Quite possibly a more plausible Christmas gift than my own books, Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina: despatches from family life (2013) is hilarious, warm, and perceptive.
In letters to her sister she evokes her life after coming to London to work as nanny to the drôle Mary-Kay Wilmers (of the LRB) and her engaging and challenging kids, in leafy literary Gloucester Crescent in the 1980s.
Anyone taking it at face value may miss its genius. Forgive me if her original letters really had all the book’s subtleties of phrasing, but it seems to me that a lot of subtle mature editing was involved. Anyway, it’s an observational account of a niche tribe, full of linguistic delights—every page has a turn of phrase that leaves me helpless with laughter.
I apologize too for the things I got a bit wrong. Alan Bennett was never in Coronation Street for instance.
She doesn’t take her cultural education lying down:
PS Chaucer. Have you ever read it? Fuck. It’s a whole other language and meant to be hilarious, but it’s grim and annoying.
Later at the library:
… borrowed a recording of a bloke reading Chaucer in the Old English. Nearly wet myself listening.
Exams soon-ish. Here is a summary:
R&J: Romeo and Juliet hardly know each other, but they think they’re in love and both kill themselves. The nurse is an irresponsible idiot. The Friar is a moron. It’s a ludicrous story.
Winter’s Tale: King is mentally ill. Queen is a fool.
Chaucer: W of Bath is an unreliable old bag, but not a hypocrite. Marries for money but likes shagging, thinks women should be in charge.
Another leitmotif is Nina’s grappling with the baffling poncey new cuisine that was coming into vogue.
Tarragon: the cookbook says tarragon is “misunderstood”. Not by me. I understand it. It’s horrible.
Later she comments,
It’s all pasta and couscous nowadays, in London anyway.
Further fine observation:
MK does the big shopping—a mixed blessing—she buys stuff without a plan (I think she copies other people who know what they’re doing). This is the kind of stuff that comes back [list abbreviated here—SJ]:
quark (German style liquid cheese)
rye bread with seeds
balsamic vinegar of Modena (black vinegar)
And other mysterious things that add up to nothing much when it comes to making meals. It’s like living in another country.
Which reminds me of Ian Rush’s (disappointingly spurious) comment on his struggle to adapt to Italian life during his one season at Juventus in 1987–88:
I couldn’t settle in Italy—it was like living in a foreign country.
Critics haven’t always appreciated what a fine comic creation is her stolidly mundane portrayal of their neighbour Alan Bennett.
Me: You’re good with appliances.
AB: (proud) Well, I don’t know about that.
Me: You sorted out the car, the fridge, the phone, bike tyres and now the washing machine.
AB: I don’t think I am particularly good.
MK: But it’s nice to know you’ve got something to fall back on.
AB not around. In Yorkshire or New York. I prefer him being around… God knows what he does in NY (if it is NY), can’t imagine him there, being shouted at by taxi drivers and prostitutes. Though his coat would work.
AB himself took issue with Stibbe’s portrayal of him as “solid, dependable and dull”; but while finding some “misrememberings”, he understood—as well he might—that “such is art”.
The BBC TV version worked remarkably well too (like Cold comfort farm—I now realize the ingénue Nina has a distant affinity with confident Flora). As usual when watching, you just have to refrain from clinging onto your own image of the book. As the young Nina would doubtless observe.
* * *
I’ve only recently clocked the useful expression “Is that a thing?” (discussed here, and here), entertainingly used by the great Zoe Williams. A fine discussion on the ever-stimulating languagelog blog seems to date it only to 1995, though comments there hint at earlier variants. Since it makes some clear appearances in Love, Nina (assuming they’re not from a later edit), then we can take it back to the 1980s—e.g. p.132:
He picked up a raw burger and ate it. I was appalled but acted normal. Told MK later and she said it’s a thing (eating raw beef).
[another trademark of Stibbe’s style there—giving pedantic parentheses redundantly clarifying her previous comment].
Mary-Kay has started wearing two shirts at once. I don’t know where she’s picked it up, but it’s a thing, apparently.
Indeed, I guess Love, Nina is basically about striving to define the rules of an alien culture to whose values one aspires—though I can’t be Saussure [cf. my Foucault pun under Visual culture].