To me Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life (published in the U.S. as Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home) sounded as if it might be a collection of ‘hilarious’ letters about the everyday domestic chaos of life with small children. Highlights being, perhaps, lost nappy bags and cold mugs of tea. In TV terms, a sort of Call the Midwife crossed with Outnumbered.
It’s not like that at all.
This is a book of letters written over 5 years by Nina to her sister in Leicestershire. In 1980 Nina left Leicestershire at the age of twenty and without any qualifications to go and work in London as a nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmers (editor of the London Review of Books) and her two sons, Sam, 10 and Will, 9. Her decision to nanny was random: it sounded like it might be a nice life. Being chosen by Mary-Kay was random too; a lot seemed to hinge on which football team she supported.
Over the five years Nina meets a sizeable mob of writers and film people. For example, Alan Bennett lives two doors down and comes to tea most nights. Sam and Will are the sons of film director Stephen Frears. Deborah Moggach lives down the road, as do Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn. There’s a handy list at the front of the book saying who’s who.
Most of the (glowing) reviews in the British press dwell on Nina’s complete unfazedness. And it is mind-blowing. Despite leaving school at 15 with no qualifications and being more than a touch under-read, Nina makes herself completely at home. She banters as an equal with the fearsomely intellectual Mary-Kay and with Sam and Will who are also super-brainy and very funny. There is no cultural cringe. Nina is cool. At that age I would have given my arm to have been as cool as she is. Sure, she sometimes feels awkward, but generally it’s only the normal young person’s awkwardness (for instance, when she worries that one of Mary-Kay’s friends is laughing at her new side-pony tail). In her encounters with the literary and media elite she is equally underwhelmed. “Who’s more likely to know about beef stew,” she remarks snarkily after Alan Bennett suggests she shouldn’t add canned tomatoes, “him (a bloke who can’t be bothered to cook his own tea) or The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook?”
The reported exchanges are superb. See this:
Mouldy banana in a rucksack in Sam’s bedroom.
Sam: I haven’t used that bag since I was eleven.
Me: So that banana’s over a year old.
Sam: Do you think we missed its birthday?
Me: Yes. Put it in the kitchen bin.
Sam: What a pointless life it’s had.
Will: Forgotten fruit always upsets him.
Me: You’re good with appliances.
Alan Bennett: (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.
Alan Bennett: I don’t think I’m particularly good.
Mary-Kay: But it’s nice to know you’ve got something to fall back on.
For my money, though, Nina is as good and funny on ordinary situations. One of my favourites is her reporting of her almost-job at Plumstead snooker club. By now she is a student at Thames Polytech studying English literature. Her friend and fellow-student Stella works at the snooker club and offers to get Nina a job. Nina shadows Stella one night to get to grips with the job’s requirements. Essentially the job entails speaking to some customers, preparing a microwavable snack sandwich , wiping a table and helping yourself to a gin and lemonade. Unfortunately there’s a hitch:
I didn’t mind heating up the snacks or opening the bottles but I really hated going out into the dark space and calling,”Ron, could you come forward?”
Apparently a few punters have been self conscious about food items being named and have asked staff to be less specific. The snooker club manager came up with “Ron, could you come forward” (if their name is Ron) and the punters are happy with it.
Stella said if I couldn’t face calling blokes to come forward for their microwaveable snacks , then I might ask myself the question: am I temperamentally suitable for the job?
Walking home I admitted to Stella that I really couldn’t face asking men to come forward for their snacks – I blamed it on being brought up by a single mother and not being used to that sort of thing – and that therefore I must decline the job.
From these letters I’d say that Nina Stibbe’s talent for life is as strong as her talent for writing. She’s independent, sharp as a tack, joyously sweary and unmaterialistic. The many reviews I’ve read from the British press make it clear that every reviewer wants to be her best friend. I do too. Failing that, I think I’ll just read her book one more time.
- The 1980s fashion, music and culinary scene. Just a teaser: ‘Balsamic Vinegar from Modena’ makes a special appearance.
- Nina’s freedom from body neuroses. She never mentions her weight. Any mention of her own appearance will be about a fashion decision – she’s mildly interested in fashion. Admittedly she has trouble with shoes (they embarrass her) but she solves that problem by mainly going barefoot.
- Nina’s freedom from relationship angst. Yeah, we know she likes/loves someone, probably very much. And he seems to go off on his own a lot. But, angst? No, Nina doesn’t do angst.
- Nina’s take on the books she has to read for her course. Sadly, but for strangely compelling reasons, Shakespeare and Chaucer do not fare well under Nina’s scrutiny. Seamus Heaney is a surprise hit.
- More photos would be brilliant. If not of the people (aw-why not??) then the houses/streets she mentions.
- More letters. Just, more.
P.S. Apparently there’s an ‘autobiographical novel’ coming out in November of this year.