Sunday 1 December 2013

Love, Nina : Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe

"Being a nanny is great. Not like a job really, just like living in someone else's life. Today before breakfast Sam had to empty the dishwasher and Will had to feed the cat."
Sam: I hate emptying the dishwasher. 
MK: We all do, that's why we take turns. 
Will: I hate the cat. 
MK: We all do, that's why we take turns. 
In the 1980s Nina Stibbe wrote letters home to her sister in Leicester describing her trials and triumphs as a nanny to a London family. There's a cat nobody likes, a visiting dog called Ted Hughes (Ted for short) and suppertime visits from a local playwright. Not to mention the two boys, their favourite football teams, and rude words, a very broad-minded mother and assorted nice chairs.
From the mystery of the unpaid milk bill and the avoidance of nuclear war to mealtime discussions on pie filler, the greats of English literature, swearing in German and sexually transmitted diseases, Love, Nina is a wonderful celebration of bad food, good company and the relative merits of Thomas Hardy and Enid Blyton.

Published by Viking (Penguin) on 7 November 2013; Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe is one of those books that  you find yourself quoting from constantly.  So many times over the past few days I've made anyone who was close by stop what they were doing so that I could read out yet another snippet of conversation taken from Nina Stibbe's wonderfully funny, witty and wise diaries.

Nina Stibbe moved from Leicestershire to London, she was twenty years old, it was 1982.  Nina had no experience of nannying, she had no experience of London.  She didn't know much about the world of literature, she wasn't impressed by famous people - especially those who she'd never heard of.  Nina found herself nannying in the household of Mary Kay Wilmers (or MK as the reader comes to know her as).  MK founded the London Review of Books and was mother of two young sons Sam and Will (S&W).

Alan Bennet lived across the road.  Yes, that Alan Bennet - he'd pop across the street for tea, clutching a can of lager and give his opinion on anything that may have happened, or be about to happen during that day.

Nina was never star-struck.  She relates the day-to-day goings on in this somewhat eccentric family with a warmth and a very dry wit in letters home to her sister Victoria.   Everyday conversations are related word for word and sometimes a little out of context, these conversations should probably sound mundane and a little boring, but Nina Stibbe surrounds the dialogue with descriptions of the speakers that are so vivid that the images bounce around the reader's head.

As readers, we should be grateful that Stibbe's sister Victoria kept all of the letters as without the originals, this book could not have been produced, and that would be so very very sad.  What is also quite sad is that a book like this will probably never be produced that features life after the late 1990s.  How many twenty year olds write letters these days?  Texts and emails will never replace the joy of receiving and opening a letter, and could never be put together like this.  The inside cover of Love, Nina features some of the original drawings that Nina illustrated her letters with, and it was because of these drawings that her sister kept the letters.  There are only a few of them, but take a look, they are simple, but perfect.

Love, Nina is one of those books that I know I will read again, and that happens so rarely.

My thanks to Anna from Viking ~ Penguin who sent my copy for review.

At the age of 20 Nina Stibbe moved from Leicestershire to London to become a nanny. Later she studied at Thames Polytechnic and worked in publishing. She now lives in Cornwall with her partner and children.
More information about the author at and on Twitter @ninastibbe