In the early ’80s Nina Stibbe took up a job as a nanny in north London, 55 Gloucester Crescent to be precise. With no Facebook, no Twitter, no email, no texting only landlines and Royal Mail for keeping in touch, Nina wrote regularly to her sister Vic about her new life and Vic kept the letters. Not a particularly inspiring premise for a book you might think but Love, Nina is an absolute delight.
Nina went to live with Mary-Kay Wilmers, deputy editor of the London Review of Books, to look after Will and Sam, her children by film director Stephen Frears. Claire Tomalin lived a few doors up, Jonathan Miller a stone’s throw away and Alan Bennett, a frequent supper guest, dead opposite. In her situation, aged twenty, I’d have been gauche, tongue-tied and horribly obsequious, I’m sure, but Nina is totally unfazed by life amongst the NW1 literati, happy to argue with Alan Bennett (AB) about the merits or otherwise of buddleia and voice her opinions of Mary-Kay’s (MK) possible new boyfriends. She’s an eccentric, funny and often puzzled slightly sceptical commentator on what they all get up to, much of it conveyed in reported often laconic exchanges which read like something out of an AB play. After a couple of years, encouraged by MK and Nunney, who helps look after Claire Tomalin’s son, she enrols on an A-Level course studies Romeo and Juliet – ‘the nurse is an irresponsible idiot. The Friar is a moron. It’s a ludicrous story’ – and The Wife of Bath – ‘an unreliable old bag but not a hypocrite. Marries for money but likes shagging, thinks a woman should be in charge’ – then applies to Thames Polytechnic and gets an unconditional place. After a brief stay with one of MK’s friends just down the garden she moves back in and life continues in much the same vein although with new friends – Stella Heath with her string of unsuitable boyfriends and obsession with red tips for her hair – visits to Nunney studying in Brighton and a possible sighting of Samuel Beckett looking like a ‘well-groomed fisherman’ at the Lyric. Unsurprisingly, she discovers she likes Pinter.
The letters end when Nina finishes her course, unsure what to do next but thinking she might find a job. It’s like losing touch with an old friend, although there’s a short Afterword which brings you up to date with a particularly pleasing final sentence. Thanks to Vic for keeping the letters, to Nina for sharing them with us and to MK for being a good sport about letting them be published, and thanks from me to Naomi at TheWritesofWomen whose enthusiasm led me to the book.