It’s been 31 years since the publication of Riders, Jilly Cooper’s first novel in the infamous Rutshire Chronicles and one which, before the age of backed-up hard drives, was very nearly lost forever. It was 1970, and the number 22 bus was about to become the final resting place of the bestselling novel’s first draft and only copy. Mount!, published earlier this month, gives the occasional flirty nod to new millennial readers: Rupert Campbell-Black (a sort of sex-crazed Uncle Matthew from The Pursuit of Love) is back, he’s 59 and he has an iPhone. There’s a website called Skypegoat, a gorilla onesie and a horse called Trans Jennifer in this latest offering, but don’t be fooled: the throbbing heart of Cooper’s earlier works beats as lustily as the wagging tail of Banquo the black lab.
RC-B, the roaring, bawling, ever-rutting hero, has been reincarnated: he’s desperate for his favourite horse, Love Rat, to be proclaimed Leading Sire, carting jockeys and horses off to compete in races around the world. He leaves the estate in the hands of Gala and Gav, the newest cast members in a host of much-awaited encores, who ruffle a few feathers when they’re brought into Penscombe – objectively to take care of Rupert’s ailing father and mind the mares. Meanwhile, schemes involving inordinate amounts of tainted money are hatched (“evilly”: possibly my favourite word in the 600-page brick) by the Chinese mafia, specifically Mr Wang, otherwise known as the Great Willy of China. And Taggie, the angelic, long-suffering wife of rampant Scorpio Rupert, receives some devastating news about her health.
It’s all much of a muchness, plot-wise: what emerges from this slice of fantasia is the humour, which hasn’t been tarnished by time: “Cosmo led her through a side door into another passageway, and revealed through a two-way mirror Dame Hermione spread-eagled over a cherry-red sofa, her vast reddening bottom being whacked by Young Eddie, who was drinking a pint mug of champagne and reading Horse & Hound at the same time.”
There’s also a darker note to Mount! – some well-judged comments regarding adultery, illness, and the inevitable process of ageing – something Cooper, now almost 80 and having lost her husband of 52 years in 2013 – will be all too familiar with. Nonetheless, Rupert’s father, Eddie, and his grandson “got into endless irritating silliness together, howling with laughter at porn on the internet.” For Old Eddie’s eighty-sixth birthday, we’re told, Young Eddie had “plundered the local sex shop and returned with a lifesize rubber sheep, equipped with a hole in the bottom, and horns to cling onto. A totally captivated Old Eddie insisted on the sheep, whom he’d called Mildred, sleeping on his bed.” But then, in true Cooper style, Forester, a greyhound riddled with separation anxiety, perfunctorily shreds Mildred all over the drawing room carpet. Rupert is desperate to throw his father into the nearest residential home, but Gala proves her worth as nursemaid [though we’re also told that she, “like most carers from Africa, particularly Zimbabwe, was terrified of the dark and went around bolting doors at night,” and really, the less said about other such comments the better.]
The sex is fewer and further between than in Riders or Jump!, but it’s a deliciously familiar stomping ground when it does emerge: “And now he was on top of her. No longer Concorde but the QE2 sliding inside her crotchless thong, kissing her breasts, burying his face in her cleavage and then exploding a glorious burst water-main insider her.” Tally-ho! We’re also treated to a surprising new lexicographical addition in the form of “Buttercunt”, an endearment used perhaps once too often by Rupert as he (SPOILER ARERT) cheats on Taggie who had recently become “so thin, pale and reluctant, showing no interest in sex” (SECOND SPOILER: she has cancer. Nice one, Roop.)
As ever, of course, it’s the animals who really steal the show: from a “tsumani of dogs” to the “nudging and nuzzling mares” and Taggie, refusing to stay indoors, “longing to get up and feed the dogs, who’d been banished from her bed, and the birds. Rupert had really lost it when he caught her sneaking out to feed the badgers.” Thomas Hardy’s the only other writer who tried as hard to convince his readers of the importance of empathy and compassion in their dealings with all “creatures”. This, Cooper’s, is a largely joyful world where newborn horses are announced in newspapers with all the attendant pomp and splendour of a royal birth, where foals have godparents and conniving women named Celeste threaten to tell the world that “Dave was a December foal”. I don’t know what half of it means, but who cares? Mount! is still delightfully funny, a slice of pure escapism, and more thoughtful than what we’ve seen before – all this from a woman who’s sold more than 12 million of her novels to date.
“I am proud of these books,” Cooper’s said: “I know they’re frivolous, imperfect, but people love them. Maybe one day I might write something more serious, but basically, my aim in life is to add to the sum of human happiness.” She was reminded of this quote on a recent episode of Desert Island Discs. “Did I say that?” she asked Kirsty Young, chuckling: “that’s not bad!”