How we love Jilly Cooper. She’s as much a part of the Cotswolds as shaggy-fleeced sheep… but so much friendlier, smarter, and – well – naughtier. Just a few years shy of 90 years of age, she talks to Katie Jarvis about her latest novel, the fruity football-inspired Tackle!

Listen. I want you to feel as though you’ve just stepped through the door of Jilly Cooper’s Cotswold home.

First, the stone porch, where green wellies line up like National Trust guides, inviting a walk round the garden (in which you will easily get lost; but – trust me - you won’t give two hoots).

You can knock on the antique wooden door – but Jilly already knows you’re there. She’s expecting you.

She leads you through the hall, Leo’s old study on your right.

Great British Life: Jilly Cooper at her home, in the Cotswolds. Jilly Cooper at her home, in the Cotswolds. (Image: TWM)

To settle on a settee, beside a wall of books, under a stained-glass panel echoing the view outside (and consisting of one painted greyhound peeping out from the corner; another running joyfully through yellow field beneath perfect Wedgwood sky). There’s a blazing open fire; there’s coffee; there are biscuits. But you know you won’t be allowed to leave without lunch, or an oversized glass of wine, or a slab of chocolate cake in the kitchen.

‘HOW WAS PORTUGAL?’ Jilly Cooper asks. Because these are never one-way interviews. She wants to know how everyone is. Are they happy? Are they well? How are the children? ‘Is he 30? How could you have a child of 30! Are you still on the staff of Cotswold Life?’

She looks lovely. Remarkably unchanged; wearing her 86 years (87, this February) as casually as jumper and leggings.

Great British Life: Jilly Cooper in conversation with Katie Jarvis.Jilly Cooper in conversation with Katie Jarvis. (Image: TWM)

We’re here to talk about Tackle! – her latest novel: the footballers who inspired it; the game she’s grown to enjoy; about her trademark puns. (The naughtiest of puns: ‘Oral tribute! I love that, don’t you!’)

But, first, she wants to know about holidays in Portugal…

‘During the war, my father rented the Azores for English planes and American planes to land on so they could attack the Germans. He was a Brigadier. A cool thing to do. He was a lovely man.’

(Later, she shows me his photograph, framed on a table: a man with the grace and beauty of an Errol Flynn.)

Oh, and animals! (A conversation without animals is no conversation.) She yearns for another dog since her beloved Bluebell died, but she’s not convinced rescue charities would favour an adoption at her age.

Great British Life: Jilly Cooper with her beloved Bluebell. Jilly Cooper with her beloved Bluebell. (Image: TWM)

How is Ruby, my cocker spaniel, she asks. Ruby, famed for never having spoken a word to our cat, Billy the Kit, since he whopped her on the nose for being too intrusive some nine years ago now.

‘I want you to write a dog book. I think that’s so funny, not speaking. You must write a book! A children’s dog book or a teenager dog book.’

Billy still adores Ruby. He has no conception that his love is unreciprocated.

‘Unreciprocated?’ Jilly Cooper muses. ‘How interesting. It’s so much like life, isn’t it…’

I’M SUCH A FAITHFUL FAN of Jilly Cooper books. Right from Emily, Bella – and the likes – in my teenage years (anyone who can’t write that sentence must have missed developmental milestones); to the glorious Rutshire Chronicles. (Or Chronicals, as Jilly would probably write.)

Football is as over my head as Wayne Rooney’s soaring kick that won the Manchester Derby back in 2011. (I had to look this up, obviously.)

Great British Life: Novelist Jilly Cooper near her home in the Cotswolds.Novelist Jilly Cooper near her home in the Cotswolds. (Image: Edward Whitaker/Racing Post)

Yet as Rachel Cooke observed of Tackle! in the Observer:

There’s still something infectiously joyful and funny about her [Jilly’s] particular brand of very English writing: it comes with a kindliness and a silliness that is beginning to feel to me quite painfully nostalgic.

Tackle! owes its origins to lunch with Alex Ferguson. (Though the opportunity to use the glorious pun ‘Tackle’ must have set the balls rolling.) (As it were.)

‘He was so funny and so wonderful. We giggled like mad together. I got a bit pissed but he didn’t.

‘Poor man – his wife has just died. But he’s doing brilliantly with his racehorses. Went straight off to Bahrain and won £600,000 [the Bahrain International Trophy with Spirit Dancer].’

If Sir Alex was Tackle!’s conception, then Forest Green Rovers helped rear it. Jilly got to know Dale Vince, eco-warrior-industrialist and owner (technically chair and major shareholder) of the Nailsworth-based club.

Great British Life: Jilly Cooper is a huge supporter of Forest Green Rovers and its owner, Dale Vince. Jilly Cooper is a huge supporter of Forest Green Rovers and its owner, Dale Vince. (Image: PA Wire/PA Images)

‘Ravishingly beautiful, too: the most beautiful club in the world. Surrounded by woods, rolling hills, and meadows full of grazing sheep. They tend not to win unless the sheep are on the hill opposite. There’s a board there saying Jilly Cooper loves Forest Green Rovers, which I think is still up there on the edge of the pitch.’

Tackle! is, as Rachel Cooke noted, a hugely fun story. Rupert Campbell-Black, the handsomest man England has ever produced, is not living his best life. Known, of course, for his roaring success as racehorse owner and trainer, he’s in the doldrums. His beloved wife, Taggie, is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. And their adopted daughter, the rather irksome Bianca, is pestering: she wants her dad to buy his failing local football club Searston Rovers. Bianca and her football-superstar boyfriend, Feral Jackson, are living in Perth. If Rupert were to sign Feral, Bianca could come back home to the Cotswolds and help look after Taggie.

