Nina Stibbe Is A Modern Mary Poppins With A Grin

Nina Stibbe talks about her life as a nanny in London, about how her book about it became a popular and critical hit, and why Alan Bennett shouldn’t be angry.

In 1982, 20-year-old Nina Stibbe moved from Leicester to be a nanny in London. “In those days,” she tells me, “you didn’t have to pretend that you particularly wanted to look after children, you just wanted some accommodation and a car in London.” Well, she got the car and her room and board and, it turns out, a whole lot more, including the raw material for her first book, Love Nina: A Nanny Writes Home, a runaway success and Christmas bestseller when it was published in the UK in the autumn, hailed by anyone and everyone as the funniest thing they’d read in years.

Nina’s charges were 10-year-old Sam Frears (who suffers from the rare genetic condition Riley-Day syndrome) and his younger brother, 9-year-old Will. She lived with them and their mother, Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the London Review of Books, in Camden Town’s Gloucester Crescent, a street that personified the bohemian London literati of the period—among the neighbors were the then literary editor of the Sunday Times, Claire Tomalin, and her partner the novelist and playwright Michael Frayn; theater and opera director Jonathan Miller; Alan Bennett, a great friend of Mary-Kay’s who popped over for tea most evenings; not to mention all the other “brainbox” friends of Mary-Kay’s (including Sam and Will’s father, the film director Stephen Frears). Thrown into this completely unpretentious and incredibly fun household, Nina writes home to her sister Victoria back in Leicester telling her all about her new life as a nanny (and later a student) during her time at 55 Gloucester Crescent.

Fast-forward 26 years to 2008 and the writer Andrew O’Hagan is putting together a book of tributes for his good friend Mary-Kay’s birthday. Everyone she knows is asked to contribute, from her writers at the LRB to her dry-cleaner, and among them is Nina, now living in Cornwall with her partner and their two children but still a regular visitor to the house up the road from Gloucester Crescent in nearby Primrose Hill, where Mary-Kay and Sam (who’s the godfather of Nina’s children) now live. Nina struggled to write something appropriate, nothing too obsequious, but funny and heartfelt, but it was a struggle, she tells me, and it was then that she thought back to her old letters and wondered if they were still knocking about. As luck would have it, Vic had kept them all (mostly because of the tiny pencil illustrations Nina had filled the margins with), so she dug them out, and Nina’s first thoughts on her new employer were read out to much hilarity at the party: “Mary-Kay is funny. Nothing bothers her much—except she can’t stand having too much milk in the fridge (they have skimmed).” Among the guests was a publisher who immediately approached her with a view to publishing the collection. Nina asked Mary-Kay for her opinion, which initially was a resounding no, but four years later, at Sam’s 40th birthday party, another missive was read out, again winning over the room, and Mary-Kay decided she should see what all the fuss was about. Nina rushed home to Cornwall, speedily typed them up and emailed them off to Mary-Kay. Coincidentally, Sam was in the final stages of writing a book about himself called Being Sam Frears with an editor at Penguin who, having come to the house one day to see Sam, came across some of Nina’s letters, which Mary-Kay had printed out, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Nina tells me this story over tea and buns in Mary-Kay and Sam’s kitchen where we’ve met to chat. At this point the conversation descends into something of a comic double act between her and Sam, who’s with us, too, as both them make jokes about each others’ manuscripts being left out for the rubbish and one being substituted for the other. “What was your book called again?” Nina asks Sam, “Being Nina Stibbe’s Friend?”

From the minute I walked through the front door, it was like stepping into the pages of the book. The house was packed with people, including familiar faces such as Sam, and Nina’s university friend Stella, and everything was slightly chaotic with everyone making jokes and laughing. This is the world Nina captures so astutely in the book. “People come round loads. Some real weirdos,” she writes to Vic in her first letter. “Can’t tell if Michael Neve [the academic and Mary-Kay’s ex] is mentally ill or just unusual,” she begins another. “On the one hand he reads the LRB and is a doctor of something, on the other he turned up today in the middle of the morning and asked if he could play a record he’d just bought from the Record and Tape Exchange on Camden High Street.” Watching him singing and dancing round the living room to Prince’s “Little Red Corvette,” she takes great pains to distance herself from the spectacle. “He’s not my friend; he’s Mary-Kay’s,” she tells Carmelita the cleaner. Then there’s the day Sam gets stuck inside a dumpster in the street after Nina and Will plonk him inside for a laugh. There’s much fuss to get him out again without having to elicit the help of a neighbor, and they think they’ve got away with it until Alan Bennett turns up that evening for tea and announces he saw them “messing about” in it earlier.

Despite being known to most as one of Britain’s greatest living writers, Bennett’s role in the book is that of helpful neighborhood handyman—“It’s amazing how much AB knows about appliances (when you consider he’s a writer and pretty much just writes all day)”—and “a bloke who can’t be bothered to cook his own tea,” although he does contribute coleslaws and rice puddings, and isn’t afraid to suggest improvements to Nina’s culinary delights where he sees fit: “Very nice, but you don’t really want tinned tomatoes in a beef stew.”

“But instead of thinking that he was being terribly helpful, which he was—and contributing to the meal—I saw it as a slight,” she tells me. “I was like, ‘Right, he’s brought a bloody salad round again, does he think I can’t do it?’”

It’s his ability to mend a puncture, work out what’s wrong with a broken fridge, and even come to Nina’s aid in the middle of the night when she suspects there are burglars in the house, that’s become an unexpected bone of contention with the national treasure in recent months. In his famous ‘Diary’ section of the January 9 edition of the LRB, despite calling the book “fresh and droll”, Bennett describes himself as coming across as “solid, dependable and dull,” a “dismal Jimmy” who’s been “misremembered”: “I am said to be good at mending bikes (not true) and at diagnosing malfunctioning electrical appliances (certainly not true).”

Unfortunately, though, it quickly became clear that it was actually Bennett who had misremembered himself, as an entry dated October 1, 1983 from his Writing Home (conveniently republished in the following issue of the LRB), proved just how practical-minded he was back then: “I mend a puncture on my bike. I get pleasure out of being able to do simple, practical jobs—replacing a fuse, jump-starting a car—because these are not accomplishments generally associated with a temperament like mine.”

As far as Nina’s concerned, this was a bit of a bewildering U-turn on Bennett’s part. He seemed to enjoy the advance reading copy back in the summer. “I asked him to write a puff for the front cover,” she tells me, “and he went, ‘Oh, no.’ And I went, ‘Oh, go on, why won’t you?’ And he said, ‘Because I only do it for dead people.’ So he didn’t at any point say, ‘Oh, no, because I hate it and it makes me look like a dismal Jimmy.’” There are contradictions all round in fact, as Sam chimes in, too, saying that when he saw Bennett at Christmas, he’d even said that, had he been asked, he would have gladly narrated the BBC Radio 4 adaptation that had just been “Book of the Week.”

“I think what happened was that when the book then came out a lot of the reviews led with, ‘Alan Bennett fixed my fridge,’ or ‘Alan Bennett fixed my bike’—there was an awful lot of emphasis on Alan Bennett as a handyman. I suspect people are now having a bit of a joke, asking him to do odd jobs for them, and he doesn’t like it. Perhaps he might also have wished that he was a bit more sexy, not always carrying rice puddings over the road … ”

“I used to love his rice puddings!” interrupts Sam, who’s still “best mates” with Bennett according to Nina, though the minute she says this, he momentarily protests.

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“How many times a week do you see him?” she asks.

“Once or twice a week,” Sam replies, somewhat sheepishly.

“Right, who else sees Alan Bennett a couple of times a week?” she asks, proving her point with a smile.

“Can I just say,” Sam clarifies, “I only see him when he pops into the café to buy his decaf cappuccino, he sits with me, and whomever I’m with, for five minutes, then leaves.”

“That’s still more than most people get,” Nina says, and we both laugh.

“We used to see much more of him,” Sam says.

