‘A nice understated sense of the absurd…keeps our sympathy mobile, our laughter on edge’
The Times Literary Supplement
‘Cobbold is the wittiest of writers … quite glorious’
‘An original, painful, funny, fresh book’
Guppies for Tea, my first novel, got off to a great start as it was selected for the W.H. Smith Fresh Talent Promotion and subsequently short listed for the Sunday Express Book of the Year and serialised on Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour. Later, I was very excited to see it made into a film by German television, starring the late and great Inge Meysel.
The inspiration for the novel came from the years when, as a twenty something mother of two small children, I was faced with the care of my elderly and confused mother-in-law. At the time my own parents, both still mercifully fit and well, were barely in their fifties so the issue of caring for an ageing parent was not one that I had given any thought. Instead I was busy with school runs and Sports Days and Tootles the Taxi at bedtime and wondering if tinned peaches counted as ‘produce’ for Harvest Festival.
Certainly, I was woefully unprepared for what seemed like the sudden transformation of an adult mother figure to that of needy confused ‘old person.’
The tragi- comedy that is old age unfurled before my eyes as care at home ceased to be an option and became instead, care in a Home. When my beloved grandmother, back in Sweden, deteriorated in much the same manner as my mother in law and even the dog became incontinent I feared, momentarily, for my sanity.
It struck me, too, that most of us behave as if old age is something that happens to other people, as if the elderly are a separate species, descending on earth, pre-wrinkled and handily attached to a Zimmer frame.
I wrote Guppies in a state of some anger; at the way we, as a society, view our old people, at myself for opting not to care for my ailing mother-in- law at home, at life for ending so badly. My way of dealing with most things, although obviously there are exceptions, is to make a joke. There were plenty of funny moments, many of them blackly funny, through all this and many of these got translated into my fiction. Of course, I had to be careful not to fall for the Hollywood treatment, you know the one: brave feisty old person battling against uncaring, too busy to bother, younger relatives. The whole issue of ageing and caring for the elderly is way more complex than that.
There are no easy answers in Guppies For Tea. Who amongst us have answers to death and decline? But judging by the hundreds of letters I received from readers around all around the world after the book’s publication, I think I may have asked some of the right questions.