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Jilly Cooper didn’t know about football in 2016
But she didn’t start writing the book – titled Tackle! – until five years later.
“When I was a cub reporter on the Middlesex Independent, aged 18, I was covering the local football club. One of my first headlines was: ‘Oh Brentford! How could you?'”
Other than that, she knew little or nothing about the Beautiful Game.
So she made it her business to befriend Forest Green Rovers, the club closest to The Chantry, the 14th-century house she has lived in 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 beautiful grounds,” says Jilly, “surrounded by hills and lots of sheep. There is a superstition that if the sheep are not on the hills, the team will lose.”
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For the past six years she has been quite a football fan. “I’ve been to a lot of their games and I always watch Saturday Soccer on Sky Sports. I love Manchester City and Pep Guardiola is a great manager.
“But I think Erik ten Hag is having such a rotten time at United. It’s a brutal way to earn a living. As one character in the book says, the first thing a new manager has to decide when he arrives at a club is who to ask to his leaving party.”
Tackle!, out now, was typed on Jilly’s trusty typewriter, affectionately known as Monica, as are all her books from Riders onwards.
“But Monica is a bit like me these days,” she says. “She has turned gray.”
She claims that she writes about 15 drafts of each book. “I’m so slow. There’s no way these days I could be a football reporter, writing a game in half an hour. The result is that the house is disappearing under mountains of discarded paper.”
Jilly Cooper still uses her typewriter, called Monica, to write
Once again, the main character in the book is the swordsman, Rupert Campbell-Black, the all-powerful racehorse owner and the most handsome man in the world.
“He’s not the least bit interested in football,” says Jilly. “In fact, he reckons most footballers are little more than ballerinas skipping around the pitch taking part in group sex – all that hugging and kissing – when someone scores a goal.”
She has a good idea of a book’s story arc. “But things change on the lonely journey. What I always insist on is a happy ending: good must triumph over evil.”
Rupert was pretty rotten in Riders. “It was just getting nicer over the years. When the club is promoted, for example, he buys a racehorse for the players.”
Part of this reduction is, of course, due to 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’ve helped me.”
Taggie and their daughter Bianca love football and convince Rupert to buy the local club, Searston Rovers. “Taggie is as kind, sweet and young as dogs. When a hound comes to stay, she puts flowers in his basket.”
Two years ago, Jilly lost her beloved hound, Bluebell. When the promotion is all about Tackle! she says she is determined to find another rescue – a hound or a whippet.
“When you first get one, you have to give it your full attention – so I want to be here all the time.”
10 years ago, almost to the day, Leo, Jilly’s husband of 52 years, succumbed to Parkinson’s.
She feels it very much: “Well, it 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 able to bless him with a big glass of red wine and a Bluebell running around his feet.”
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She admits that the characters in any book she is writing are in her head until it is finished. “And that’s a big deal with Tackle!, a cast list at the front of 12 pages. There is much less in the other books because most of them are horses.”
She is now 86 but this is probably not her last book. “I don’t want to say that writing defines me but it is definitely how I spend a lot of my time. What would I do without it?
“And, of course, unlike poor footballers, writers don’t need to quit.”
So does she have another site for what might come next? “Yes, I think I want to write about Sparta.
“It was full of macho men who were sent off at the age of seven, like prep school boys, to academies where they were turned into tough soldiers and weren’t allowed home until they were 21. “
There is another twist. In ancient Greece, says Jilly, adultery was everywhere. With the exception of Sparta. So, two glamorous academics have gone to Sparta with the express ambition to see who can commit the most adultery.”
Meanwhile, “although I’m not really allowed to talk about it”, Disney has just filmed an eight-episode Rivals series starring Aidan Turner, Danny Dyer, David Tennant and Katherine Parkinson. She hated the Riders miniseries back in 1993. “But this is brilliant.” It is likely to go on air in early 2024.
From her list of almost 50 books – rock fiction, romance, children’s titles, anthologies – it is a work of non-fiction that she chooses as her favourite. “The Common Years,” she says, “about our lives when we lived in Putney. It is not an autobiography but it is full of Leo, the children, dogs, family life. It’s quite sweet.”
“That’s a silly thing to say but there’s something to it.”
She claims she doesn’t mind getting old. And helping to keep him young are his five children.
His son Felix, 55, who works in property, and his wife, Edwina, have two daughters, Scarlett, 14, and Sienna, 12. His daughter Emily, 52, who is a make-up artist, has three sons with her husband Adam: Jago, 19, Lysander, 17, who plays cricket for Gloucestershire, and Acer, 15.
Felix and the family live at the bottom of the garden and Emily is no more than 20 minutes away.
Jilly loves the Chantry but, with two creaky humps, she says, she can do a lot less in the garden than she used to.
A great idea suddenly strikes her. “What I want,” she announced, “is a gay resident gardener. He could look after the grounds by day – and not bother me at night.”
● Fight! by Jilly Cooper (Transworld Publishers Ltd, £22).
Order a copy for £22 at siopa.librah.com or call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832. Free UK P&P on online orders over £25
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