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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
Friday 08 November 2013
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.
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