Last month, Jilly Cooper received the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award from Comedy Women In Print (or – appropriately enough, if you say it out loud – CWIP), a new organisation that promotes comic fiction written by women.
They couldn’t have chosen better – a writer whose humour runs the gamut from beadily observant wit to unapologetically convoluted puns, but whose comic chops, despite her popularity, have never quite received the acknowledgement they deserve.
CWIP was set up by the actress Helen Lederer as a corrective to the lack of exposure for comic novels by women. It’s certainly filling a gap.
The Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction – famous for awarding a live pig to the winners – has done sterling work in rewarding the books that are ignored by the gloom-loving big literary prizes like the Booker. But in a golden age for women comic novelists, it has had only three female winners in 20 years. Mistresses of the comic novel such as Nicola Barker, Marian Keyes and Kate Atkinson have never even been shortlisted.
CWIP has given out three prizes – though sadly no livestock – at its inaugural awards ceremony. In the published novel category, Laura Steven won for her Young Adult novel The Exact Opposite of Okay, which the judges called a “daring, edgy and topical” take on slut-shaming and the issues faced by girls today.
Meanwhile, the winner of the Unpublished Novel category, Kirsty Eyre, has received a publishing contract and a £5,000 advance from HarperFiction for Cow Girl, described as “a queer romcom set in the world of dairy farming”. “We cared about the clever protagonist, the supporting characters and the cows in equal measure,” said the chair of judges, comedian and novelist Jenny Eclair.
One wishes these two young writers’ careers are as long as that of the night’s third winner, Jilly Cooper. It was my wife who introduced me to her books – it was almost a condition of our relationship – and made me set aside my prejudices against Cooper as a writer who churns out bonkbusters.
I picked up her early masterpiece, Riders, and by the time I had reached the scene in which the caddish hero Rupert Campbell-Black causes havoc at the Royal Plymouth Agricultural Show – the funniest food fight outside of St Trinian’s – I knew I would be a lifelong addict. She is (despite having never won the Wodehouse Prize) one of UK’s finest living comic novelists.
I telephone her to discuss the subject of writing comic fiction. Her PA takes the phone into Cooper’s study, and I can hear the clacking of what is presumably the redoubtable Monica – her famous manual typewriter.
Cooper is overjoyed at her award – “I’m thrilled, I cried when I heard” – but she has never exactly been famous for being on-message, and she is not convinced that the prize is absolutely necessary: “There are so many brilliant women writers everybody roars with laughter at. I think we get a lot of attention really.”
But then, at 82, she can take the long view, and sees how much has changed. Things are very different now from 40 years ago, when she edited an anthology of women’s writings and sayings, Violets and Vinegar, after she realised that women scarcely featured in dictionaries of quotations.
What does she think of the late Christopher Hitchens’s argument that men are simply funnier than women? “Rubbish! Some are, some aren’t. They approach it differently – men are interested in facts, women are more interested in feelings. Men go more for ‘ban’ter’ [pronounced with obligatory glottal stop], don’t they, and – well, they used to be more bawdy, but not any more. Women are pretty bawdy now.”
In her own marriage, she says, she and her late husband Leo found each other equally funny.
“I remember some woman journalist ringing him up and saying ‘what does Jilly wear in bed?’, and he said, ‘dogs, mostly’. And then he said, ‘If I reach over in the night for something furry, I get bitten.’ God, he was funny.”
A chat with Cooper is aural champagne, effervescent and invigorating. If she were a stand-up comedian, it would be the Ronnie Corbett type, heading off without warning on glorious tangents while the punchline is indefinitely delayed.
Wrenching the conversation back to comedy, I ask her which female writers have inspired her, and she rattles off a list ranging from Barbara Pym and Richmal Crompton to modern writers such as Gill Sims, JoJo Moyes and Caitlin Moran.
“But all I do is read football reports at the moment because I’m writing this book about football, so I’m a bit behind on humour.”
But these are difficult times, she thinks, for comic writers. Is she worried about editors censoring her jokes?
“They haven’t yet, but they might this time. I couldn’t have a newspaper column now. I think I’d be terrified, because I used to make fun of everybody, but you can’t make jokes about anybody now.”
She promises that there will be a cat in the new novel called “Mew Too”, and she thinks men are getting a raw deal at the moment. “It was simpler when I was young.’’ If a man touched you, you clearly told what you thought, she says.
She is worried about the young local footballers whom she’s been spending time with to research her book.
“I think they’re terrified to even put a hand on a woman’s shoulder. They can tell me all this because they just see it as having a nice chat with Granny. They’re so beautiful and so funny.”
Despite her award, Cooper does not see herself as being particularly funny; she simply sees herself as transcribing, a la Jane Austen, the “hysterically funny” things that go on all the time in her village in the Cotswolds.
She always has a notebook handy.
“The awful thing about being old now is that you can’t remember the things people say unless you write them down straight away. Leo’s wonderful aunt Lettice [the novelist Lettice Cooper] had a reputation for incontinence because at parties she was always rushing off to the loo, to write down people’s remarks. Perhaps I will soon, too.”