November 6, 2013
Love, Nina: the confessions of London literati’s nanny
by Zeljka Marosevic
In 1982 a 20-year-old woman moved from Leicester to London to take up the occupation of nanny to two boys, to help out their single-mother. She remembers the house was in “a rather scruffy street in north London. A bit grotty.” and that she possibly recognized one friend of the family as having appeared in Coronation Street. What Nina Stibbe—who has just published Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life, which has been dubbed “Adrian Mole meets Mary Poppins.”—came to realize was that the children were the sons of Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the LRB, and her ex-husband the film director Stephen Frears; that family friend she vaguely recognised was Alan Bennett; and other regular guests to the household included Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn. Stibbe had been dropped into the heart of literary London and now the letters she sent to her sister at that time are being published to reveal just what that period, and the characters within it, was like.
“It wasn’t the glittering West End I’d imagined.” Stibbe told the Telegraph, “But then it was lovely and bookish.” What comes across when Stibbe talks about the period was just how refreshingly little she knew about the group around her, and how only slowly did she realize who they were:
“They were more interested in me than I was in them: constantly asking which wife my dad was on and how many brothers I had. So, like any 20-year-old, I thought I was the most interesting person in the house. I kept getting clues that they were accomplished in some way.”
Stibbe’s descriptions of the literary individuals do much to humorously reinvent these well-known figures. She describes Alan Bennett, for example, as “incredibly handy!…Brilliant with appliances” while the rest of the literati, we are told, “didn’t sit around discussing Brecht or Pinter. They talked about cheese. Snooker. Normal things.” Undoubtedly, many will read this book for the anecdotes and gossip, of which it appears there are many. In a particularly funny after-dinner conversation Bennett shares some news with Wilmers:
“AB: X has got crabs, apparently.
MK: Who has?
MK: Oh dear.
AB: He’s been f—— the cleaner.
While in another exchange, after which Stibbe had given Bennett her semi-autobiographical novel to look at, his comments are accidentally self-revealing:
“AB: I’m not sure what it’s about. A bunch of literary types doing laundry and making salad – or something.
ME: I think I’ve given you a letter to my sister by mistake.”
Wilmers was initially reluctant to see the letters published and still holds misgivings, but Stibbe argues that Wilmers emerges as the hero of the piece. As a single-mother with a successful career Stibbe’s had enormous respect for her, and for her tough love:
“Her and Sam and Will all have the same basin haircut. Apart from that, she’s quite fashionable. She swears a lot (f and c if necessary) … The other night (Wilmers’s friend) laughed at my ponytail (very short and a bit sticky-out). I told Mary-Kay later ‘I saw (that woman) pointing at my ponytail and smirking’. MK said, ‘Oh, she’s just an idiot and you’re more of one for caring’.”
It was on the occasion of Wilmers’s 70th birthday that the letters emerged, when novelist and LRB contributing editor Andrew O’Hagan was compiling a book of tributes to Wilmers, and Stibbe remembered they might be of interest. Only after she shared a few examples was it suggested that they might work as a book. In an interview in the Bookseller, Stibbe recalls Wilmers’s initial reaction: “I think ‘Christ no, don’t publish’ was the first thing she said. Stepping back, though, she liked the whole thing.”
Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.