Author Nina Stibbe talks to Catherine Turnell about her past life as a London nanny, how Leicester City almost ruined her job chances and why Alan Bennett’s a good man in an emergency.
Nina Stibbe is hotly tipped to be the author of this Christmas’s best-seller. Every review, from the Guardian to the Telegraph has been glowing. Trying to get hold of her for an interview is proving tricky – her mobile phone rings out, the answering machine kicks in, and the voice of Alfie, her youngest, tells you to leave a message and that Nina will ring back as soon as she can.
True enough, 10 minutes later, there’s a call and an explanation about being at Waterstones in Truro and how she’s heading back home now.
When she’s finally on the landline it’s with a windswept “Hello!” and the excellent news that she’s one of six finalists in Waterstones’ Book of the Year.
What’s more, says Nina, she received a really nice Tweet this morning.
“Guess who from?” she teases, playfully.
What did he say?
“Something about trying to balance his brolly while reading my brilliant book.”
Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life is getting great reviews and not just from the former Spandau Ballet pin up.
“Like Pinter, but pacier,” says The Guardian, “Adrian Mole meets Mary Poppins,” says The Bookseller. The Independent went further, “Stibbe is an unassuming comic genius.”
There’s good reason for all this high praise. Nina’s book is based on a hilarious bunch of letters penned when she was working in London as a nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books. Nina cared for her two sons Sam, 10, and Will, nine.
Those letters were sent to her sister, Victoria, a live-in nurse at a care home in Leicestershire. Nina named it The Pines in the book. She won’t reveal its real name or location.
“I can’t tell you, for obvious reasons,” she cautions.
Which is fair enough – the book revealed the owner had an unnerving habit of wandering around naked.
Meanwhile, 100 miles south, Nina was living in Gloucester Crescent, NW1, a semi-scruffy horseshoe of four-storey terraces on the edge of a pre-gentrified Camden.
For Nina, it was a big change from Leicestershire village life. At Number 55, with its many distinguished guests and a cat nobody liked, she had unknowingly walked into the comfy heartland of London’s literati. The playwright, Alan Bennett, popped over for dinner a lot, proved to be good at mending things, and gave Nina frequently unwanted culinary advice.
“Very nice,” Bennett remarks to Nina, “but you don’t really want tinned tomatoes in a beef stew.
“It’s a Hunter’s stew,” says Nina.
“You don’t want tinned tomatoes in it, whoever’s it is,” he responds.
Along with Bennett, there’s Jonathan Miller, the theatre and film director, who lived in the same street, as did biographer Claire Tomalin, novelist and playwright Michael Frayn and writer Deborah Moggach. Film director Karel Reisz (The French Lieutenant’s Woman) was close by.
Nina hadn’t heard of any of them. And her book doesn’t rely on you having heard of them either. Yes, they may be interesting and well read, says Nina, but they weren’t sat around arguing about Brecht or Orwell.
They were too busy watching A Question of Sport, The Young Ones and Coronation Street. Or discussing who had given their friend crabs.
“It wasn’t posh at all. No, God no, not at all. It was fascinating, it was literary, it was edgy and it was in Camden, but it wasn’t posh at all. It was lovely, but it wasn’t grand. Living there was interesting and wonderful.”
The letters surfaced in the late 1990s when Nina was heavily pregnant with her daughter, Eva, and had come to Fleckney to see Victoria and her family in their new home.
“It was one of the best and most fantastic days of mine and my sister’s life,” she says, savouring the memory. “She’d moved from one place in Leicestershire to another. She’d kept boxes of stuff that had been stored in the lofts at various houses.
“I was pregnant at the time, so that would put it at 14 years ago, and I waddled into the house. I said: ‘Show me the shed, show me the greenhouse’, and Vic said, ‘First, you’ve got to see some of these letters’.’’
And the pair of them sat on the floor and read them and stayed there reading them. The sisters read snippets aloud and laughed so hard they cried.
