Jilly Cooper knew nothing of football in 2016
But she didn’t start writing the book – saucily titled Tackle! – until five years later.
“When I was a cub reporter on the Middlesex Independent, aged 18, I used to cover the local football club. One of my first headlines was: ‘Oh Brentford! How could you?’”
That apart, she knew little or nothing about the Beautiful Game.
So, she made it her business to befriend Forest Green Rovers, the club nearest to The Chantry, the 14th century house where she’s lived for 40 years near Bisley in Gloucestershire.
The club were promoted to League One in 2022 for the first time in their history, but were relegated after just one season. “They have the most beau-tiful grounds,” says Jilly, “surrounded by hills and lots of sheep. There’s a superstition that if the sheep are not on the hills, the team loses.”
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The past six years have transformed her into quite the football fan. “I’ve been to lots of their matches and I always watch Soccer Saturday on Sky Sports. I love Manchester City and Pep Guardiola is a brilliant manager.
“But I do feel for Erik ten Hag who’s having such a rotten time at United. It’s a brutal way to earn your living. As one character says in the book, the first thing a new manager has to decide when he arrives at a club is who he’s going to ask to his leaving party.”
Tackle!, out now, was typed on Jilly’s trusty typewriter, affectionately known as Monica, as have all her books from Riders onwards.
“But Monica is a bit like me these days,” she says. “She’s turned rather grey.”
She claims she writes about 15 drafts of every book. “I’m so slow. There’s no way these days I could be a football reporter, writing up a match in half an hour. The result is that the house is disappearing under mountains of discarded paper.”
Jilly Cooper still uses her typewriter, nicknamed Monica, to write
Once again, the central character in the book will be dashing swordsman, Rupert Campbell-Black, the all-conquering race-horse owner and handsomest man in the world.
“He doesn’t have the slightest interest in football,” says Jilly. “In fact, he regards most footballers as little more than ballerinas skipping around the pitch indulging in group sex – all that hugging and kissing – when anyone scores a goal.”
She has a pretty good idea of a book’s story arc. “But things do change on the dreaded journey. What I always insist on is a happy ending: good must triumph over evil.”
Rupert was pretty rotten in Riders. “He was but he’s got nicer over the years. When the club are promoted, for instance, he buys the players a race horse.”
Part of this softening, of course, is as a result of his wife, Taggie, being so ill.
“Yes, she developed breast cancer in my last book, Mount!” Did Jilly find that a challenge to write about? “A lot of my friends have had cancer and they helped me.”
Taggie and their daughter Bianca have fallen in love with football and persuade Rupert to buy local club, Searston Rovers. “Taggie is so kind, so sweet and dog-mad. When a greyhound comes to stay, she puts flowers in his basket.”
Two years ago, Jilly lost her adored greyhound, Bluebell. Once she has finished all the promotion connected to Tackle! she says she is determined to get another rescue – a greyhound or a whippet.
“When you first get one, you have to give it complete attention – so I’d want to be here all the time.”
It was 10 years ago, almost to the day, that Leo, Jilly’s husband of 52 years, succumbed to Parkinson’s.
She misses him dreadfully: “Well, he was so funny. I put all his jokes in my books. I still talk to him in my head. If anyone dies, I always think Leo will be up there to greet them with a large glass of red wine and Bluebell running round his legs.”
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She admits to carrying in her head the characters in whatever book she’s writing until it’s complete. “And that’s an awful lot with Tackle!, a cast list at the front taking up 12 pages. There’s far fewer in the other books because most of them are horses.”
She’s 86 now but this probably won’t be her last book. “I don’t want to say writing defines me but it’s certainly how I spend a lot of my time. What would I do without it?
“And, of course, unlike poor footballers, writers don’t have to retire.”
So, does she have another setting for what could come next? “Yes, I think I want to write about Sparta.
“It was full of macho men all of whom had been sent away aged seven, like prep school boys, to academies where they were turned into tough soldiers and only allowed home when they were 21.”
There’s a further twist. In Ancient Greece, says Jilly, adultery was frowned upon everywhere. With the exception of Sparta. So, I’ve come up with the idea of two glamorous academics off to Sparta with the express ambition of seeing who can commit the most adultery.”
In the meantime, “although I’m not really allowed to talk about it”, Disney has just filmed an eight-episode series of Rivals starring Aidan Turner, Danny Dyer, David Tennant and Katherine Parkinson. She hated the mini-series of Riders back in 1993. “But this is so brilliant.” It’s likely to air early in 2024.
From her list of almost 50 books – racy fiction, romance, children’s titles, anthologies – it is a work of non-fiction she picks as her favourite. “The Common Years,” she says, “about our life when we lived in Putney. It’s not an autobiography but it’s full of Leo, the children, dogs, family life. It’s rather sweet.”
“That’s rather a conceited thing to say but there’s something in it.”
She claims not to mind about getting older. And helping to keep her young are her five grandchildren.
Son Felix, 55, who works in property, and his wife, Edwina, have two daughters, Scarlett, 14, and Sienna, 12. Daughter Emily, 52, a make-up artist, and husband, Adam, have three sons: Jago, 19, Lysander, 17, who plays cricket for Gloucestershire, and Acer, 15.
Felix and family live at the bottom of the garden and Emily is no more than a 20-minute drive away.
Jilly loves The Chantry although, with two rather creaky hips, she says, she can do much less in the garden than she used to.
A brilliant idea suddenly strikes her. “What I need,” she announces, “is a gay resident gardener. He could look after the grounds by day – and not bother me at night.”
● Tackle! by Jilly Cooper (Transworld Publishers Ltd, £22).
Order a copy for £22 at express.bookshop.com or call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832. Free UK P&P on online orders over £25