It’s a riches-to-rags story where the ponies, nannies and chauffeurs are swallowed in the vortex of a collapsing city knitwear firm. It’s a story where the finishing school-raised family matriarch, recently divorced, finds herself making a living changing roller towels in pubs and clubs across Leicestershire.
It’s a story which, just for good measure, has a vicar-bonking scene in Countesthorpe thrown in.
“That bit is definitely made up,” says Nina Stibbe quickly. “My mother didn’t really have sex with a vicar. Well, she could have done…” adds the author good naturedly, “I don’t know.”
And therein lies the rub of her debut novel, Man at the Helm – a lot of it is based on experience. And the rest, well, the rest is pure fiction.
When Nina read that scene aloud to an audience at The Bookshop, in Kibworth, last month, she again explained her mother had not literally defrocked a vicar.
“How do you know?” shouted an unexpected voice in the crowd [Nina’s uncle].
Nina’s mother, who sat a few feet away during the exchange, was in no position to clarify the situation – she was too busy laughing. Which all seems particularly good and proper, because in real life as it is in the book, it’s Nina’s riches-to-roller-towels mother who gets to have the last laugh.
Man at the Helm, which is published nationwide on Thursday but is launched in Leicester a day earlier, is tipped to chase Love, Nina, the writer’s debut, up the bestseller list.
Love, Nina – a feast of witty letters Nina sent from London to her sister Vic in the county – were written in the 1980s, when she was nanny for the editor of the London Review of Books. It has just been published in America by Barnes and Noble and earned spotless reviews in the New York Times and Washington Post.
“My favourite review was ‘Adrian Mole meets Mary Poppins’,” says Nina. “Sue Townsend was an enormous influence on me.”
Man at the Helm, just like The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 , is based in Leicestershire.
Semi-autobiographical and set in the 1970s, it starts with the upheaval of a divorce which sees the book’s well-off matriarch and her three children leave Leicester for the twitchy-curtained village of Flatstone.
In real life, Nina and her family left a life of privilege in the city and moved to Countesthorpe, a village famed these days as the birthplace of Kasabian.
“Flatstone,” readily admits Nina, “is Countesthorpe. I can’t say the story’s an autobiography, though, as it has to be exactly that. You can pass things off as fiction, but you can’t pass things off as fact. Many things are the same and there’s definitely a recognisable shape.
“Anyone who knows me will say, ‘that’s your story – you started out as part of this big knitwear dynasty and in the middle of the 1970s it all went wrong’ and that much features and how you cope with that.”
Despite the heavy subject matter, Man at the Helm is a souffle-light giggle from first to last. It is helped in no small way by its quick-witted narrator, 10-year-old Lizzie Vogel, who, along with her older sister, happens to be a disarming philosopher on the subject of adults and adult situations.
Lizzie charts their efforts to fit into village life when attitudes towards unmarried mothers were hostile at best. As it was in real life for the Stibbes.
“I think my mum found it so difficult, people were quite stand-offish,” says Nina. “She’d started off very optimistic, then she became a bit of a menace.
“We started being defined by the divorce. It was like this: nobody likes your mum and you’re not accepted because there’s not a man in the house. And yet, on the other side, people are worried your mother is going to seduce someone else’s man.”
The move to the countryside wasn’t what they’d expected.
“The children in the book are quite disappointed they’re not welcomed with open arms,” Nina adds. “They’re seen as slight eccentrics. Individuals are very nice, and the doctor is very nice and the women across the road at the bakery are very nice. Actually, I can’t think of it, the psychological term, where people behave wonderfully alone, but are unpleasant en masse. People change in a group. There’s the power of group disapproval.”
Lizzie and her sister, in order to defrost local feelings, search to reinstate “a man at the helm” and produce, in secret, a Man List, littered with half a dozen unsuitable local candidates, such as the coalman.
An excerpt reads: “Little Jack (Lizzie’s brother) joined in and said he liked a man with deep pockets. Not meaning it metaphorically but literally – him having just gone into pocketed trousers himself and was thrilled at the possibilities. He also wanted someone with an interest in owls and Romans.
