Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe
This volume of memoirs in the form of letters was the perfect reading for me in the past couple of weeks, when life has been so hectic. I’ve just finished a couple of weeks of full-time cover teaching, and then with all the usual Christmas events from bazaars to carol services to help at, editing the school magazine etc. etc. etc. I’ve fallen asleep within minutes of going to bed – waking in the early hours with the light on – still sitting propped up with my thumb jammed in the book! Not a good posture for dozing, but now term has ended and I can relax. This book of short sections was just the thing to ensure I managed to get some reading done. Let me tell you about it…
In the early 1980s, aged twenty, Nina Stibbe left Leicestershire for London to become a nanny. It still being the days when not everyone had a phone, she wrote home regularly to her sister Victoria telling her all about her successes and non-successes at nannying and the amazing family she worked for. Luckily for us, Vic kept the letters.
Nina worked for Mary-Kay Wilmers, who was then deputy editor of the London Review of Books, and she looked after her two sons, Will and Sam (whose father is Stephen Frears). They lived in North London near Regents Park Zoo; Alan Bennett (AB) was a neighbour – always popping in for tea, and Jonathan Miller lived up the road.
When he (AB) comes over for supper he does this tiny short doorbell ring, hardly a ring at all, he just touches the bell and it makes just the beginning of a ring. That’s him. Minimum fuss.
It seems to have been a very haphazard, but lovely household. Neither MK nor Nina really cooked much but everyone seems to have thrived. MK seems to have been quite liberal, and her sons (aged 9 and 10 at the start) are able to get away with quite adult language and they’re all naturally witty in a dead-pan way. They are all completely loveable, with Sam and Will forming a comedy double act with their amazing conversations.
S & W had a row yesterday afternoon. To annoy Will, Sam said he might switch to Manchester United. Will called Sam something mysterious in German, which he claimed to be extremely offensive, but turned out to be mother-in-law (according to AB).
Will: (to Sam) By the way, it was ‘swiegermutter’.
Sam: What was?
Will: What I called you – it’s German for ‘motherfucker’.
AB: ‘Swiegermutter’? Actually, I think that’s German for ‘mother-in-law’.
Will: Oh. What’s the German for ‘motherfucker’, then?
MK: Probably ‘motherfucker’.
AB: (pondering) It might be ‘mutterficken’? Or perhaps ‘arschficken’, ‘arshlock’? But please can’t we discuss nicer things?
Eventually Nina, egged on by boyfriend Nunney, who is a helper at the Tomalins – another literary family nearby, decides to apply to do an English degree, having enjoyed doing A-level English. She is offered a place at Thames Poly, and at first moves out so a new nanny can move in. However, it’s not long before they have a jiggle round and she moves back in with her adopted family.
It’s really nice to hear about Nina’s discoveries of the literary canon as she progresses in her degree, but her college friends are less interesting than the Wilmers. Given that Nina is a mature student, they seem immature in comparison to her. I was longing for more Sam and Will, and AB during these sections. Bennett constantly surprised me actually – this passage when their washing machine malfunctioned really tickled me…
Once neither of us nudged it and it went for hours and everything came out all matted. AB suggested it was something to do with the water not heating up to the target temperature and therefore not moving n to the next part of the cycle. It’s amazing how much AB knows about appliances (when you consider he’s a writer and pretty much just writes all day.)
Me: You’re good with appliances.
AB: (proud) Well, I don’t know about that.
Me: You sorted out the car, the fridge, the phone, bike tyres and now the washing machine.
AB: I don’t think I’m particularly good.
MK: But it’s nice to know you’ve got something to fall back on.
Anyway, it’s fixed now, a bloke came round and it was what AB said (temperature thing).
Although this book is completely one-sided – Nina seems not to have kept Vic’s replies, she does acknowledge her sister’s life events in her letters. Vic is always sending her recipes to try and cuttings so we get a slight sense of her sister. Nina, like her charges is witty; she’s also opinionated, but self-deprecating too. We’re about the same age, and I can tell you the early 1980s was a great time to be in your twenties in London. The book comes to an end after six years of letters when Nina graduates. The Wilmers were definitely brave to let Nina publish her diaries – but they needn’t have worried, for they are lovely, and so is Nina. (9/10)
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Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe, pub Viking, Nov 2013, Hardback 336 pages.