“The interesting thing is I’m clearly spinning London and the lifestyle to my sister. She didn’t really like London. She’s a bit of a bod. She likes horses and dogs and all the rest of it. And I like the city life. I’m telling her things that I think will impress her and I’m being honest.
“I tell her Alan Bennett was in Coronation Street and he never was, and that’s me, I’m trying to bolster him slightly. He wasn’t that mainstream then, he wasn’t the national treasure he is today.
“It’s interesting that the book is a mixture of spin and brutal honesty.”
The letters are also rich with the incidental and the hilarious. They’re warm and witty and reminiscent of Dodie Smith’s much-loved I Capture the Castle. Just much more funny and with more swearing and Toffos.
“Dear Vic,” she begins one letter. “Shocked to hear Sam and Will had never had Toffos, so I got some for after school and put them on the radiator to soften up (Sam doesn’t like chewing chewy things).
Sam: (suspicious) Are they toffees? I don’t like toffee.
Me: Not as such.
Sam: Why are they called Toffos then?
Will: ’Cos they’re for toffs.
Will: (chewing, thinking) Actually, they’re just naked Rolos.”
The ’80s correspondence made its first public appearance in 2008, when novelist Andrew O’Hagan was collecting tributes for a book about Mary-Kay Wilmers to celebrate her 70th birthday. Nina knew Mary-Kay wouldn’t like anything “nice’’ so she gave him a couple of her letters.
They went down well and an editor, on hearing them read aloud, began wondering whether they could make a book. When Penguin came calling, Nina packed them off to Mary-Kay and her now grown-up charges to get their blessing.
The boys loved them, says Nina, but Mary-Kay had her concerns. “I think ‘Christ no, don’t publish’, was the first thing she said. Stepping back, though, she liked the whole thing.”
Nina knew she was on to a winner with the letters. For the past 20 years she has worked in publishing, including her job as commissioning editor for Routledge.
“I can’t pretend I didn’t think that people wouldn’t like them,” she admits. “I kept saying to Mary-Kay, they’re so brilliant you’re going to piss yourself. And so I’ve been quite bullish about it and quite confident.”
Mary-Kay comes out of Nina’s book as a remarkably likeable individual.
“She’s such a hero,” admits Nina. “Where I grew up, adults were so fussed and so worried about everything. Ah, scandal! Mary-Kay was interested in anything, whatever happened.
“She was interested in creative people and had a totally un-neurotic family. My mum’s like that, un-neurotic and a bit bonkers.
“She doesn’t play by the rules. So getting to London and finding this other woman who was similar, was better sorted in many ways, I did think, ‘I’ve found a single mum who is interested in books more than food,’ and that was wonderful. She totally changed my life.”
And it wasn’t as if Nina didn’t rub off on Mary-Kay. “Within about a week of living in Gloucester Crescent her favourite word was “mardy” – and she uses it to this day.”
And to think, because of Leicester City FC, she may have never got the job.
Nina’s first taste of flying the county roost had been a nannying job in France, which turned into a lonely house-sitting exercise. Six months earlier she saw Mary-Kay’s advert for a nanny in The Lady magazine and got the interview.
“I went for the interview, my mum and dad had a house in north London and they knew where it was, so my mum drove me there.
“I had the interview. I thought it had gone really well. I thought to myself, ‘She’s a single mum, I can cope with this.’ But she was so cool she let her boys interview me as well. They asked me who I supported. I said Leicester City and Sam went, “Okay”.
“I was sure I’d got the job, I loved it there and I’m sure Mary-Kay liked me. She rang me at Fleckney to say I hadn’t got the job. Sam chose this other girl who supported Leeds. Neither were great, but Leeds were preferable to Leicester. Then I went off to France.
