I work for Jilly Cooper

Pippa Birch, 26, is PA to the novelist
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The Independent Online
I used to teach people how to use computers, and when Jilly bought lap-tops for her secretary, Annette, and her husband Leo's secretary, Anna, early in 1995, I was sent to train them. While I was doing that Jilly came to realise that I was getting rather peeved with this job, and she asked me if I would help to type the manuscript of her novel Appassionata, which she was just finishing.

I'd been a Cooper fan all my life, so it was a dream come true. I typed about a third of the manuscript - Anna and Annette also worked on it - and I made up my money and filled the rest of my time with reception work at a hotel. Then Jilly's old PA left, and I started in that job full- time in September 1995. Annette continues to work as Jilly's secretary, coming in twice a week to type letters.

I'd had a couple of PA positions before; I used to be PA to a surveyor. I'd left school with no qualifications, but I then took myself off to college and got every secretarial qualification that I could. I also got a few O-levels as well, in the end.

My hours are 9am to 4.30pm, but they are incredibly flexible. There's no such a thing as a typical working day for me, but that's what I love about it. Sometimes I have to stay and dog-sit, or walk the dogs on days that Jilly's not here - Jilly's been on tour recently for the new book. Animals are paramount to Jilly, and staying with them is fine with me.

But I also get to go places with Jilly, if it's convenient. Once she appeared on Call My Bluff, the literary panel game, and I asked if I could go with her to the recording because Terry Waite was on, and I've always wanted to meet him. Recently, too, I went to a couple of signings with her, to the launch party of Appassionata in London, and to a preview of the TV adaptation of The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous, where I met the cast. I like getting to meet people: it gives me the chance to put a face to the voices on the telephone.

My usual tasks are opening the post, paying bills and answering the phone. And when Jilly's writing, as she is at the moment, she often dictates notes for me to type up. But I don't get to see anything of a book until Jilly has finished it and is happy, and even then I only get a few chapters at a time. Mainly, I'm fielding calls from the press, asking for Jilly to write something, or for her thoughts on various subjects - anything to do with Gloucestershire, especially. She got a lot of calls about the writer Laurie Lee's death a few weeks ago.

I've never really been treated badly by anyone in this job. When you're talking to people on the phone, tact is the paramount thing. You have to be courteous, and I think that if you are always nice to people they have a job being nasty to you. Some people continue to hassle me with requests that Jilly has said no to already, and it gets a bit awkward, but I don't complain. I know that there are lot of people who would love to jump into my shoes given the chance.

The best thing about the job is Jilly herself. I see her for about a third of the day. She's there when I get in, and I go through the post with her. We'll have a chat, and then she'll give me various tasks for the day. But I don't disturb her after she's started working, unless it's something important.

The most important skill required to be a good PA is to be able to get on with things when people tell you to do them. Jilly doesn't want to have to repeat things - she just wants to be able to ask something of me and know that it will be done. You have to be able to work on your own initiative, have a good personality and a good telephone manner, and be easy-going and flexible. As far as I'm concerned, I think I've got the best job in the world.

Interview by Scott Hughes

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