United Kingdom

JILLY COOPER's confessions of a new wife

Best known for her bonkbuster novels such as Riders, JILLY COOPER began her writing career with newspaper columns recounting her riotous domestic mishaps as a young wife in the 1970s. 

A collection of them has just been republished in paperback – some abridged here. Re-reading those columns now, at the age of 84, Jilly says she wonders: 'Was this really me, so up myself and so utterly obsessed with sex? Did I really dare write that?...

They said we lived in 'engaging squalor'. Looking back on the first fraught year of my marriage, I realise we lived in total screaming chaos.

I spent most of my time in tears – not tears of misery, but exhaustion. I couldn't cook, I couldn't sew, I had no idea about running a house, my knowledge of sex was limited to Lady Chatterley – yet suddenly I was on trial: sexually, domestically, commercially, socially, and aware that I was inadequate on every count.

My husband looked at the flotsam of clothes strewn over the bedroom, and resented the fact that I had already appropriated five and three-quarters of the six drawers and three out of four of the coathangers.

As we made love most of the night, I found it impossible to get up in the morning, cook breakfast, do my face and get out of the house by 8.15.

Then followed an exhausting day at the office, only punctuated by one of those scurrying, shopping lunches. I was seldom home – due to the caprice of London Transport – before seven o'clock.

Then there was the bed to be made, breakfast to be washed up, the cat to be fed and chatted up, the day to be discussed and supper to be cooked.

The way to a man's heart was supposed to be through his stomach, so there was no getting away with pork pie or scrambled eggs.

They said we lived in 'engaging squalor'. Looking back on the first fraught year of my marriage, I realise we lived in total screaming chaos

When I cooked moussaka for the first time, we didn't eat until one o'clock in the morning.

We were very gregarious and were asked out a great deal.

The only time we ever really cleaned up the flat was when in-laws or relations came to stay, and my husband would then say that it was just like a barracks before the annual general inspection.

'How pretty those dead flowers look,' said a kindly aunt. 'Have they become fashionable in London?'

The only other possible moment to clean the flat in Earl's Court was on my husband's occasional Territorial Army nights. I would hare round like a maniac, dusting and polishing; hoping, for once, to welcome him home scented and beautiful in a negligée with a faint smell of onions drifting from the kitchen.

It never worked.

Invariably he would let himself in unnoticed to find me tackling a mountain of dust under the bed with my bottom sticking out.

It was only after nine months, when the ice compartment wouldn't shut, that I learned for the first time about defrosting the fridge.

Laundry was another nightmare. It took me months to master the mysteries of the launderette.

Very early on in our marriage, a red silk scarf found its way into the machine with the rest of the washing. My husband's seven shirts came out streaked crimson like the dawn, and for days he wore cyclamen underpants and claimed he was the only member of his rugger team with a rose-pink jock-strap.

The flat got grimier and grimier, and the same week that a fungus began to grow under the sink I overheard someone say that we lived in 'engaging squalor'.

It was the last straw, and we hired a daily woman. It was not a success. I spent far more time than before cleaning up before she came, and after the first few weeks the standard went down. Then my husband came back one lunch hour and found her in our bed with the electric blanket and the wireless on.

I spent most of my time in tears – not tears of misery, but exhaustion. I couldn't cook, I couldn't sew, I had no idea about running a house, my knowledge of sex was limited to Lady Chatterley – yet suddenly I was on trial: sexually, domestically, commercially, socially, and aware that I was inadequate on every count

We have been married seven years now – I still can't make mayonnaise – but we're not itching, and our marriage hasn't curdled. Even so, I asked my husband to name, after seven years, the things that irritated him most about me.

His answers came out pat and immediate: using his razor on my legs and not washing it out; not putting tops back on bottles, or the ice tray back in the fridge; those little balls of Kleenex everywhere; the 18 odd socks in his top drawer; the red rings of indelible lipstick on his handkerchief; running out of loo paper/soap/toothpaste; forgetting to turn off lights/fires/the oven; and, of course, my friends.

'OK, OK,' I said crossly. Then I remembered a reassuring poem by John Frederick Nims about 'love's unbreakable heaven', which my husband had sent me when I was feeling suicidal early on in our marriage, which had made everything all right.

the hostess is trolleyed...

I am not one of Nature's hostesses. Even though I start cooking weeks before a dinner party, I am always beset by terrible disasters.

To begin with, you can never tell if your guests are going to get on. With the loveliest people, it can be instant hackles, and that conversation-killing 'Actually I don't agree', with the steely glint in the eye. Sometimes they don't talk at all, and in an attempt to spark off chatter I make fatuous remarks. Or, worse, the couples get on so well that my husband and I wonder if anyone would notice if we went to bed.

A great mistake is to tell one lot of guests that they'll adore another couple. They never do.

Guests to be avoided include: the slow eater, who insists on telling long stories and finishing up all his food; the non-eater, who pushes her food to the side of her plate after one mouthful; the wife who rings up at the last moment and says: 'Charles is hungover and won't come, may I bring my sister, it won't foul up your numbers, will it?'; the bachelors who ask you to fix them up with a divine girl, and when you do, spend the evening chatting up the married women; the lovers who start patting each other's thighs at 9.30, whose eyes combine and turn soft at 9.40, and who are out of the house by 9.45; the women your husband fancies. The only solution is to give them asparagus or sweetcorn – no one looks sexy with butter running down her chin.

Our house in Fulham is so difficult to find that people always arrive late, which means that by the time we start dinner, I've had so many dry Martinis I'm practically under the piano, and it no longer seems to matter that I haven't put the potatoes on. 

Even if I stay sober, there are disasters. I forget about napkins and have to rush upstairs, yank them out of the laundry basket and then iron them on the floor.

Our house in Fulham is so difficult to find that people always arrive late, which means that by the time we start dinner, I've had so many dry Martinis I'm practically under the piano, and it no longer seems to matter that I haven't put the potatoes on

Or the top of the pepper mill comes off and a shower of peppercorns cascades irretrievably into the goulash. Or the meat's tough, and I see everyone's jaws working desperately like cows chewing the cud. Or my husband starts offering everyone second helpings when there aren't any.

is friendship with a man ever platonic?

To be appreciated, friends should be enjoyed like wine, in moderation. I don't have enough time to see the people I love.

As I flip through old address books and Christmas cards, I am appallingly aware of the friends who have flowed through my life and been lost, because I never wrote or rang back, or didn't feel sure enough of my cooking to ask them back to dinner.

Fortunately, many of one's lost friends turn up again. Some you can pick up after ten years like favourite books, and they're just as beguiling – others date.

One misconception about friendship is that there's something wrong with you if you can't sustain a relationship over 30 years.

People change.

One of the great fascinations of friendship is introducing friends to friends, and seeing how they get on. Often it doesn't work, because each one is used to your attention and bitterly resents its being turned on to someone else.

Friendship with the opposite sex is a complex matter.

Is it ever entirely platonic? Sometimes one has good relationships with old boyfriends, but so often they never get off the ground because the old flames feel guilty about ditching you, or vice versa.

Perhaps the best friendships are with men where the relationship has never been consummated, kept on slow burn.

But even in a sexual relationship, the gossiping and the companionship are all-important; sex is only the liquid centre of the great New Berry Fruit of friendship.

I certainly feel a stronger stab of jealousy if one of my friends lands a delectable man, or her child wins a scholarship to Winchester, than I do if it happens to an enemy.

Generally, though, if one's friends do achieve something marvellous, after the initial envious stab, one passes through the jealousy barrier to bask in their reflected glory.

As the author Rebecca West said recently: 'I want to be a piece of asparagus with melted butter poured permanently over me.'

And so it goes on. People slip into one's life, stay for a while, casting a spell, or shedding innocence, then fall back into their own biographies, combining in a group, or giving way to one another with bewildering alternation.

implants? I'd rather have a him plant...

The signs of decay are already in evidence: ostrich feet round the eyes, crêpe on the thigh. Changing my parting last week, I discovered my first grey hair. Praying it might have been bleached by the sun, I examined it more closely and found two more – all definitely grey.

Hands give you away, say the women's mags. About once a month I remember to slap on some hand-cream, but always put on too much, and have to wipe it off on the dogs.

I think I really admitted I was getting old last summer when I put moisturiser on my neck for the first time.

The Middle Age Crisis boils down to whether one will be able to attract men any more. Not that I want hordes of men after me, but I do like to keep my options open. I'd like to feel I could still rustle up the odd admirer in retaliation if my husband suddenly developed a mad passion for his secretary.

