Good journalism is easier to read than to write, especially the kind that has to do with (ugh) so-called lifestyle. It’s all about tone, and more hacks than you might imagine, not to mention their editors, have a tin ear in this regard. This kind of journalism tends, moreover, to go off faster than fresh fish.
All of which makes Between the Covers, a new collection of Jilly Cooper’s journalism, the more remarkable. Yes, there are columns here that will seem painfully dated to 21st-century eyes; women are no longer, thank God, expected to drop their girlfriends when they marry, and thereafter only to socialise as a couple. Some references, too, may be beyond younger readers: you have to be of a certain age (my age, probably) to know what she means when she describes sex as “only the liquid centre of the great New Berry Fruit of friendship”. But in the main, perky, clever and rather wise, these pieces still slip down as easily as a nice cold glass of something crisp and white. A certain kind of self-deprecation – we call it humblebragging now – can be extremely grating over 100 pages, or even, to be honest, over a paragraph. But not only is Cooper’s modesty completely genuine; she’s just as apt to deploy a little quiet pride here and there. She will never patronise her readers by posing as something she is not.
Spilling her guts, you feel, is about as appealing to her as the thought of housework
These pieces were written between 1968 and 1971, at the instigation of Harold Evans, the late, great editor of the Sunday Times. Their subjects include wife work, holidays, moving house, dogs, and the trouble (considerable) with having people to stay. Sex, as you’d expect from the author of Riders, also features prominently (as Cooper notes in her introduction, she cannot now believe that she was once so utterly obsessed with it). Unlike some columnists today, she doesn’t go in for emotional incontinence; spilling her guts, you feel, is about as appealing to her as the thought of housework, and unmannerly to boot (oneself, taken in too large a dose, is boring). But there is nevertheless a truthfulness here, one all the more touching in its quietness. In a column entitled Being a Second Wife, she describes her pathological jealousy of her predecessor, a condition that was cured, ultimately, when she fell in love with a man who was not her husband – a person who fell in love with her back to such a degree that “it rocked her marriage to its foundations”. There was, she writes briskly, but not unfeelingly, a lot of unhappiness on both sides. In the end, though, the affair taught her what she had wanted to know all the time – that her husband loved and needed her.
Oh, Jilly. When I interviewed her in 2006, in the week I was to be married, so sweetly horrified was she by the fact I was talking to her rather than lying down in a dark room with cucumbers on my eyes, she sent champagne on the day of the wedding. Her kindness is instinctive. But this isn’t to say that she can’t be delightfully bitchy. Women who don’t read – “Good Housekeeping seals usually” – are awful, smug and boring, she writes in a column about her addiction to books. And she has a deliciously dirty sense of humour. My favourite piece in this collection describes a hen night in a London pub, where a male stripper called Sailor appears looking “like Percy Grainger in the Delius film” (look this up if you’re lost; to explain it would be to ruin it). Having invited her to unbutton his trousers – she is rewarded for her trouble with an orange lollipop – he is succeeded by “a Greek god” whose clothes the assembled crowd frantically tear off until he’s standing there in nothing but a black satin jockstrap. It looks, she writes, “rather like a Jane Austen reticule” – a line so perfectly and hilariously Cooper, I’m going to end here, and leave you to go out and buy the book posthaste.
• Between the Covers by Jilly Cooper is published by Bantam (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply