Stuff I’ve Been Reading: September 2013

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: September 2013

Nick Hornby
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  • The Flamethrowers—Rachel Kushner
  • Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove—Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
  • Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, 1957–1959—David Kynaston
  • The Orphan Master’s Son—Adam Johnson
  • Bough Down—Karen Green
  • Meeting the English—Kate Clanchy


  • Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home—Nina Stibbe
  • Raise Up Off Me: A Portrait of Hampton Hawes—Hampton Hawes
  • The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright—Jean Nathan
  • A Summer Bird-Cage—Margaret Drabble

So this I wasn’t expecting. I am sent a book by my publishers. It’s called Love, Nina, and it’s subtitled A Nanny Writes Home. On the cover is a cute sketch of a kitchen table: teapot (in a tea-cozy), a can of tomatoes, a plate, a mug, some writing paper, a bottle of milk. There’s a can of Heineken there, too, but it’s not jarring enough to make you think that the book is going to rock in any way—it’s clearly aimed at genteel ladies of a certain age and above. So I am about to place it in the recycling box when I think, Hold on. Why are my publishers sending me books aimed at genteel ladies of a certain age and above? I know it’s been a while since I wrote a book, but surely there are some people there who remember that I am of the male persuasion, and that my tolerance for gentility is limited. I dig the book out, find a note in it from an editor I know and trust, and, still somewhat suspicious, begin to read. Well, it turns out that Love, Nina is the funniest and most eccentric book I have read this year, and I am certain that it will be very loved for many years to come. And that wasn’t the only surprise it threw me.

Nina Stibbe came down to London from Leicestershire in 1982, when she was twenty, to work for a complicated family, and the book is a collection of the letters she wrote to her sister Victoria over the next few years. (The incoming letters are not reproduced here, although sometimes Nina’s elliptical first and last lines help you to imagine her sister’s voice, and the cheerful, easy intimacy the two of them share. “Firstly, about your boss walking around in the nude… I don’t think it’s anything to do with him being Swedish or Norwegian,” Nina begins one letter. “Surprised about Gordon Banks” is how she ends another. (Gordon Banks was England’s goalkeeper during the 1960s, but knowing that won’t help you with the reference any more than it did me.) And here’s the second surprise: I have tangential connections to the family. Lots of people who write for a living do. Nina’s employer is Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, and her charges are Sam Frears and Will Frears, then aged ten and eight or so, sons of my friend Stephen Frears. So that was sort of weird, too, because though you’ve probably all read books written by the former nannies of friends, I never have. As usual, I’m the last.

There is so much I want to say about Love, Nina, but where to begin? I could start with the location, in Regent’s Park, North London, not far from my home, and with Nina’s new neighbors: Alan Bennett, the brilliant playwright, actor, essayist, and screenwriter, lives opposite. Jonathan Miller, stage director and intellectual superstar, lives up the road. And Claire Tomalin, beloved biographer; her partner, Michael Frayn; and her children live around the corner. Initially, at least, Nina doesn’t know who any of these people are. “Of course he’s the Alan Bennett,” she says to Victoria patronizingly. “You’d know him if you saw him. He used to be in Coronation Street.” This is a reference to our longest-running soap opera, and, needless to say, Alan Bennett has never been anywhere near it. And yet so acute an observer is Nina that she goes on to provide a portrait of Bennett that is as vivid and as recognizable as one of Bennett’s own characters, someone from his brilliant Talking Heads series, say. Bennett walks over the road to eat supper with Mary-Kay, Nina, and the boys several evenings a week, and the conversations go something like this:

AB: This is tasty.
MK: Do you have to say ‘tasty’?
AB: It is tasty.
MK: I’m not denying it, but there’s no need to say ‘tasty.’
Questioned by AB about the ingredients (suspicious?):
AB: Have you put cardamoms in?
Me: They were optional.
AB: Did you opt for them?
Me: No.

Most of the letters contain similar tiny playlets, all of them sweetly and amusingly revealing of the domestic preoccupations of an unlikely family unit. AB and MK and Sam and Will talk about flowers and dry cleaners and pie fillings and roadwork, and a neighbor’s gigantic bottom, and what the German word for “motherfucker” is. (“AB: (pondering) It might be mutterficken? Or perhaps arshficken, arshlock? But please can’t we discuss nicer things?”) And very quickly, Nina Stibbe’s eyes and ears produce a kind of giggly hysteria in the reader, and you can’t wait for the next meal, the next haircut, the next freezer malfunction, the next date that Mary-Kay goes on. (“Get in there, Floppy,” Sam shouts at one hapless suitor with floppy hair as he and Mary-Kay go out one evening.)