“Six months later, Mary-Kay rang and asked if I wanted the job after all. So I went back to England and straight there. My brother, Jeremy, had just started at UCL, and that was great timing. I kept teasing Sam about not liking Leicester City. It was the time of Gary Lineker and then he got the golden boot. Leicester City had been quite a key thing in our relationship.”
Nina is very fond of her mother Elspeth, she adds. She proudly reveals she’s a singer in the Leicester Philarmonic and goes to Curve all the time. “You must see One Man Two Guvnors” she says, doing an imitation.
Nina was in Leicester last week, as her mum has just had an operation at the infirmary and, touch wood, she’s recovering well.
“Mum grew up in the middle of Leicester, Manorcroft Road,” she continues. “She was a Barlow, they were a firm of solicitors in the city, a long-standing firm.
“She then became a Stibbe (pronounced Stibby), and then my parents divorced and my mum moved to Market Harborough. Then we moved to Leicester, to Clarendon Park. I was born in Willoughby Waterleys. My dad lived in Rothley, Cossington and then moved out to Wales.”
“One of my visits to Leicester is at the end of October when the Phil have their big concert,” she says enthusiastically. “My friends all come up. One comes from Edinburgh. We go to De Montfort Hall, go for a curry and stay with Vic in Fleckney.”
“One time I came to Leicester with my two kids and we ended up getting lost around Fosse Park. I got totally stuck and ended up driving through Diwali and my kids were completely blown away by it. You don’t know how lucky you are. I also come to Leicester to do my Christmas shopping. It has a good atmosphere.”
So far, Nina has been very happy with the reviews. Especially the soundbitey “Adrian Mole meets Mary Poppins” one. “The funny thing is I was quite influenced by Adrian Mole when I was writing my letters,” she says.
“Will Frears, who I was nanny for, we read the first Adrian Mole together when it first came out and I still have a huge affection for the Adrian Mole series and Sue Townsend and I would love in some way to have that recognised in me.
“I remember Alan Bennett saying in my younger days, ‘You must write your diaries’, and so to hear Adrian Mole is quite fair and quite nice. Although I wasn’t a very good nanny, they (Adrian Mole and Mary Poppins) are two marvellous characters. I was a crap nanny,” she adds. “I really was crap.
“They can still remember how crap I was. They talked about it on Thursday night at the book launch. Sam Frears, he’s the godfather to my kids, he’s never forgotten the food.”
Anything in particular? “Turkey burgers,” says Nina.
While Nina grew up in houses across Leicester and Leicestershire, her father had the giant Stibbe knitting machine factory in the city centre. Nina’s early life was very privileged, she remembers. She went to school in Kibworth and then went to Robert Smyth in Market Harborough.
“We had lunch in Harborough last week and there were two ladies visiting Market Harborough from Oxfordshire! It is beautifully appointed, there are lots of nice places to it. I don’t know if I recognised that when I was younger.
“There was a story on the radio about how Market Harborough is the only town in England bucking the recession, did you hear it?”
Nina’s just settling into a pro-Leicestershire stride. When she needed some publicity photographs taking, she didn’t want them done in London and she didn’t want them done in Cornwall, she adds. So her sister suggested Rebecca Dawe Photography, in Burbage. It turned out well.
These days, Nina lives in Truro with her partner, Mark Nunney, and their two children. “If we got married I’d be Nina Nunney,” she observes. Cornwall is the place where she writes, swims and makes bread, although, she stresses, not all at the same time.
There’s a mention of Gordon Banks in the book, too. It turns out to be a mention from a friend whose sister claims Gordon Banks lives next door and that he’s nicked something.
“I said, ‘That doesn’t sound like Gordon Banks. What does he look like?’ Her Gordon Banks had long blond hair.”
As for all the superlative column inches and the heaped praise, Nina is trying to keep a level head about what may and may not be happening in the book charts come Christmas.
“It feels great to be tipped, but,” says Nina, “it remains to be seen. We shall see. I’m still very happy with the publicity.”
- First published in the Mercury in 2012.