Too often, when someone says that they “laughed out loud” while reading a book they really meant there were a couple of moments that provoked a silent chuckle and maybe a wry smile or two. When I read Love Nina by Nina Stibbe I laughed out loud. A lot. I laughed out loud enough times when I was travelling on the London Tube that other passengers were surreptitiously eyeing seats further away from the crazy woman.
Writing funny is a rare skill and when the humour is a result of observations of the small ridiculous happenings that are real life, particularly family life, it’s a particular joy to read. Love Nina, Despatches from Family Life to give it its full title, is Nina’s memoir told through her letters home to her sister Vic. It is 1982 and at the age of 20, with no particular experience, Nina moves from Leicestershire to work as a nanny for the deputy editor of the London Review of Books and her sons Sam 10, and Will, aged nine. Despite the initial cultural chasm she immediately settles in. “Being a nanny is great. Not like a job really, just like living someone else’s life.”
Nina finds herself in a household that is at the heart of London’s vibrant literary scene. Playwright Alan Bennett (AB) lives in the same street and is a regular visitor, usually at mealtimes clutching a pudding or salad that he has created. Theatre director Jonathan Miller lives close by as does Claire Tomalin, literary editor of The Sunday Times and her partner, playwright and novelist, Michael Frayn. You get the picture.
Nina’s letters are mix of conversations ( particularly funny when involving the two boys) and commentary about daily life that includes the cat, turkey mince, toilet paper with rosebuds on and Samuel Beckett (all bad although Beckett has redeeming features) to West Ham, Banana Loaf, Charles Dickens and practical jokes (all good although Charles Darwin is the better Charles). It throws open a window not just on the laid back but slightly eccentric Wilmer household but on London society in the ‘80s.
After more than two years as nanny Nina is persuaded by the family to go to university and chooses to study literature and moves out to the house of a friend which is literally at the bottom of the garden. Even then, she maintains her relationship with the family eventually moving back in, more friend than nanny. Her views on some of the great authors of our time wouldn’t have won her any prizes if she’d shared them with her tutors but are dazzlingly on the money to anyone who has had to slog through some of their lesser works. And her descriptions of university life brought on a curious wave of nostalgia for bad food, boozy parties, late-night cramming, exam panic, big mistake hair cuts, bitchy girlfriends and unfaithful boyfriends. Ah, those were the days.
There is a list of “characters” at the beginning of the book, but one small drawback of Love Nina could be that whilst the references to people and places (and Soccer teams) will be instantly identifiable to anyone who knows England well, and in particular London in the 1980s, for others the occasional joke could fall flat. It shouldn’t matter though. You will laugh out loud.
Love Nina, Despatches from Family Life is published by Penguin.