Viking, £12.99. Order at the discounted price of£10.99 inc. p&p from independent.co.uk/bookshop or call 0843 0600 030

Book review: Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life, By Nina Stibbe

A nanny's account of a kooky London literary set that is as comic as it is humane

In 1982, 20-year-old Nina Stibbe moved to London to be a nanny. Over the next few years, as she worked and studied, she kept up a stream of letters about her life to her sister Victoria in Leicester, collected now in Love, Nina. Nina lived with Mary-Kay Wilmers (the editor of the London review of Books) and her two sons – Sam aged 10, and 9-year-old Will – in Camden Town. Alan Bennett, who lived across the road, popped in for supper most nights.

It turns out he's surprisingly good at fixing electrical appliances, and pretty knowledgeable about food, even if he doesn't cook his own:

"Yesterday I cooked a stew (four hours – oven lowest). AB came over for supper.

AB: Very nice, but you don't really want tinned tomatoes in a beef stew.

Me: It's a Hunter's Stew.

AB: You don't want tinned tomatoes in it, whoever's it is.

Who's more likely to know about beef stew – him (a bloke who can't be bothered to cook his own tea) or The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook?"

There are other famous neighbours. Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn live down the street (though when Nina's grandmother and aunt are in town to see the latter's play, they'd still rather meet Bennett), as does Jonathan Miller. Not that these impress Nina particularly; at first she doesn't know who half of them are – "Of course he's the Alan Bennett. You'd know him if you saw him. He used to be in Coronation Street". She thinks Miller's an "ex-doctor, now opera singer", until she asks him if he is, and everyone laughs.

It's a happy, busy household. Mary-Kay's "brainbox" friends are always popping in, some of whom, Nina surmises, are "real weirdos". "Can't tell if Michael Neve is mentally ill or just unusual," she writes. "On the one hand he reads the LRB and is a doctor of something, on the other he turned up today in the middle of the morning and asked if he could play a record [Prince's Little Red Corvette] he'd just bought ..." Mortified at the spectacle of him singing and dancing in the living room, she tells Carmelita the cleaner, "He's not my friend; he's Mary Kay's".

Stibbe's account of everyday domesticity is no less engaging – arguments over unloading the dishwasher and homework, everyone's places at the supper table, and the chairs they prefer. Her eye for comic detail is impeccable – from her and the boys "messing about" in a skip, to her discovery, only a couple of days before her dissertation is due, of a book that "pretty much contradicts everything I say and not only that. It says anyone who thinks what I've said is true is an idiot"; to the story of a friend of a friend who hangs around the South Bank theatres pretending to be an art student "sketching" the actors rehearsing, but really just in the hope of meeting eligible men. The only problem "is when the blokes ask to see the sketches her friend has done. They're just stick men."

Her powers of description are spot-on: recognising Samuel Beckett in the audience of one of his own plays ("people talking nonsense in dustbins and making funny noises"), it's her description of him as a "well-groomed fisherman" that convinces her friends it was the great man himself. This is by far the funniest, most genuinely heart-warming account of the everyday I've read. Stibbe is an unassuming comic genius.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Above the hat of the toy gibbon, artist Mark Roscoe included a ‘ghost of a bird’ and a hidden message
art
Arts and Entertainment
Alien: Resurrection, Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder
film
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable