I’m happy to welcome Carol Cooper onto my blog today, as part of my ‘What I did at 50’ series. I first met Carol at the London Book Fair in 2013. Hi, Carol! Tell us about your life up to and at fifty and beyond…
Thank you very much for having me on your blog, Tracey. I’m a slow learner, and turning fifty taught me a lot.
Back in my twenties, I dreamed of living in Hampstead and writing novels. However, I couldn’t afford Hampstead rents at the time and didn’t know how to write a book. In fact I knew nothing much except how to pass exams. I did however write a few music reviews, which got me into some of the best gigs in Cambridge.
Studying took up the next few years. Once I qualified as a doctor, I began writing light-hearted articles for other medics, and eventually for Punch and other titles. To me, Punch has always been an iconic magazine, and I was thrilled when it became one of my regular outlets.
You asked about turning fifty, though, so I’ll fast-forward. By my forties, I had three teenaged sons and was a GP in a partnership in Chorleywood, Herts. I’d often been a part-time doctor, but had always worked, with only five weeks off after giving birth to my first child, and six months after having twins. This was considered exceptionally generous at the time.
Alongside this, I was also busy as a ‘media medic’, as some call it. As the doctor for The Sun newspaper, my role was to supply a medical opinion at short notice on topics that could range from hangover remedies to radiation spills. I also popped up a lot on radio and TV, especially on Sky News who gave me a regular slot. It was a fun time. I never knew what might come up next so it was like working in A&E, though without getting my hands dirty.
Inspired by my children and my work, I wrote a string of non-fiction books, among them the very popular Twins and Multiple Births and the Baby & Child Q & A Book. The only sadness was that my marriage had broken down by then, though my ex and I remain friendly.
Carol’s book Twins & Multiple Births: the essential parenting guide from pregnancy to adulthood.
Around my fiftieth birthday, I was teaching nurses in the practice, as well as medical students who sometimes did attachments with us. But the biggest change came when I left the partnership. The decision was triggered by the birthday of my eldest son, who insisted on waiting for me to come home from work before opening his cards and presents.
I had an evening clinic and the last patient took a while. I recall her telling me, “This won’t take a minute, doctor.” She was right. It took more like half an hour.
Just as I’d thought I’d finished, I got a call from a local care home. The elderly patient in question had already been visited several times in the last few days. The staff didn’t think she needed further medical attention but the family were insistent, so I went, taking the usual time and care even though it became clear that there was nothing more any doctor could do for her.
When I was finally driving home, it struck me somewhat late in the day (in every sense of the phrase) that I couldn’t have it all, despite everything I’d told myself. Anyone could be a GP, I concluded, but only one person could be a mother to my sons.
After I left the practice, I still wanted to see patients, but got pickier about the hours, so I worked on a very part-time basis. This allowed me to spend more time with my sons, teach medical students at Imperial College, and carry on with my media work and non-fiction books.
With over half my allotted time up on the big parking meter of life, I returned to ideas that had been simmering for a while. I’d already attended a weekend course led by the legendary Ruth Rendell who convinced me that I could write fiction, especially if it involved dialogue or sex. Spurred on by her advice, I finally finished a novel. I also moved to Hampstead when I downsized from the family home in Chorleywood. But it still wasn’t plain sailing. When my agent decided that One Night at the Jacaranda wasn’t her thing, I self-published my debut novel, followed two years later by Hampstead Fever.
Set in Hampstead, the book follows the intertwined lives of six Londoners whose various emotions boil over in the hot summer of 2013. This is the year I got married to Jeremy with whom, coincidentally, I’d worked at Punch all those years ago.
Readers often wonder why my novels have short scenes and feature multiple viewpoints. The answer is that it mirrors my profession. Every ten minutes, someone new comes into a GP’s consulting room, and I try to put myself in their shoes.
Although my career hasn’t taken a straight path, nothing has been wasted. There’s a lot of life experience in my novels, and, while all the characters are purely imaginary, there’s more than a whiff of authenticity in the stressed GP, the struggling journalist, and the newly single mother. I was delighted when WH Smith picked Hampstead Fever for a front-of-store promo in their travel bookshops.
Cathy from WH Smith at Gatwick Airport, holding a copy of Hampstead Fever
I’ve just finished a more literary novel. The Girls from Alexandria centres around Nadia, an Egyptian of Syrian origin who’s now seventy and has symptoms that might be dementia. To avoid being sent to a care home, she needs to find her only remaining relative, a sister who disappeared decades ago. As it’s set mostly in Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s, the book draws on my experience of growing up in Alexandria. I’m not sure when it’ll be published, but it has been pure joy revisiting old memories, just as Nadia does in the novel as she tries to piece clues together.
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