Riders by Jilly Cooper.
I have never had a personal desire to get on a horse, but watching show-jumping on telly was a fixture that I looked forward to while growing up.
The 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 riden against the clock was a week of great viewing. The Hickstead Derby with the iconic Derby bank and swimming pool of a water jump was a must as a relief from tennis which tends to dominate June. There were also Nations Cup events, where the teams had to ride each other’s horses.
Show-jumping back in the 1970s 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 who cut a dash with his wavy blond locks and green jacket on his horse Boomerang. It is a shame that show-jumping has all but fallen off the TV schedules.
So, on to Riders by Jilly Cooper. We’ll be discussing this 919 page chunkster at Book group next week, but as I have to pass the book on promptly to give one of our other members a chance to read it, I decided to write it up now, and will come back with the group’s reactions later to this unconventional choice of reading (for a book group in general that is).
Set in 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, with the added thrill of the show-jumping ring, however at its heart it really is 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. However their relationship is a loving one, well at first! 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.
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 many crises and cliff-hangers to keep the gargantuan story moving. There is a huge cast of other characters, most of whom are simply portrayed, and conform 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 that is. 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 came out; of course many novels go far further these days. I do wish we could have reached the end around 300 pages sooner as 919 pages, even if easy to read does take time; but I have to confess that I really enjoyed this racy doorstop of a book! I will no longer turn my nose up at Jilly Cooper books when I encounter them in bookcases on holiday, I’ll search them out instead, and she could become my guilty secret read. (8/10)
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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Ridersby Jilly Cooper, Corgi paperback.