Life is starting to look a lot like the 1980s: Russia is flexing its muscles, the Labour party is tearing itself apart, and there’s a woman in No. 10. Political thinkers are falling over themselves to over-analyse the geopolitical precipice upon which the world seems to be balanced. But life doesn’t have to be serious all the time, so it’s worth reflecting on another aspect of heading back in time: we’re due a revival of the-bonkbuster.
Jilly Cooper’s new book Mount! is published next month, and features the return of Rupert Campbell-Black, 30 years after he first appeared in Riders. Moneyed, charming and blond as Boris, he seduces his way through English idylls and global sporting events alike. There’s much more to Cooper’s books than the naughty bits — but it’s a good place to start.
First, given the younger generation’s apparent reluctance to make out in a maze, shag in a château or go down on the ski slope, they could do with a little inspiration. Surveys show millennials are having less sex than previous generations did at their age. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s Fettes College has invited the internet porn expert Mary-Sharpe to address students. There is, of course, a healthier way to teach teen-agers about sex — one that preaches neither an online bacchanal nor total abstinence. Let’s give the next generation a copy of Shirley Conran’s Lace.
Bonkies aren’t just about bonking, though. Rupert Campbell-Black eventually gives up his caddish excesses to become minister for sport — as a Conservative, of course. Cooper’s books are shot through with Thatcherite politics. From the characters — Kitty Rannaldini is the perfect working-class Tory, all hard work and typing classes — to the plots. Rivals was set during the ITV franchising process. Deregulation has never been so sexy! And just like Mrs Thatcher, Jilly’s not much interested in anything north of the Cotswolds.
For all that Mrs T. presides over the Cooperian universe, it’s a man’s world. The women tend to be martyrs, harpies or ingenues. In their constant quest for a man to marry (or at least go to bed with), they are rarely agents of their own destiny.
That doesn’t stop feminists loving it. I asked an anarchist friend why she is such a fan of La Cooper. Aside from the ‘wit and heart’, she explained, ‘Jilly got me through a horrendous breakup.’ Flying after the split, she had so many ‘Jillys’ in her luggage that it was overweight. On seeing the books — and my friend’s tears — the easyJet lady waved her through.
The works of authors like Cooper, Conran, Jacqueline Susann and Jackie Collins are much more than the sum of their parts. Art inevitably reflects political reality, and the bonkbuster fetishises inequality: something the UK currently has in spades. As the ONS — whose statistical bulletins are bedtime reading only in the sense they’ll send you to sleep — explained in April, ‘From a longer-term perspective, [overall income inequality] is above levels seen in the early 1980s.’ That polarisation means that it’s more appealing than ever to be a have-yacht rather than a have-not — or at least to read escapist books about them.
Building bridges across class divides and luggage limits: the bonkbuster’s powers are endless. And now that Theresa May has signalled her intention to ‘heal’ a deeply divided Britain, it’s time they had a revival. ‘We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you,’ she said in her first speech as Prime Minister. Laudable aims: and Mrs May should look no further than another queen of the bonkbuster, Shirley Conran, for inspiration.
For a start, Conran does a rags-to-riches story like nobody else, with Lili, the central character of Lace, going from a refugee camp to being the toast of Hollywood. Learning a language, moving country for love or business affairs, even a little tweaking of one’s accent, is not to be frowned upon. Social mobility isn’t sneered at — it’s central to the plot. As my radical leftist friend points out, this is solidarity in action. Plus, the bit where one character has to model topless to save 3,000 francs for an abortion could provide helpful talking points should any of Theresa’s ministers suggest privatising the NHS.
Conran’s 1980s is a world of shoulder pads, publishing and high finance, where women are constantly doing it for themselves. What could be a better model for Mrs May’s brand of Conservatism than entrepreneurial women starting their own companies or working hard to get their way in the boardroom? (And the bedroom, but the Iron Lady would probably have disapproved of that.) The messages shot through Lace, Crimson and Savages are of self-education, hard work, and never trusting your grandmother’s lawyer’s sleazy gambling-addict son to set up a holding company. (He’ll only embezzle your hard-earned millions.) If only George Osborne had read them before selling the Post Office.
‘Haven’t we just had a bonkbuster revival, with all the Fifty Shades nonsense?’ I hear you ask. Well, no. For a start, that’s glorified Twilight fan fiction — the jetset, devil-may-care world of the bonkbuster is aeons away from the pining of emo vampires. Moreover, the best bonkies are as much about friendship, loyalty and empowerment as about sex — all qualities lacking in E.L. James. Ana tries to avoid Christian Grey, he buys her some consumer goods, then he waves around his helicopter before some clinical thrusting. Rinse and repeat. Yawn.
Real bonkbusters use sensuality as an excuse for insight into another world, whether it’s the international polo circuit, magazine journalism or the film industry. Take Savages, Conran’s 1988 epic, where the pampered wives of a group of mining executives are marooned on a tropical island; this glorious book is effectively a jungle survival manual (complete with poisonous fruit and dead rats) peppered with bitchy remarks.
With a fresh Jilly Cooper out next week and Conran’s classics now downloadable on Kindle, one hopes a new breed of bonkbuster will soon appear — inspired by the Eighties–tastic combination of an unequal society and having a woman in charge again, not to mention the prospect of Donald Trump with his finger on the nuclear button. Yes, I know, correlation doesn’t equal causation. But, like the 1980s, this is a time when anyone sane wants a bit of escapist fun.
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