Archive for April, 2019

Love, Nina, by Nina Stibbe. Published by Penguin Books, 2013.
ISBN 9780241965092

This is the type of book I do not usually take to.
Ah, but then, it is a clever book, it juggles with the questions this ‘type’ of book prompts.

The book is usually classed as non-fiction. It is presented as edited letters home – from a nanny new to London, in the 1980’s.
But the book was published in 2013. And in between? A career in publishing, family, children. In between, then, were years gaining skills in ‘the literary world’, the social and political ‘worlds’ of London, work, motherhood. A honing of skills, purpose, sense of self, awareness of the world.
There is almost a Bridget Jones aspect here, but Nina does not do the knowing semi-metropolitan sophisticat.

She wished, Nina Stibbe said in an interview of the time of publication, that she had made… (a certain character – see below)… more funny. But she saw him at the time as just a middle-aged man. Made?
And also in this comment are clues to the workings of the book.

The book plays with the genre of epistolary novels, with the innocent abroad, with the ingénue.
It is a book of two parts: 1982 -84 working as a nanny in London; 1984-87 as full time student at Thames Polytechnic.
In both parts she lived in the same small part of London: Gloucester Crescent/Regent Park Terrace,  within range of the morning waking sounds of London zoo.

As a student she admitted to having pangs for the life her fellow students lived. She was fully aware by then of the cocooned and sheltered life she lived there. It cherished her abilities, and widened her life skills and knowledge, despite that.

Across the Crescent lived the writer Alan Bennett, a frequent supper visitor to their house (the middle-aged man, above). Next door was Claire Tomalin, critic and writer. Across the Crescent further down was novelist Deborah Moggach, and Jonathon Miller. Also on the Crescent was the widow of composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams (‘A composer called Ralph?’).
Alan Bennett’s driveway was always occupied – a passing comment. We only need to think of his The Lady In The Van, to see the significance of this.
Nina was nanny to MK, deputy editor of the London Review of Books, and her two young sons.
Who’s George Melly?’ she wrote her sister, Vic, back in Leicester. ‘I’m in his bedroom.

With this set-up the character of the book must needs weave her ingénue path through influences and influencers, whilst retaining that innocence the reader identifies with. This requires very delicate balancing tricks.
And this is where the two-part structure of the book works. The ingénue nanny cannot remain uninfluenced by her environment. It would lose the reader’s trust, and the character’s credibility.
The nanny, Nina, began to study A Levels, in the vague hope of gaining more education. This is where the delicate balancing really comes to the fore. She could either come across as an unliterate boor and bore, blocking all attempts at knowledge, in order to retain the ingénue state. Or  change.
The book would be amusing, but limited, one-dimensional, if she had chosen the first path.

Scraping through her A Levels she gained admission to a degree course. But lived still in the same small cocoon. And here we see her grow: she loved the course, and her subjects – especially American drama and fiction. Instead of maintaining the suffocating and provincial self that she began with, the character-self was allowed to grow and develop.

One episode has the tutor take her students to a dress rehearsal; a Samuel Beckett play. It had Billie Whitelaw as actor.
Whilst watching the rehearsal the author was distracted by someone muttering behind them. Turning round she recognised Samuel Beckett himself; he’d come for Billie Whitelaw’s acting, of course.
She was the only one of the group saw him. Afterwards she had the task of persuading them it really had been him. The clincher was her description: Handsome but very old… symmetrical, upright, still, slight second-glass occlusion of the jaw’ (she had been a dental assistant at one point) ‘… a well-groomed fisherman.’
This, of course, is the classic photograph of Samuel Beckett, in – is it a pea jacket? – roll-neck seaman’s sweater.

Where do truth and fiction meet?
That is the question the book juggles with throughout. Her favourite course at Thames, was Autobiography and Fiction. Was there such a course? Or is this pure fiction, introducing us, the reader, to the inner dynamics of this book?
She ruminates on the balancing acts between autobiography and the requirements of fiction in the book. This is the biggest clue to the craft and skill she is employing here.
… writing truthfully is very hard…’ she writes…‘In the end the writing wins and you have you assume  it was the way it seems in the writing of it.’
‘Which is why you might be less than truthful… :to tell the truth you have to lie a bit.’
Lying is a major theme throughout the book: the little lies, the white lies, the inadvertent lies, the face-saving ones, the life-giving ones, and the whopping big ones.
‘Who threw newspaper all over your bed and floor? they ask young Sam in hospital.
‘Frank Bruno.He asked me how I was; I told him to f-off. He got annoyed and threw it all about’.

