With Love, Nina starting tonight on BBC1, Jenny Shelton has a timely read of Nina Stibbe’s book.
So ends the first of many swift, cheerful reports from Nina Stibbe to her sister Vic which comprise Stibbe’s charming, original book, Love, Nina. A kind of modern epistolary novel, it came about after the now-journalist and author rediscovered these frank, funny letters home, penned with the confident curiosity of youth while she was nannying for a literary London family in the early 1980s. The result is a colourful mezze of eccentric characters, celebrity cameos (Rik Mayall buying Jacob’s Cream Crackers, anyone?), comic observations (on everything from Brecht to bin lids, Freud to fruit flies), written in Stibbe’s sharp, lively style. I blinking well loved it.
Like many households, most of family life at 55 Gloucester Crescent revolves around the kitchen. As readers, it’s in this busy hub – with its mismatched chairs, broken fridge and antique plates on the wall – that we spend much of our time, observing its comings and goings through Stibbe’s quirkily observational eye.
Head of the household is the blunt, glamorous Mary-Kay, mother to Stibbe’s endearingly precocious charges Will (aged nine; worries about nuclear war; always knows what to say) and Sam (10; hides food under the tablecloth; likes the word ‘toad’). Some of Love, Nina’s best moments are simply reports of their conversations, which go a bit like this:
Sam: “Every cloud has a silver outline.”
Sam: “Oh yes, beg your pardon.”
Understated, but brilliant.
The family seems to exist in a state of happy, creative chaos, with visitors drifting in and out, all the while providing ample fodder for our perceptive Mary Poppins. There’s Mary Hope (fingers like sausages), Stibbe’s keen but clueless classmate Stella, whose experiments with hair-dye seem doomed to end in spectacular failure, and Alan Bennett, who lives over the road and regularly invites himself for dinner.
They use weighing scales for baking because they’ve lost the weights, and Jonathan Miller won’t lend them a saw because they lost his last one. And nobody likes the cat.
But for all the upper middle-class hob-nobbing with the cultural elite, there’s no sense of boastful namedropping here. In fact, it’s clear the unfazed, artless 20 year-old Stibbe doesn’t know who many of these strange people are, and so famous writers get the same shrewd treatment as odd-job men. (Originally she thinks Alan Bennett was in Coronation Street, but it doesn’t stop her getting uppity when he critiques her lasagne. And George Melly was a jazz musician, FYI.)
While details of domestic life are pulled into sharp focus for the entertainment of the reader – her sister Vic, and now us – Stibbe’s writing is a lens held up at the world, never gazed into. It’s clear there’s a lot left out: notably her relationship with her boyfriend and indeed the life at the other end of the letters.
We know that Vic works in a nursing home but, short of supplying Nina with amusing anecdotes about old ladies (“Sorry to hear about the gum bite… good job she had no teeth”), she remains largely a silent, unseen entity. To the very cynical, her style could come over as self-indulgent (even a little self-satisfied), but you’ll probably – hopefully – be too busy snorting tea through your nose to notice.
Over the course of the book we meander joyfully through Nina’s experiences nannying and, later, embarking on an English Literature course, which hones her obvious natural talent while providing fresh characters for her to study – both real and fictional. If it were up to me, her critiques on Shakespeare (“Romeo and Juliet hardly know each other”) and Chaucer (“people always going on about how rude and funny it is because someone farts”) should be entered into the syllabus. In fact, for complete meta-satisfaction, so should this.
Love, Nina isn’t a story as such but a scrapbook of wonderful characters, conversations and situations. Mary-Kay, Sam, Will and Stibbe herself are excellent company, and the delightful clash of high culture and the absolutely ordinary, written with Stibbe’s easy lightness of touch, makes for joyous reading. A personal highlight was the story of the muffin footprints, though her one-minute poem about the violin comes in at a very close second.
As Stibbe herself observes, and proves on every page: “You have to wonder why authors even bother trying to make up a good story (chasing whales or living in a hollowed-out old tree) when just losing your gloves is good enough, if you tell it right.”
For fans of: I Capture the Castle, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole
Will make you feel: Uplifted, entertained, connected.
Love, Nina starts tonight at 9.30pm on BBC1. It stars Faye ‘The Waif’ Marsay as Nina Stibbe and Helena Bonham-Carter as Mary-Kay.5084 Views
Jenny is a writer and displaced northerner who has danced, baked, flown planes and hugged giant seals in the name of journalism. She is also a secret birdwatcher, serial book-buyer and sucker for a Sunday night costume drama.