And there’s more. Love, Nina is an unlikely but unerring portrait of life with a disabled child: both Sam and Claire Tomalin’s son Tom have severe health problems, and though Nina’s letters deal with Sam’s frequent scares and trips to the hospital with an admirable and understated matter-of-factness, those who live with disability will recognize both the constant undercurrent of concern, the unexpected pleasures to be found in support systems, the unavoidable black humor:

Sam accidentally tipped Tom out of his wheelchair going up a kerb. He came home all dramatic.

Me: What’s up?

Sam: It’s really bad, Tomalin’s wheelchair bumped into a moped and fell over and Tom fell out in the street and the moped went on its side.

Me: Oh, dear. Was Tom OK?

Sam: Yeah, I think so, he wasn’t hurt.

Me: Poor Tom. Poor you.

Will: Poor moped.

Fifteen minutes later:

Sam: Shall we go and check on him?

Me: Tom?

Sam: Yeah, see if anyone’s helped him up.

Me: What, he’s still there?

Sam: Probably, maybe, I don’t know.

Me: What, you left him there?

Sam: Yeah, I came to get you.

Me: But Sam, you’ve had a peanut butter sandwich.

One of the key relationships in Love, Nina is between Nina and Nunney, Tom’s carer. (Ha! My spell-checker, hilariously, is trying to tell me that there’s no such word as carer. I’m sure I speak for all parents of disabled kids when I say that it can fuck right off.) Nunney is more socially confident than Nina, and he’s obviously read more books. Clearly he irritates her sometimes, and she him, but they are obviously close, and the book’s afterword closes with a very cute punch line. And the repressed romantic sparring between Nina and Nunney leads directly into another of the subplots in the book, concerning Nina’s intellectual development. She is encouraged, by all the astonishingly clever people around her, to believe that she is clever, too, in the same way (she is clearly clever in lots of other ways). She studies for an exam, goes on to college, and presumably collects a degree. Her journey is involving, and—if you ignore Nina’s blunt self-deprecation—moving, but it also allows for more AB/MK-style fun.

AB: How’s the studying going?

Me: Fine.

MK: Except she hates everything.

Me: No, I don’t. Only Hardy.

MK: And Shakespeare and Chaucer.

Me: No, I’m OK with Chaucer now.

AB: What’s wrong with Hardy?

Me: It’s this little picture you see everywhere of his

round head.

AB: I don’t think you should hold that against him.

I adored this book, and I could quote from it forever. It’s real, odd, life-affirming, sharp, loving, and contains more than one reference to Arsenal FC, and I can’t remember the last time I laughed out loud so frequently while reading. It is to the enormous credit of Mary-Kay and her sons that they have allowed Love, Nina to be published; but then the book itself is a credit to them, too—to their intelligence, their wit, their good humor, their unlikely and entirely admirable functionality as a family. The publishers have changed the cover now, by the way, but I think you should read it however it’s dressed up.

It is unfortunate that Love, Nina is so good, because it leaves me with reduced space to write about Margaret Drabble and Hampton Hawes and Jean Nathan, whose books were surprising and absorbing and very different, perhaps predictably. Hampton Hawes, for example, was a black pianist with a heroin habit, and Margaret Drabble wasn’t, and still isn’t, so there’s that, for a start. “Why do you read such random books?” a friend asked me recently. Is that what it seems like to you? I’m sorry, if so. What it feels like from this side is that I’m trying to carry on several different conversations with myself simultaneously. The Hawes book is part of my continuing and extremely fruitful investigation of jazz; Margaret Drabble’s early work is helping me with the language, customs, and attitudes of the early-to-mid-1960s, wherein the novel I’m writing is partly set. But then, I guess that’s what reading is, in the end, over a lifetime: scores of conversations with all the different parts of ourselves, all of them shouting to be heard.