I don't want to go to orgies either, but I don't want to get too wrinkled and repulsive to be asked. 'I reckon we've got about ten years' pulling power,' I said to my best friend the other day. Then I remembered I'd said exactly the same thing when I was 18, and when I was 28.

No doubt I'll be still saying it in my nineties.

Pulling power, of course, depends a lot on clothes, but while I want to dress sexily, I shrink from being mutton dressed as lamb.

I noticed some country wives looking askance at my see-through sweater the other night, and at the other end of the scale, my son has got very disapproving recently and keeps buttoning up my shirt before I go out, in case 'anyone sees anything'.

So this is to be my future. Farewell plunge and cleavage, hail tunic tops, wool shirtwaisters to flatter the pear-shaped figure, touches of white near the face, all-in-one corselettes and support hose.

And what the hell am I going to do about my hair? I really don't fancy a grey bun. Perhaps I should have a fringe to make myself look younger, but it's so awful when the wind blows it sideways and you suddenly age ten years as a corrugated forehead is revealed. The books on staying young are so dismal. They all tell you to give up booze and lying in the sun. That's junk: booze and sun make me jolly, and nothing ages one quicker than feeling miserable.

Middle age, however, is much less daunting if you've got a loving partner to grow old with.

Unfortunately the field narrows as one grows older.

If a man in his forties wants to push off, there are scores of young girls slavering to snap him up, but society frowns on a woman who shacks up with younger men, particularly after the menopause.

What unnerves me about middle age is how to play it. Some days I see myself growing old disgracefully, blazing gloriously in the autumn of my life in leopard-skin coats with streaked hair and roulette chips rattling round in the bottom of my bag. Then I remember that character is supposed to show in the face after a certain age, so I try to be good for a day or two.

The thought of the Change of Life puts the fear of God into me. Oh dear, hot flushes and hot crushes.

Will I find myself at 50, bribing passing youths with mopeds?

Even more depressing are those awful remedies for keeping sex going – the utter dinginess of oestrogen pessaries for a dehydrated vagina. My doctor swears by implants. I'm not so sure – I'd rather have a him plant, and grow my own men. I'm sure I'd have more success than I did with courgettes last summer.

And as I get older I get increasing pleasure not only from my family and friends but from my books and garden. For Nature, as Wordsworth pointed out, never betrays the heart that loves her. I also have a suspicion that if a woman is jaunty and has a gleam in the eye, she can go on having fun until she's 100.

what have i learnt about love? nothing

BESIDES yearning to be thin, I long to be the world's greatest lover, and occasionally launch campaigns to improve myself in bed.

The last one was triggered off by reading a piece on a famous courtesan whose vaginal muscles were so powerful that the gynaecologist once got his hand stuck.

So I made a vow that instead of panicking about my overdraft when I woke, I would try flexing my internal muscles 100 times a day.

For a few days it worked; I lay listening to the dawn chorus, flickering away inside like an indicator.

Then a particularly vitriolic letter arrived from my bank manager, sending me whimpering back to my money worries.

I'll never be willowy, I'll never be deft, I'll always be the sort of slut who only remembers to wash her ears every day when she's in love.

Another truth bitterly learned is that whenever I get slightly pleased with myself, and think I'm doing something rather well, up in heaven God starts peeling a banana skin.

The moment, for example, I begin to think of a dish as 'one of my specialities' – fish pie, perhaps – and serve it at dinner parties, it starts tasting like old socks.

The moment I begin thinking I'm rather attractive, because three men have asked me out to lunch in one week, they all cancel, and it's back to frump again.

About love I have learnt nothing, except that one learns nothing from experience. One of the greatest shocks of my life was that a happy marriage doesn't extinguish desire.

About 18 months after I got married, I went to a party without my husband, and met a publisher with Cambridge-blue eyes, who walked me home and gave me a huge branch of cherry blossom, and I was thrown into a panic of self-hatred because I fancied him.

Now, after 18 years, I realise that desires do not extinguish a happy marriage, they only strengthen it because you realise what you've got is so much better for you.

But I am getting smug again. Far up above I can hear God stretching for another banana.

© Jilly Cooper 2020

Adapted from Between The Covers: Sex, Socialising And Survival by Jilly Cooper, published by Corgi at £8.99. 

To order a copy for £8.09 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before October 3. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.

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