 

I have been wondering what connect there could be between a sophisticated L-R-Books deputy editor, and a nanny from the provinces with no higher education?
The big one was, of course, the children. The Nina-character went out of her way constantly to support and tend to them.
But there was also the ‘man’ issue. Nina came from a one-parent background, into another one.
This is one of the book’s big strengths, the taking down of men off their pedestal. God knows why and how they got up there to begin with.
Men are always presented as peculiar, ‘other’, strange. Hang on, isn’t that how some men see women? Still?
One of these peculiar creatures is the boyfriend who ‘must always masturbate before he can sleep’.
Yes, but he’s not being literal: a slave to his physiology. No, it’s code for him wanting a ‘hands-on’ girlfriend. How many have tried this one!
And Alan Bennett, unthreatening, homely, safe – yet he constantly surprises everyone, himself included, with his extensive and real knowledge of how household appliances work.
The oddness of others is a constant theme of shared discussion throughout the book.
And also I suspect – and here you have to know some of the Nina Stibbe backstory – the two women looked after and looked out for each other. MK looked after Nina the nanny, a young woman with much potential she had not been able to realise through the neglect that was the role of women in that period, that society.

One of my favourite episodes in the book occurs when she notices young Sam looking at his hands. ‘He does that a lot.’ says William, his brother. Are you looking at something? Or are you thinking?
Yes. No. Sometimes. Both.

So she tries it, it brings out in her a meditative mood. Up that point we have seen her quirky, hands-on, and impatient, even brusque, with abstraction, with the theory part of her degree course.
She discussed this eloquently with MK, her employer.
MK listened, then instantly turned to practical things, her mother’s recipe, for instance.

How do you read this? That is the key to the book – how you ‘read’ it. So much is suggested, by tone of voice, clipping of self-response, that the reader is drawn in to engage, fill in the gaps, the backgrounds, from clues given.

So, why do I not usually take to this type of book?
Well, look at the time and place: London, the 1980s.
What was going on in the bigger world? IRA bombings; Chernobyl in 1986 – I still hold that the need to be open about this disaster was the crucial factor behind Gorbochov’s later Glasnost and Perestroika programmes, and, well, the collapse of 1989.
Then there are the first instances of the AIDS disaster.
And what we get is a cocoon of closed-off lives.
An elite, living in their own shut-off world.
Except it isn’t, Alan Bennett had just published his book on Philby in Russia, An Englishman Abroad; he introduced current TV people into the little circle. The children were avid newspaper readers; their regular TV shows Coronation Street, The Young Ones, football: soaps, satire, and sport.

On a smaller scale we have the burgeoning 1980s music scene – apart from Prince’s Red Corvette, little makes any impact.
What we do get are the fashions in new foods going through London at the time: new menus and recipes. And we get make-up styles appearing, clothes styles, hair styles.
On the bigger scale there’s mention of someone wearing a checkered scarf, called an Arafat scarf.
This is the Labour and Socialist influence: both big supporters of the Palestinian cause. They always supported the underdog. In this case the Israeli State was the big aggressor, and the Palestinians the victims.
There are still repercussions of this in the current schisms in the UK Labour Party, now solidified into anti-Zionist tendencies.

It is this disparity between the small in the large, the small circle within the huge major City, gives the book some of its dynamic.

 

This little world set-up, impervious to the ‘moments’ of time and history, usually leaves me either cold or uninterested.
So why does this one get through? Because of its warmth, humour, and wry sideways glances at our usually hidden and discrete intellectual and cultural circles and elites.
For one.
And it is genuinely funny. It takes the tired, old ‘crazy things kids say’ to another level, adding pathos, and sheer brilliance. And, did I say, it is really very funny?

 

A TV series was attempted of the book, with Helena Bonham-Carter as MK. Many names were changed and characters omitted. It had a mixed reception.
That’s the trouble with TV adaptations, they are from one medium into another, and it is not always that easy.
With TV we have visual predominance, whereas with the book all is filtered through the perceptions of the main character. It is only visual further down the scale of perceptions. Initially we perceive from within character, what we see is already altered, re-coloured, re-balanced. The predominant engagement is language, the main character talking is to us.

 

See also: her follow-up ‘fiction’ books:
Man at the Helm, published by Viking/Penguin Books, 2014
Paradise Lodge, published by Viking/Penguin Books, 2016

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Tie

Posted: April 20, 2019 in Chat
Tags: , ,

New blue silk tie blowing over his suit jacket shoulder;
he fought it back, tangling with name tag, document folder.

She tugged the points of her faux-bolero jacket, lifting chin
to face-down the Chief Accountant; he told her ‘None can win.’

Her thought ran, ‘I can.’ The execs looked on, nervous:
go-getters, surfers of recession. No one now remembers,

presumes their own time unique. The superstructure
remains the same; the built-in success, then failure.

Opens the car’s door he had barely begun to pay for;
checks his Blackberry, and watches investments fall.

 

Suit

Posted: April 7, 2019 in Chat
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Chatting with the agent about that suit,
the finest linen shot through with silk,
how I just had to, my pocket stuffed
with mortgage money, and the subscript
Downpayment, Downpayment – how only that suit
could save me from mediocrity
and steer us both into the future
we dreamed as rightfully ours, but denied –
your coming-out ball, faux-debutante,
and my place in that new society, reserved,
wanting only that suit, the final tie,
the puzzle of our existence solved.

Obsessive, passionate, fixed,
and conniving –
the more words I splashed in its honour
the less I was me, it was as if
I was sold even before I’d bought myself