Jonathan Miller was up the road, Alice Thomas Ellis lived nearby. Claire Tomalin was a few doors away. There was Michael Frayn, he was lovely, and Alan Bennett came round to the house…”
Nina Stibbe runs through just some of the eminent cultural figures that became part of her life when in 1982, aged 20, she moved from her family home in rural Leicestershire to London to become a live-in nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmers and her two sons, Sam, ten, and Will, nine.
Wilmers, then in her mid-40s, was the co-founder of the London Review of Books and her house on Gloucester Crescent in Camden was at the very heart of literary north London.
“I think what made it so wonderful for me was that there was no hierarchy,” says Stibbe, who went on to have a successful career in book publishing herself. “If I wanted to borrow a car, it never occurred to me that I’m only the nanny and I shouldn’t go and ask Jonathan Miller if I can borrow his car.”
Miller, Frayn and Bennett were as likely to be found on the doorstep of 55 Gloucester Crescent as the postman, and personalities and foibles pepper the letters Stibbe wrote home to her sister, Vic. “I landed in London and I loved it immediately,” says Stibbe. “Except I really missed my sister very much. So I wrote her elaborate, long, detailed letters that had drawings with explanations of what I had seen.”
Nina and Vic rediscovered the letters in 1999. “I’d forgotten I’d written quite so much, and some of the things I had said, particularly where I had been gilding the lily – like, ‘God, did I really meet David Bowie?’ – that kind of thing. And actually I didn’t, I never did! And Alan Bennett wasn’t ever in Coronation Street, so why did I say that?”
The letters became the basis for her acclaimed 2013 book Love, Nina and now, to Stibbe’s delight, it has been adapted as a six-part television series by Nick Hornby. “His first ever telly,” exclaims Stibbe, “It doesn’t get better than that!”
Helena Bonham Carter’s performance as Mary-Kay, simultaneously contriving to be both formidable and otherworldly, threatens to steal the series. Faye Marsay is almost as impressive and utterly believable as Nina, a young woman setting out on life’s journey while making pasta for acclaimed poets and caring for Wilmers’ children, which was an adventure in itself.
Sam suffers from Riley-Day syndrome, a neurological condition that affects his eyesight, but as one delightful scene makes clear, Stibbe was willing to leave him in an empty skip while she read books. “I was used to lots of younger siblings,” says Stibbe, whose previously well-off family had been cast into poverty when she was still at school. “Sam and Will just felt like my brothers, so that’s why I was so happy to push Sam into the swimming pool and drive off when he wasn’t properly in the car, in spite of him having a serious condition, because he just felt like my brother.”
As well as charting the vicissitudes of life with the family and her own nascent romantic encounters – Stibbe dates a boy called Nunney, who was a carer for Tomalin’s disabled son – the letters also offer a remarkable snapshot of London literary circles at the time. Not that the young Stibbe was at all awestruck.
“I didn’t think all these film directors, authors and playwrights were any more important than I was,” she says. “They were highbrow figures, but I was excited by the television and light entertainment people around Camden.
“The actor from Rising Damp, Don Warrington, lived on the street, and Dickie Davies drank in the pub. I found that far more impressive than Claire Tomalin being literary editor of The Sunday Times.”
But when the book was published it was Alan Bennett’s unexpected ability to fix the washing machine that attracted much attention.
“Alan Bennett wrote in the London Review of Books, ‘I come across as a right dismal Jimmy.’ But I didn’t think he was a dismal Jimmy,” protests Stibbe.
Nina Stibbe with Faye Marsay as her younger self
“The fact that Alan fixed the washing machine was really important. It was far more impressive than writing ground-breaking telly… Having a functioning washing machine is not to be sniffed at! But to be fair, I did have him endlessly walking across the road with a rice pudding, and other people were doing perhaps more exciting things.”
Thirty years later Nunney, her on/ off boyfriend from Gloucester Crescent, is her partner and Stibbe has children herself: Eva, 16, and Alf, 12.
“Eva and I watch Girls, Raised by Wolves and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt together,” she says. “The girls in those shows are really feisty, but I was incredibly prudish. Faye Marsay and Nick Hornby have captured that really well – the weird juxtaposition between being young and growing up. Becoming ‘romantic’, but also being horrified at the thought of it. And the series has also caught the atmosphere of the time.
“They lived in shabby houses, they were leftwing, they were funny, they believed in equality, but most importantly for me, they were fascinated with the world.”
This article was originally published on 2 May 2016, from Radio Times magazine