Jilly Cooper Interview
Jilly Cooper, the internationally renowned author whose best-selling novels include Riders and Polo, is currently working on her new book, Village Horse. Its theme is National Hunt racing, so we asked Jilly for her thoughts on both the horsey and social aspects of racing:
So, you’ve written about show jumping (in Riders) and Polo, and now racing…it’s a new theme for you?
I’ve written eight books they call the ‘Rutshire Chronicles’, and you can find touches of racing in all of them. For example Rupert, my great glamorous show jumping hero in Riders: when he picks his girlfriend up from the London Library she’s horrified that in this hallowed place she suddenly hears him having a bet on the races on the library telephone. He later goes into racing. And I had Lysander, the hero in The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous, who had a racehorse horse called Arthur. I spent a lot of wonderful time with Nigel Twiston-Davies doing research for that – but it wasn’t the main theme of the book. Then suddenly I thought I so enjoyed including racing in my writing, why didn’t I do something about National Hunt – and so I did!
Have you been a fan of racing for a long time?
Always, but on and off. I visited a lot of point to points as a child and I had ponies, I was absolutely pony mad. When I was terribly homesick at my boarding school my wonderful housemistress said “You’re missing your pony and that’s what’s making you unhappy” and so she arranged for me to ride racehorses on Salisbury Plain. It was wonderful but Christ I was frightened! I was only about thirteen and we used to ride at dusk and just hurtle across Salisbury Plain giving no quarter at all so they really went fast – but I loved it and never told her I was absolutely terrified. I can’t remember the name of the trainer but what I do remember is that there were some lovely horses and that everyone was terribly kind to me.
Do you think jockeys are brave then?
They have inconceivable courage and stoicism. The most poignant remark I’ve heard was when Tony McCoy broke his back and described the bliss of being given morphine. He said it was the first time he’d been out of pain for years. I thought that really summed up what they go through.
Apparently you once said racing is like A-level maths?
I’m absolutely killing myself writing about it! I hate bothering people, but the weights are terribly complicated, the handicaps are terribly complicated and whether the horse will be able to make the trip is terribly complicated… I mean, how does one become a Conditional jockey for instance? Do they just get on a horse and say ‘I am a Conditional’ for a race or do they have to get a licence?
So who is helping you out?
It’s all such a mess at the moment! Loads of people, but I still hate pestering them during the day. I had an excellent booklet from Tom George all about racing terms and another about rules from the Jockey Club and I’ve lost them both, so I must ring them up, I think Weatherbys would help don’t you?
Ah! This is what Eclipse Magazine aims to help with…
I’m completely illiterate about websites but I did see your magazine and I think it’s great fun. I don’t know about online magazines it’s the first one I’ve seen. But you are aiming to attract more racing fans and my book is aiming for that so we must do it together!
So do you still enjoy going racing?
I do, but I still feel absolutely screwed on the sartorial side so I hope I can get some tips from your website! It’s a bit late for Cheltenham but I might go to Ascot later in the year so maybe I can pick up some tips for that.
Are you interested in racegoer fashion then?
What I think is riveting is Aintree, I’ve never seen anything like it. It is ‘no gain without pain’ and those women are amazingly courageous – staggering on agonising stilettos and in about a quarter of a dress. They must be so cold. The funniest thing was a sign on the way out, saying “John Smith thanks you for drinking responsibly” then everybody lying absolutely legless in the gutter outside.
What would you recommend for an ideal racegoing outfit?
It is difficult from the sartorial side – I mean people don’t really wear hats for weddings or funerals now but they do wear them for the races. It’s lovely to have the chance to dress up and I think Kate Middleton looked lovely, she was the star at Cheltenham last year – God she looked pretty in that green suit with just a little hat! – but it’s so easy not to get it right, because of course it’s terribly cold and you’ve got to have an overcoat haven’t you?
I have a wonderful friend called Mariska, who has her own label and she sent me a most gorgeous dark brown jacket with a ruffled collar and cuffs, so that’s going to be my outfit for Cheltenham and a hat with lots of feathers to wear with it.
Is there a lot of pressure to wear the right thing?
I never forgot somebody saying that at Cheltenham you suddenly see all the trainers’ wives, who through all the year you might have mistaken for one of the stable lasses because you see them in jeans with no make-up, they’re mucking out horses, and suddenly this ‘vision’ emerges at Cheltenham.
