?”
The character of Rupert Campbell-Black, a dashing young chap who features in many of her novels was based, she says, on Andrew Parker Bowles. Who is gorgeous. Camilla is “sweet”, as is Charles.
“We went to a party at Highgrove, which was absolutely heavenly and he came straight up to us and said to Leo ‘I’m really sorry about the Parkinsons. How are you?” Leo has a difficult time at parties. He has a razor sharp brain, but it ceases to engage with the body. It’s terrifying, you always have to sit down. So Charles coming straight over was like a benediction, it was wonderful.”
Leo was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, which came as a shock to both of them.
“But it’s not the worst thing you can get. He’s eating papaya all day, which is supposed to be the miracle cure. He’s such a lovely man, it’s very sad.”
She has to dress him, now, she says, which is horrible for him. She would hate it if it happened to her.
She switches the conversation abruptly back to my parents.
“You are a love child? That’s why you’re so beautiful. Just like Emerald.”
She wants to know what I wore, to meet my father for the first time. I can’t remember. Did I find him sexually attractive? No.
“That happens a lot, you know. It’s such an interesting subject, isn’t it?”
She and Leo have two adopted children, Felix and Emily. She couldn’t have any of her own.
‘I’m fascinated by people meeting parents in later life. It shouldn’t be a disappointment, but it so often is. Neither of ours have met their parents.
I think it must be crucifixion for the adoptive parents. I always say I would be there for them if they wanted to. I know I would try very hard but one would find it very difficult. Our children have been so sweet. They’ve never once said “My real mother wouldn’t have done that”!”
The people who inhabit Jilly’s novels almost always are posh, and if they aren’t posh, they want to be. The subject of finding one’s real parents is most interesting from a class point of view, she says.
“When you meet your new parents, are they going to talk about dinner in the middle of the day? It’s a tricky one, isn’t it?”
I pretend that we don’t have a class system in Ireland, that we are above such things. She says that’s bullshit. Of course we have posh places and posh people. Just then, there’s a knock at the door and she’s being whisked off to dinner in a posh restaurant, as if to prove me wrong. The next morning, I listen in to her on Marion Finucane’s show and call to congratulate her on being so charming at that ungodly hour. She’s still having a wonderful time, she says graciously and I simply won’t guess who was at the restaurant last night. Who? I say. That gorgeous Pierce Brosnan, she says, triumphantly.