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12 December 2013

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.

By Jane Shilling

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.”

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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?”

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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.