“Yeah, we did,” Nina confirms. “As our supper was nearing readiness, Sam would go over to the phone and dial his number, and you’d go, ‘Heeelllooo’,” she calls out in a singsong elongated voice.

“And then he’d do that secret ‘ding’ on the doorbell,” Sam finishes.

“The thing is,” Nina says, getting back to Bennett’s portrayal in the book, “I had zero interest in 45-year-old men back then. I loved Alan dearly, I really did, he was an important part of the everyday, and it was nicer when he was round than when he wasn’t. He was funny, generous and witty, but I didn’t write about that to Vic. I was selling my lovely new life to her, and I think that the thing that we’d not had as kids was somebody who could fix a puncture [Nina and her sister were brought up by their single mother and none of them, she tells me, were particularly practical]. I look back now and think, ‘Why didn’t I talk more about his plays?’ but I just wasn’t that interested at the time. Now of course I wish I’d written more about his witty banter.”

So uninterested was she that when she first arrives in Gloucester Crescent, she’s not entirely sure who he is: “Of course he’s the Alan Bennett,” she writes to Vic. “You’d know him if you saw him. He used to be on Coronation Street [the famously long-running UK TV soap opera set in a northern town, which, of course, Bennett was never in].”

Was this hilarious mistake genuine? Sam seems to think it is, laughing out loud about it, but Nina’s not so sure. “I think the whole thing was that I was going to meet all these famous people and then I didn’t—an artist, a playwright, the literary editor of the Sunday Times, what rubbish—so I think I said it to impress Vic. But,” she continues, “since no one was coming in saying, ‘Hello, Nina, I’m a playwright,’ there were some genuine errors, too. People kept saying, ‘Did you hear Jonathan’s [Miller] Rigoletto?’ So I though, ‘Hmm, okay, well he must be an opera singer.’” As she reports to Vic at the time, when her mistake is discovered everybody finds it hilarious, “because he isn’t one and although being an opera singer is fine, apparently it’s ridiculous if someone thinks you are but you aren’t,” she writes defensively.

Each letter is written in this innocent yet often-righteous tone and it’s incredibly inviting. A bit of the worst of the bad language has been omitted, but otherwise the letters have been replicated as they were first written, her editor having fallen in love with the unexpurgated versions she first came across. Had she had the opportunity, would she have edited anything out, I ask?

“I often think about that. In a way it’s probably good that I didn’t have the chance because it’s so real. Once I’d let people see them, I couldn’t, but I am a dishonest enough person to admit that I would probably have changed them a bit. I would have made myself nicer. I was a bit opinionated and rude, wasn’t I, quite judgmental?” But that’s so much of their charm, I assure her. For all her hoping to impress Vic, they’re so unaffected, and the devil is in the detail, whether it’s which chair everyone prefers—“Sam’s is a big square one with great curly arms and MK’s has a bar underneath that she can rest her feet on”—or arguing about football teams—Sam supports West Ham, while it’s Arsenal for Mary-Kay and Will (still a huge supporter today, apparently, despite the fact he lives in Brooklyn).

She’s also got a truly amazing eye for the comic potential of the everyday. Sure, we all love reading about Alan Bennett’s coleslaw, but the letters are no less interesting or funny when she’s bemoaning that fact that just days before her dissertation is due she finds a book in the university library that “pretty much contradicts everything I say and not only that, It says anyone who thinks what I’ve said is true is an idiot”—her inspired reaction is to hide the book so her tutor can’t come across it until after the dissertation is marked.

The incredible success of the book has certainly taken her by surprise; she saw how it might appeal to a certain group of people, but not on the level it has done. Ironically, bar the ongoing situation with Bennett, the only other person who’s admitted they weren’t that keen on it is her sister Victoria. “My other book’s coming out in August,” Nina explains (a loosely autobiographical novel set in the ’70s called Man at the Helm, due to be published in the UK), “and I gave it to her to read and she was going crazy. ‘Oh, Nina, I’ve only got 6 pages to go and I’m saving them for tonight, I love it!’ And I said, ‘You didn’t say that about Love, Nina,’ and she said, ‘Oh, well no, to be honest, I didn’t really like it.’”