Letters reveal everyday lives of Alan Bennett and friends
Nina Stibbe’s new book reveals hilarious details of life in 1980s Gloucester Crescent
It’s never been scientifically proven, but there’s something about Christmas that attracts a very British brand of nostalgia. It’s the reason why pantomime has survived so long, the reason we can’t resist Love Actually despite our best intentions.
More to the point, it’s the reason many are touting Nina Stibbe to have a rather successful yuletide.
“It’s the Alan Bennett effect,” she suspects, remarking on the incredible warmth that has been directed towards her new book, Love, Nina. A collection of real-life letters written to her sister in the early 1980s, the book details Stibbe’s time working as a nanny in Camden Town’s Gloucester Crescent, where she spent nearly every dinnertime conversing with the much-loved playwright.
“I was coming back from holiday with my family the other week and we pulled into a cafe to get some breakfast. As we sat down, there was a newspaper on the table which had an article on my book. My daughter can’t believe the attention it’s been getting – she turned to me and said, ‘Mum, was it you or Alan Bennett who’s written this thing?’”
The intrigue is justified. You’d be hard pressed to find even a fictional memoir written with the dry wit and sharp eye of Stibbe, and that’s without considering the window she provides onto one of London’s most thriving literary addresses of the period.
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Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, Michael Frayn and Deborah Moggach were just some of the area’s local residents, while Stibbe herself worked for the editor of the London Review of Books, Mary-Kay Wilmers. Amusingly, however, as a girl in her early 20s, this wasn’t the sort of group that particularly impressed the young nanny and she even mistook Bennett for a Coronation Street actor and Miller for an opera singer. “To me, they weren’t quite famous in the right way,” she laughs. “I was more interested in Spandau Ballet, they were who I’d have associated with ‘celebrity’.
Many would have no doubt dreamed of being in Stibbe’s position, but from a literary standpoint it proved to be a blessing in disguise. Free of any sense of awe or sycophancy, her letters instead lay such personalities bare. Bennett’s tetchy critiques of Stibbe’s cooking (“I’d slightly exaggerated my skills”), Miller’s awkwardness after she loses his favourite wood saw – no one is shown to be above the small, petty details of everyday life.
Another advantage of this innocence is that emphasis is equally placed on the two pre-teens in her care, Sam and Will Frears (the sons of Wilmers and film director Stephen Frears). Despite their age in the book – 10 and nine respectively – the brothers show a maturity beyond their years, often upstaging Bennett himself for the best lines.
“The two boys – they were so sweet and so witty and it meant that I fitted into the family so quickly,” Stibbe, now aged 51, adds. “I’ve got lots of siblings and did feel like their older sister. We’d push each other in the pool, play tricks on each other…I don’t think everyone would appreciate that sort of nanny nowadays. They’d probably want someone more formal and…careful.”
At one stage in the book, Bennett notes that a diary should not “bother with issues, i.e. the news, just the day-to-day stuff” and, having also been inspired by Adrian Mole, Stibbe evidently took this on board. The wider backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain takes a backseat to intimate sketches of the local community and there is a plethora of quirky scenes involving Swiss Cottage swimming pool, Hampstead Heath and visits from Camden Council. Fittingly, the book’s launch even took place at Daunt Books in South End Green.
Stibbe’s ability to champion life’s minutiae has led to a flood of praise from everyone from Nick Hornby to Deborah Moggach. Ironically, Andrew O’Hagan labels her “the funniest new writer to emerge in years”, despite the fact that these acclaimed thoughts were penned more than 30 years ago.
It does beg the question, though, could such a book really be written today?
“I’m not the sort of person that believes the younger generation are losing everything,” says Stibbe. “I actually think that a lot of what’s happened to communication these days is great. I’d have given my right arm to have had Skype when I was living in France for six months, it’s nicer for everyone.
“Back then, writing letters just happened to be one of the best ways of communication – the only reason I wrote them long was to ensure I got one back. But if you look at what’s going on now, I think a lot of people are starting to look at letters again and treat them as these more treasured kind of artefacts.”
Of course, the subjects of most letters won’t have to worry about their lives being bound into a future Penguin publication. Stibbe insists that, in such a literary community, there was little opposition to the idea and “most of them were happy to be in for a penny, in for a pound.” In fact, the only objections came from the notoriously direct Wilmers and even she soon relented after a few persuasive conversations.
While the two boys are now in their 40s, Stibbe still keeps in regular contact. Sam, in particular, still resides in Primrose Hill with Wilmers and was last year the subject of a documentary Being Sam Frears, which focused on his incredibly rare condition, Riley-Day syndrome. With so many north London ties still strong, does Stibbe miss her time spent in Camden?
“Well after I lived in Gloucester Crescent, I ended up in Crouch End and then in Kilburn for a bit. That area of north London… it’s great and changes quite a bit, but it’s always remained such a cool place, there’s always something going on.
“At the time, I‘d often get grumpy if Alan Bennett made a better salad than me, but ultimately it was just so jolly and fun. It has made me miss the time, I’m a grown woman but sometimes you can’t help getting a bit nostalgic.”
Love, Nina: Despatches From Family Life by Nina Stibbe is published by Penguin priced £12.99.