Went to London, Took the Dog by Nina Stibbe: Diary of a sabbatical

Cover image for Went to London, Took the Dog by Nina StibbeMy last review for 2023 is an uncharacteristic one for me: it’s not fiction. Nina Stibbe’s Went to London, Took the Dog is a delightfully easy read, a world away from my usual non-fiction diet of politics or history. It’s her diary of her year lodging with novelist Deborah Moggach, along with her cockerpoo, Peggy, not quite sure whether her marriage is at an end.

I haven’t got Covid but it does feel as though I have stepped through some kind of portal into a contemporary novel, written in a hurry by the younger cousin of Anne Tyler. Anne has given it a light edit but there are still clunky parts and much of that is completely implausible.

It’s twenty years since Stibbe left London when she moves into the room recently vacated by writer pal Sathnam Sanghera, and forty since she nannied for Mary Kay Wilmer, then editor of the London Review of Books, recorded in her letters to her sister in the hugely entertaining Love, Nina which I inhaled a decade ago. Stibbe has been living in Cornwall with her husband and their two children, both now at university in London. She and Moggach get on like a house on fire, Stibbe tactfully setting humane mousetraps for the rodents Moggach doesn’t seem to have noticed, sharing Charlie Bigham’s fish pies in front of the TV in between heading off to check progress on filming and theatre adaptations (Moggach) and appearing at literary festivals, visiting family in Leicestershire and trying to get down to her novel (Stibbe). Peggy finds London a challenge as does her owner who enjoys the ease with which her children navigate it just as she did when she was their age. By the end of her year, a decision has been reached and Stibbe packs her bags, heading off via Gloucester Services where she wonders whether to wait for the cheese pies to be ready or settle for lentil and butternut squash.

Debby back. She’s had her hair done in Kent and it looks fantastic. I went on about it and mentioned Grayson Perry, not that she ever looks like him, but just to encourage her to get it done more often, and she seemed a bit annoyed. 

Reading Stibbe’s diary is rather like having a witty gossipy mate around for a lengthy catch-up. Her diary is littered with names familiar to readers which in other writers might seem irritatingly pretentious but these are simply Stibbe’s friends or people she knows. She’s full of chatty intimacies, happy to share menopause troubles with friends – from incontinence to joint pain – and overjoyed by their easing by HRT. Politics gets an occasional mention – this is 2020, the year of the Prime Ministerial revolving door – celebrities’ deaths are recorded and the cost-of-living crisis comes up now and again but this is primarily about Stibbe who invites us into her life, entertaining us with colourful observations and anecdotes, managing to make even the most mundane details amusing. Beneath the surface is the sadness and uncertainty of a marriage reaching its end. I finished her book hoping she’s settling into her new life, sure that there will be a legion of friends and family to help and support her.

Picador Books: London 9781035025299 352 pages Hardback

34 thoughts on “Went to London, Took the Dog by Nina Stibbe: Diary of a sabbatical”

  1. This sounds quite a fun gossipy read. One to enjoy if I come across it, but not one to expend a lot of energy looking for I suspect. By the way, I have tried in various ways, but this post is opening very oddly, with all the various sections (menu, your post, your sharing links, ‘like’, comments etc) all appearing under one another in a list which in no way reflects your blog’s normal appearance. Perhaps it’s just me?

  2. I read a review that didn’t rate this one vs Love, Nina – which I adored, and haven’t managed to acquire a copy yet. I’ve read and enjoyed all her novels too though (Read the Lizzie Vogel ones in order so you grow up with her).

    1. Her total lack of self-conscious at chatting with the likes of Alan Bennett in Love, Nina was a delight! This one’s not as joyous but I still loved it. Perhaps I should give her fiction a try, then.

    1. It’s a lovely read, Cathy, but I’d say start with Love, Nina, my favourite of the two. Stibbe knew little or nothing about the literary world when she started her nannying gig and is refreshingly unfazed by all the starry names she’s meets. It’s hilarious at times!

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