Review & image by Hannah Rose Yee
“My rooms (two adjoining) are the nicest, I think. I have a giant mirror, like out of a posh pub. The surround is ornate and painted bright orangey-red. I’ve got a bed in my bedroom, but I like sleeping in the mirror room, so have got a mattress in there too. I have a window to the front that looks over the street and a window at the back which looks over the gardens. Love, Nina.”
Nina Stibbe, Love Nina
This is one of my favourite books of all time: Love Nina, by Nina Stibbe. I read this almost three years ago in a hurry, devouring each page hungrily over a long weekend in winter before I knew I was starting a full time job and probably wouldn't have much time to read for pleasure. It's an epistolary book, the kind you rarely see anymore, a collection of letters written by Nina for her sister about her new life as a nanny in London in the '80s. You only get Nina's letters and never her sister's responses, and there's no editorialising from the author, putting things into context or explaining an in-joke. It's why it's so funny when, say, Nina mistakes British Opera Director Jonathan Miller, a friend of her new boss for a B-list soap star, or when a neighbour called Alan Bennett keeps popping around for tea, offering opinions on everything from white goods to how to make a stellar chicken curry. Because the family that Nina is nannying for isn't just any old family. It's the one presided over by Mary Kay Wilmers, the longtime editor of the London Review of Books, and her two wildly precocious sons with film director Stephen Frears (he of The Queen fame). Their neighbours include the aforementioned Bennett playwright, poet and author and several other London intellectuals and literary types who populated Camden in the '80s.
The whole book reads like the most fun game of Where's Wally, except the characters are prize-winning novelists and university lecturers and film-industry adjacent types: there's Claire Tomalin, there's John Lahr, and, oh, is that George Mely? But the real joy isn't in the pseudo-celebrity spotting. It's in the charming descriptions of haphazard life that are instantly recognisable to anyone who's been within spitting distance literally of a young child. The comic dinner table discussions, the cooking mishaps, the excursions that end in tears and a running rating of every brand of chocolate digestives (very important service journalism). All of it written in the unstudied and unadorned way that letters used to be written. "A bunch of literary types doing laundry and making salad," Bennett said, when he stumbled upon one of Nina's letters to her sisters in the book. Indeed. How delightful!