“We devised a vetting process based on a list of questions with yes/no/don’t know answers, mainly pertaining to a man’s appreciation of animals and television, his susceptibility to certain ailments – in particular catarrh, which our mother couldn’t stand, even the word (or any form of sinusitis or nose blowing) – and a good swimmer (likely to want seaside holidays). And pockets.”
It’s been said a number of times that the social revolution of the 1960s never really happened for the rest of us until the 1970s. And even in the 1970s some places were slow to change.
Women in the 1970s, it’s worth remembering, could only use a chequebook with a male family member present. Divorced women, and men to a lesser degree, were openly stigmatised.
In one instance in the book, Elizabeth Vogel, Lizzie’s mother, is told by the vicar that she’s “more than welcome” to attend church in Flatstone, although she won’t be able to join the Mothers’ Union as she’s a divorcee.
“Well, then, ‘more than welcome’ – we should go,” says Lizzie.
“No, Lizzie, when people say you’re ‘more than welcome’ it means you’re not welcome at all.”
“What do they say if you are welcome, then?”
“They don’t say anything. You just know.”
It’s worth mentioning here, adds Nina, that this isn’t a slagging off of Leicester and Leicestershire. Her target is the 1970s’ mindset.
“Countesthorpe, we were very happy there,” she insists. “What I’m having a go at is the 1970s and the attitude, probably more so in a village, the awful suspicion towards women trying to be the head of the family.
“One of the things about the 1970s is that you had the Rolf Harris Show, Jimmy Savile, The Black and White Minstrel Show, Pan’s People, semi-clad women. If women bent over, they would have their arses slapped. If that happened, you just had to put up with it.”
It wasn’t, says Nina, a case of the good old days being all soft focus and sunny.
The Stibbes soldiered on, and, as the cash evaporated, they moved to an estate house, where Elspeth, Nina’s mother, unable to afford a car, would travel by moped to work at Initial Towel Supplies, in Leicester’s Wharf Way.
Once there, she would collect her fresh towels and go out in a van collecting and replacing roller towels at pubs and clubs across Leicestershire.
It wasn’t a situation to be too sad about, says Nina. “Becoming poor knocked my mum into shape,” she says, triumphantly.
“She met nice people, decent people, who didn’t mind that she was posh. And she met her new husband, who she’s been married to for 30 years – the love of her life. Although she didn’t like him much to begin with.”
It’s probably worth mentioning here that Man at the Helm is dedicated to the enigmatic A Allison.
“The A stands for Alan,” says Nina – he’s her stepfather – the real Man at the Helm.
Elspeth met her new beau while clocking in at Initial. He was a supervisor.
These days, Elspeth and Alan live happily in Fleckney, the same village as Vic, Nina’s sister.
Nina retains a good relationship with her father, Paul Stibbe, who remarried and started a new family after the divorce. “My dad was a great guy,” she said. “The divorce was fairly amicable.”
Nina says she never really thought too much about the “what ifs” – how things could have been if her parents had stayed married, if the Stibbe manufacturing empire hadn’t gone bump in 1974.
Today, its old headquarters in Newarke Street have been converted into fashionable flats.
“Did I ever think what would have happened if…? Not really,” she says. “Except to wonder occasionally what it would be like not to have to worry about money.”
Nina returned to Countesthorpe last month, but it was more than just a visit to retread old paths.
She was there to take notes and she brought another writer – Jon Reed, an erstwhile son of Cosby – with her.
Together, the pair set up their semantic easel and coloured in the places they knew from childhood, the villages and the city, the shops and the venues they used to go to – all the places named in the book.
Why? “We’re writing a screenplay,” says Nina, secretively. Man at the Helm is currently being adapted for the screen.
“So many people said it was a visual book, that they could see what they were reading, how they thought it would be good on screen.”
In the meantime, there’s the book launch at the University of Leicester bookshop.
“I’m having one at Leicester before I do the London one,” says Nina. “I can’t not do one in Leicester. It’s my first priority. It’s a Leicester book, I’m a Leicester person.”
Nina, who now lives in Truro with her partner and two children, will be making the trip north for the book launch in Leicester on Wednesday at 6pm. She is, she says, looking forward to it.
Those of you expecting to hear the excellent Ms Stibbe deliver the fictitious sex-with-the-vicar scene – and then vehemently maintain her mother’s innocence – you know what to shout out.
* First published in the Mercury in 2014.