No fan of football, Rupert nevertheless capitulates. And thus the game unfolds, replete with own goals (infighting amongst glam WAGS), fouls (dastardly red-card-style behaviour by the local rivals), and plenty of ‘tackle’ on show, on and off the pitch.

But… Jilly!

I mean, Rupert – that gorgeous, arrogant blackguard – capitulating for heaven’s sake?

‘What I like about this book is that he gets nicer and nicer and nicer. He’s not a bastard anymore.’

(There’s hope for us all.) But why?

‘I wanted to make him nicer, really. He did suffer terribly from Taggie’s cancer; that shook him rigid. And, also, dealing with the football team, he probably appreciates the hardships and suffering of the working classes more, and gets really fond of his players.’

Thank goodness that, through it all, Tackle! sees Rupert and Taggie still adoring of each other. (My love-story of the century.)

‘No, no, they’re fine. I made Rupert have a fleeting affaire with Gala, one of his stable staff. I probably shouldn’t have done but Rupert and Taggie just weren’t getting on. People were livid: ‘Change it!’ But although he cheated briefly on Taggie [in Mount], he still adored her.’

Jilly pauses for a second to point at a book on the coffee table between us: All My Friends Will Buy It: A Bottlefield Tour.

‘Leo’s book.’

Leo is her husband (whom I knew to be such a kind and charming man), who died in 2013.

‘It’s a very good book. Leo was a very good writer…

Great British Life: Jilly Cooper at home in the Cotswolds. Jilly Cooper at home in the Cotswolds. (Image: TWM)

‘That’s the sad thing. Everybody is saying, at all these interviews, that Tackle! is not as raunchy as some of the other ones. But, I mean, if you haven’t got a husband as inspiration anymore… and I miss Leo’s jokes as well.’

THE ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS for Tackle! are entertaining in their own right.

She was taken to matches in Liverpool by her friend, the former home secretary Michael Howard. (Seriously, Jilly knows everyone. She once told me she’d had John Krasinski to drinks on the terrace. Rishi Sunak is a fan. ‘Stanley Tucci and his beautiful wife, Felicity Blunt: she’s my agent. Enchanting people!’)

She met and quizzed as many players as she could – such as near neighbour (ex-Arsenal and England) Tony Adams. ‘He’s got a gorgeous wife, Poppy. They’ve been to parties here. Tony’s shy but people adore him. He’s such a star. They loved him on Strictly.’

Covid was a bit of a match-fixer and interrupted her research.

‘Horrid. Horrid. It was just so peculiar. From the book point, I couldn’t go to any football matches so I was stuck. There wasn’t any football on the telly: I just had to stop.’

READ MORE: Author Jilly Cooper awarded damehood in New Year Honours

So she turned to reading: every football-related word she could get her hands on – with the exception of social media.

‘Vile, isn’t it. Poor Marcus Rashford. It was his 26th birthday recently so, after his team Man United lost earlier in the day, he went to a nightclub in Manchester and danced until 2am, but still turned up to training the next morning.

‘He was absolutely carpeted for this. How irresponsible to go out partying after such a disastrous loss.

‘Isn’t that monstrous?’

In fact, the whole issue of footballers’ lives not being their own is pretty monstrous, too.

‘They can get sold – they are slaves. They get a lot of money but they can be sold overnight. They get weighed every day to see they’re not putting on weight. And they get left on the bench for weeks on end.

‘Awful. Awful.’

Yet, she has – despite it all – grown to love the game. She’s taking a box at the Forest Green Rovers’ match on Saturday, to which she’s inviting her usual fascinating slew of the great and good.

SHE’S ALREADY WRITING her next book, set in Sparta.

‘I love Ancient Greece. I’ve read that, if you committed adultery - particularly for a woman - you were slung out and even killed outright. It was the worst thing you could do. The only place in Ancient Greece where it was allowed was Sparta. Women wandered around nude all the time in the streets. Extraordinary.’

And where, presumably, men can be Rupert Campbell-Black, at his most devilish, without retribution.

‘I was quoted the other day saying that I minded men doing the washing-up, which I don’t actually. But I hate them being emasculated. It’s like stallions and mares. Basically, a stallion is not going to turn into a mare. I just like men and women to cherish each other.’

And then there’s Rivals, the Disney+ TV series due to air next year.

READ MORE: Jilly Cooper’s novel Rivals set for for TV adaptation

Great British Life: Jilly Cooper in conversation with Katie Jarvis. Jilly Cooper in conversation with Katie Jarvis. (Image: TWM)

‘Huge, huge cast and they’ve filmed all round Gloucestershire. They fell in love with Gloucestershire and the Cotswolds completely.’

Jilly had a private party for them, on the lawn beside the terrace where she wrote the novel (‘Taggie’s house is across the valley’) back in the 1980s.

‘David Tennant is heaven. And Aidan [Turner] is heaven. They are all heaven.

‘The most miraculous thing – a massive cast who all adore each other.’

AND SO, THE THREE OF US retire to the kitchen: Jilly; Amanda, her wonderful PA and friend; and I; eating lunch, drinking wine, gossiping (just as I said). ‘Is it true Henry Cavill has moved to the Cotswolds?’

There’s barely a square inch of the far end of the table not covered with piles of Tackle! congratulations cards.

‘Have you seen my favourite?’ Jilly asks.

A 50s housewife talking to her husband on the phone.

Darling, where are you?

I’m just pulling out of Paddington.

I bet that made him drop his marmalade sandwich.

‘Hysterical,’ Jilly Cooper says.

(Oh, and PS: page 364. Please read. One of the best moments ever.)

Tackle! by Jilly Cooper is published by Bantam, hardback £22.

Great British Life: Tackle! by Jilly CooperTackle! by Jilly Cooper (Image: Transworld Publishers Ltd)