Raise Up Off Me is a memoir, never less than readable, and, for four chapters, kind of amazing. In 1952 Hawes—perhaps unwisely, given his substance-abuse problems—joined the military, even when he was offered a way out by a doctor who had noticed his track marks. He ends up at Camp Drake in Asaka, Japan, and as soon as he is given a pass, he walks toward town looking to score. He goes into a brothel, on the not-absurd presumption that where there’s sex for sale, drugs may not be too far away; he is offered all the best-looking hookers in the place, but to the madam’s horror he insists on the scrawny-looking girl who has been banished to floor-cleaning duties: Hawes has spotted her scars and recognized a fellow junkie.

For the next few months, the brothel is his home away from home. When he is co-opted into one of the U.S. Army’s jazz bands, he is moved to a camp at Yokohama, and another prostitute introduces him to a girl called Toshiko who plays gospel piano. They perform together, sometimes. There is heroin everywhere, inside the base and out, and Hawes spends much of his time strung out, torn up, nodding. It all ends in court martials and cold turkey, but those thirty-odd pages are astonishingly alive, lit from within, full of people you’ve never come across before, doing things that you may have thought had only just been invented. I should warn you, if you’re thinking of reading Raise Up Off Me, that Hampton Hawes refuses to apologize for his drug use, in the contemporary style, nor does he seem particularly ashamed of it, although he does acknowledge that it caused him a great deal of difficulty. And he’s right, of course. He doesn’t have to say sorry to me, or to you, if you decide to read Raise Up Off Me. If you are offended by what a jazz musician did in Japan in the 1950s, then you probably shouldn’t be reading anything.

There is another extraordinary story toward the end of the book. In 1958, Hawes was sentenced to ten years in prison for drug-related offenses, the hefty sentence a result of his refusal to become an informer. In 1961, watching Kennedy’s inaugural speech on the prison TV, he became convinced that the president would pardon him, and Hawes applied for executive clemency. A couple of years later, he got it, much to the disbelief of his fellow inmates and prison staff. Hawes died in 1977, aged forty-eight. It would be wrong to say that he crammed a lot into his abbreviated life, because that would be making the common mistake of equating heroin with narrative incident, when in fact heroin merely produces blank page after blank page. Hawes knew he’d blown it. He wrote a pretty good book, though.

Hampton Hawes refers to women throughout his book as “bitches.” This obviously isn’t ideal, but he’s not using the word in an angry way, and after the initial shock has worn away, you realize that it simply means “chicks.” Which is also not ideal, I know, I know, but there is a sentence in Margaret Drabble’s first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage, which reminds us that even smart, free-thinking women got themselves into messes back then. “She was far too intelligent to do nothing,” says Drabble’s narrator Sarah, “and yet too beautiful and sexy to do all the first-class things like politics or law or social sciences.” Sarah, just out of Oxford with a first in English, is talking about her sister Louise, who also has an Oxford degree. The book was written in 1962. We’ve moved on, right? These days you can be beautiful and sexy and do social sciences, I understand, although if you’re asking me to name names, I find myself at something of a loss. I’ll bet there are loads of beautiful, sexy social scientists, though, and that’s just one of the great things about the twenty-first century.

Jean Nathan’s intense, dark, and unavoidably airless The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll is a biography of a beautiful, sexy children’s book author, Dare Wright, who wrote the Lonely Doll series of books in the ’50s and ’60s. Wright’s beauty and her sexiness are very much a part of Jean Nathan’s story, before you accuse me of gratuitousness. She took photographs of herself throughout her life, some of them naked, some of them with seaweed draped artfully over her nipples. The Lonely Doll series fell out of favor with readers and publishers, after enormous initial success, because many of the books contain shots of a father bear spanking Edith, the eponymous doll, and Edith usually found a way to reveal a hint of lacy panties while she was being punished. And yet Dare Wright herself remained single and defiantly virginal. When she somehow became embroiled in an adultery case, there were gynecologists prepared to testify on her behalf. She did, however, sleep with her mother throughout her mother’s long life, and her deep attachment to her brother was similarly peculiar. So, all in all, I think we’re entitled to at least mention Dare’s relationship to her own looks and sexuality in passing. Like the Maysles’ Grey Gardens, or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Nathan’s book is riveting, and quite brilliantly researched, but it’s not the most cheerful cultural experience I have had this year. It made me ache to return to Gloucester Crescent and hang out with Nina Stibbe, and listen to AB talk about blackberries. I was so happy there. I think I may have found my comfort reading.

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