Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe

Nina Stibbe's letters, written to her sister while she was working for Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the London Review of Books, may just be the best collection published this year.

Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life 
Nina Stibbe
Viking, 336pp, £12.99

“Few men,” wrote Montaigne, “have been admired by their servants” – and even fewer women, he might have added, by their nannies. Over the centuries, the relationship between employer and domestic has spawned a rich tradition of social comedy, from Plautus’s clever slaves and Shakespeare’s subversive household retainers to Mozart’s Figaro and P G Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster. Which brings us, in a roundabout fashion, to Nina Stibbe.

About Nina’s life before and after her career as a nanny we know tantalisingly little. In the brief introduction to her collection of letters to her sister, Victoria, written while she was working for Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the London Review of Books, she reveals only that she moved to Camden Town from Leicestershire in 1982, aged 20.

MK, as she is called in the letters, lived at 55 Gloucester Crescent with her two sons: Sam, then aged ten, who suffers from Riley-Day syndrome, and the nine-year-old Will. Stibbe wasn’t to know it but, several years before she arrived in Gloucester Crescent, its denizens, who included Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett, the literary editor Claire Tom­alin and her partner, the novelist and playwright Michael Frayn, had provided comic inspiration for the cartoonist Mark Boxer, who satirised the crescent’s rarefied atmosphere in his cartoon strip The Stringalongs.

Nina was unawed by the well-known neighbours, though she was fascinated by their eccentricities. She fearlessly identifies Jonathan Miller as an opera singer (“People were always saying, ‘Have you heard Jona­than’s Rigoletto?’ to each other, and he’s got a very deep voice”) and provides a devastating thumbnail sketch of Alan Bennett: “You’d know him if you saw him. He used to be in Coronation Street. He’s got a small nose and Yorkshire accent ... He’s very interested in history but he’s rubbish on nature.”

Bennett is a fixture at No 55, forever popping over for supper and, to Nina’s irritation, criticising her cooking: “Very nice, but you don’t really want tinned tomatoes in a beef stew,” he complains. “Who’s more likely to know about beef stew?” Nina remarks tartly. “Him (a bloke who can’t be bothered to cook his own tea) or The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook?”

There seems to have been a fair amount of culinary tension on Gloucester Crescent. While Wilmers was prone to random supermarket shopping (“I think she copies other people who know what they’re doing”), returning with quark, bulghur, lychees and turkey mince, Nina favours the use of tinned soup in casseroles. She can’t be doing with fresh herbs (“The cookbook says tarragon is misunderstood. Not by me. I understand it. It’s horrible”) but cautiously experiments with balsamic vinegar: it “looks like medicine but is nice”.

Along with food, fashion is something of a leitmotif. Nina is only moderately interested in her own appearance (she rarely wears shoes) but has a keen eye for the eccentricities of MK’s turnout. There is her startling foray into thick, black eyeliner, a look copied from her new best friend and LRB colleague, Susannah Clapp: “Fucking Ada! She looks even worse than Susannah.” A new tweed coat isn’t a success, either: “MK looks tiny inside the coat ... Saw her in Inverness Street yes­terday ... The coat looked like it was moving along by itself.”

After a couple of years, Nina began an English degree at the Thames Polytechnic, about which she had mixed feelings: “Why do people like Shakespeare? I wish I did. I’ve tried but I don’t.” On the bright side, at a performance of plays by Samuel Beckett at the Lyric Theatre, she heard muttering and turned to see the playwright sitting behind her: “It was like seeing a unicorn or a Borrower, or like when I saw that snake in the crocosmia.”

Alan Bennett couldn’t have put it better. Indeed, so fleet is Stibbe’s turn of phrase and so sharp her ear for dialogue that at one point I decided that there was no such person as Nina Stibbe and that this brilliantly comic volume was a jeu d’esprit by AB, artfully disguised as a 20-year-old nanny.

The Bennettish use of the word “mardy” (meaning sulky, out of sorts) seems a dead giveaway, along with the mysterious aura of melancholy that surrounds such apparently inconsequential snatches of dialogue as this, on MK’s misguided purchase of flowery loo roll (“Looks nice until you use it”):

Me I don’t like the rosebud toilet paper.
MK I know, I know.
Me It’s worrying.
MK I know. I didn’t think it through.

Questions of authorship aside, I doubt there has been a more sparkling collection of letters published this year.

Alan Bennett (left) in 1963: "He’s got a small nose and Yorkshire accent ... He’s very interested in history but he’s rubbish on nature." Photograph: Getty Images.

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Burnout Britain

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR