Riders by Jilly Cooper

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Reviewed by Annabel

Can you believe that it is thirty years since Jilly Cooper introduced us to Rutshire and her best-selling doorstop of sex and showjumping?

Her publishers, Corgi, have celebrated by bringing out a new edition, and they’ve photoshopped the cover for today’s market. The hand has moved up the bum towards the hip in a less provocative position, but, as an article in the Guardian notes, in perhaps a nod to 50 Shades, they’ve also moved more of the riding crop back into view! Meanwhile, in the latest edition of volume three in the series, Polo, all suggestion of sex has been removed from the cover. Make of this what you will, but the original covers did signal very clearly what the reader could expect to find inside.

The original (left) and 30th Anniversary (right) covers

I came late to Jilly Cooper, but reading this book took me right back to my teenage years in the 1970s and the days when show-jumping on the telly was compulsive viewing. There were annual fixtures like the week-long ‘Horse of the Year Show’ with the Puissance always ending with that gigantic wall getting higher and higher, the relay races, and the incredibly tight courses ridden against the clock. The Hickstead Derby with the iconic Derby bank and swimming pool of a water jump was a must in June, and then there were the Nations Cup events where the teams had to ride each other’s horses.

Show-jumping then was full of real characters. Who could forget Harvey Smith who, on having won two Derbys on the trot, made a ‘V’ sign to the judges. I always enjoyed watching the Irishman Eddie Macken too, who cut a dash with his wavy blond locks and green jacket on his horse Boomerang. It was an exciting world and it’s a shame that the sport has all but fallen off the main TV schedules.

Set in a fictional county within the Cotswolds, Riders is the first in Cooper’s ‘Rutshire Chronicles’ and was published in 1985. It concerns just two things in its 340,000 words: show-jumping and sex. It’s a true bonk-buster – one of the originals, complete with an utter cad, toffs and comedy accents, a poor boy made good, and the added thrill of the show-jumping ring. At its heart however, it is really a romance and you’re always hoping for a happy ending.

The main story concerns Jake Lovell, an orphan born of gypsy stock who ran away from school to learn about horses. He wants to set up his own yard and jump horses, but he’s just a groom as the book opens and penniless with it. Contrasting with him is Rupert Campbell-Black, rich and charismatic, who beds every woman who crosses his path, unless they’re fat and ugly that is. A champion show-jumper already, he’s not known for treating his horses with respect. As it happens, Jake’s mother was the cook at Rupert’s prep-school, and Rupe was always nasty to Jake, so a rivalry is born.

Jake luckily manages to marry a rich, but plain, girl – Tory, who bankrolls his ambitions. Their relationship is a loving one — well, at first! Meanwhile, Rupert goes after a rich American socialite, the ravishingly beautiful but brittle Helen. He eventually gets her, but theirs is not to be a happy relationship, Rupe can’t cope with monogamy, and Helen finds it very difficult to lose her inhibitions, told in typical Cooper purple prose:

After Rupert had come, with that splendid driving flourish of staccato thrusts which reminded Helen of the end of a Beethoven symphony, he fell into a deep sleep. Helen, lying in his arms, had been far too tense and nervous of interruption to gain any satisfaction.

It’s not all sex though, there are horses too. Tory’s younger sister Fenella is a promising show-jumper and could, if she tried harder, be picked for the British team with her horses Laurel and Hardy. Being still a teenager, she’s too interested in partying and Jake takes her to task…

‘You’re not going to make a fool of yourself at Olympia,’ he said.
‘I suppose Tory and Dino have been sneaking.’
‘They didn’t need to. One of the Olympic scouts was in Amsterdam. He said if Jesus Christ had ridden that donkey into Jerusalem the way you were riding Laurel and Hardy all week, he deserved to be crucified.’

Cooper engineers crises and cliff-hangers to keep the gargantuan story moving. There is a huge cast of other characters, most of whom are simply portrayed, conforming to type, but fit well into the story. I particularly liked Billy, Rupe’s best friend who rises from being co-tormentor of Jake to being a decent chap and ace show-jumper too, and the only person who can keep Rupe in check, occasionally. These show-jumpers are the equivalent of stadium rock stars in their world, on tour for ten months of the year, just touching base occasionally – unless they or the horses get injured. Everything moves from Jake’s humble beginnings in the horsey world towards the major climax of him and Rupe starring at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

The writing is breezy, earthy and robust, with some swearing and obviously lots of raciness – I remember it being considered very naughty when it was first published; of course many novels go far further these days. Reading it now, you do have to dial your brain back a few decades, for the attitudes within are of their time, but that doesn’t stop it being huge fun. I do wish we could have reached the end around 300 pages sooner as 919 pages, even if an easy read, does take time. I have to confess that I really enjoyed Riders and its two immediate sequels a lot – and that’s not a guilty secret!

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Jilly Cooper, Riders (Corgi: London, 1985) 30th Anniversary edition June 2015. 9780552172424, 928pp., paperback.

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