Sophie George, who is married to Tom George who trains the horses that I have with the Thoroughbred Ladies Syndicate, is lovely anyway, she took me to Cheltenham last year and when she came out of the house I said “Sophie look at you!”. She was wearing this amazing navy blue coat dress trimmed with pale brown leather and this gorgeous navy hat with feathers, and all the men were cricking their necks when she got to the races, she simply emerged … the trainers wives work so hard but they come up lovely!
Mind you, so do the stable lasses when they go out on the toot. I don’t think it matters what you wear but it’s just nice to dress up for big race days and you want to wear something warm and something comfortable.
Do you ever wear the ‘wrong’ thing?
Oh yes, I always wear the wrong thing, my hair is always wrong, I haven’t got hat hair – hair that looks good in a hat, its too thick and usually too long. I’ve just ordered a haircut this week so I’m having a clip!
What do you think of tweed?
I’ve got lots of tweed coats, including my son’s prep school coats, from the seventies which don’t date they’re fabulous. One of the problems is that I am now the recipient of lots of lovely, lovely hospitality so you put your warm coat on and your tweed suit and your thermal underwear and your jersey or your cardigan and then get stuck in a very hot tent and emerge to watch a race looking like a beetroot!.
I think it’s layers that you can peel off, don’t you? That’s the answer!
How about shoes, do you opt for heels or not?
I’ve got some black knee boots with 3-inch heels, and there was a fantastic sale in Cirencester last year so I got two pairs of really gorgeous flat boots: one in black and one in brown; so that has really covered me for all occasions.
In terms of racing fashion, I think actually what you can get away with is a lovely long pair of boots, and those short coats are heavenly aren’t they? One of the best outfits I saw last year (apart from Kate Middleton) was a dazzling citrus yellow coat to thigh level and then black boots and tights and big black hat, and I thought it looked wonderful.
So which horses have caught your eye lately?
I adore Lough Derg, he’s so brave and never gives up, and Nacarat who is Tom George’s grey who won last week, he is Pegasus crossed with Dessie in the way he made all and flew over the fences.
Is he one of yours?
No. The Thoroughbred Ladies Syndicate have four others. We have Honour’s Dream, Island Flyer, who was favourite for the Hennessy – he’s a lovely horse – and Candle, and another called Seafield Bogey.
How did you become involved with them?
The Thoroughbred Ladies are blissful. The location of Tom George’s yard high on a hill in the Slad Valley is so beautiful and the valley is so steep, it practically exercises the horses itself. They’re my nearest yard so I wrote to them and I asked if I could spend a day there just watching. They said yes so I went over to see them and Sophie George asked if I would like to join Thoroughbred Ladies which consists of 30 reasonably local women owning these four horses. Thoroughbred Ladies sounds awfully grand but the ladies are absolutely sweet. They all know about racing and we have lovely lunches and whenever we can we go along to the races together.
Will they appear as characters in your book?
No, but if they did it would only be as nice characters. The ones in my book range from the pub landlord to the local woodcutter to the Lord of the Manor, so it’s like Chaucer really.
What is the main plot for the book?
There is this wretched granny, poor darling, whose husband dies. He is a jealous pig and so he doesn’t want her to have anything so he leaves all the money to the children and tells them to look after her. So to keep their mother occupied they make her look after their dreadful children. One night going home through the woods she finds this filly dying in the snow so she rescues it with her friends from the building site and they bring it back to life. The filly turns out to be a very good horse, who has obviously been terribly mis-treated so there’s a bit of a mystery about how she got there, and who has done this to her. So The village form a syndicate and go on to have lots of adventures.
Is it based on a true story?
No not at all, but I do worry terribly about cruelty to animals particularly right now, as with the recession animals are the first thing to go. I am a great supporter of Greatwood, which is a marvellous horse sanctuary in Wiltshire that takes care of retired racehorses.
So are any of your previous characters popping up in this new book?
Rupert Campbell-Black who goes through all my big novels, a sort of racing god, has a big influence on the story towards the end.
When can we get a copy?
The book won’t be finished until end of the year and then God willing, out in print sometime next year, published by Transworld.
You can read more about Jilly’s racing experiences by following the links below:
Jilly’s latest News posting: Friday 28 February
Jilly’s first visit to Royal Ascot
Photograph: Les Hurley