Author: Nina Stibbe
Finished on: 24 May 2017
Where did I get this book: A book club read
This is another read from my beloved book club that I would probably never have chosen for myself. And our first non-fiction.
Nina Stibbe works as a nanny for an unconventional London family in the 1980s, and this book is made up of the irreverent letters she writes to her sister back in Leicester.
I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first. I imagined much of the appeal would lie in the insight into its famous cast of characters. Alan Bennett, Claire Tomalin, and Stibbe’s employer Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the London Review Of Books, all feature heavily.
But initially I found myself puzzled and slightly bored. Stibbe’s observations are almost entirely trivial: watching TV, cooking bad dinners. It all seemed a bit pointless.
So I’d put the book down, go about my own life a bit, and realise I was talking more like Stibbe, writing more like Stibbe, thinking more like Stibbe. Focusing on the mundane can be surprisingly seductive.
Stibbe’s hyperliteral, detached descriptions of the minutiae of daily life become irresistible. And it turns out that how someone rings the doorbell, and what they buy in the supermarket, are actually fascinating.
Stibbe is unapologetically dishonest, and there are more than a few hints that we may be getting a slightly creative version of the actual life of Wilmers, her ‘brainbox’ friends, and her two sons. But it barely matters. The charm of this book is all in the world view, to the extent that the cast is nearly incidental. The only time I got excited by the appearance of one of its famous residents was as we encounter Shirley Conran having trouble with her burglar alarm around the time she may have been writing Savages.
This is a book that creeps up on you, and gets under your skin. It’s like spending time with a lazy and possibly autistic friend who doesn’t make an effort to be interesting, but just talks about their washing machine and their plates. While it may be boring and frustrating some of the time, it ends up enjoyable because of the fresh perspective and the lack of pressure to observe conventional social niceties.
Possibly my favourite thing of all about the book is Stibbe’s approach to childcare. She is employed to take care of Wilmers’ two sons, but this is almost never referred to in terms of any responsibilities associated with her job. She obviously enjoys their company enormously, but both her and their mum are happy to just spend hours watching TV or lazing around having pointless conversations.
As I write this, my daughter and son are upstairs so bored they have been forced to create their own game involving scarves and coat hangers. It is a sunny Sunday afternoon, and I should probably take them outside to get some fresh air. But I want to write book reviews and have a gin and tonic instead.
Being responsible for children is a tricky business. And there can be a lot of pressure on parents, and nannies too I’m sure, to plan constant stimulating and educational activities for the children in your care. I enjoyed the fact that, although this is Stibbe’s paid employment, she can’t really be bothered to put any effort in. And that the boys clearly adore her, and are thriving all the more for that.
An effortless, relaxing, and in the end surprisingly profound, read.