Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home—Nina Stibbe (2013)

This is such a funny book and in this season of short days and enforced cheer you owe it to yourself to read it.

In 1982 the twenty-year-old Nina Stibbe moved to 55 Gloucester Crescent in London to become a nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmer and her sons. Wilmer was and is the editor of the London Review of Books. Her sons Sam and Will (from her marriage to the film director Stephen Frears) were ten and a half and nine years old, respectively. The playwright Alan Bennett lived across the street and came over most nights for dinner. The biographer Claire Tomalin and the writer Michael Frayn lived down the road. They had a helper, a sort of personal assistant, called Mark Nunney, who Nina likes but can never quite seem to get involved with.

Love, Nina collects the letters Stibbe sent her sister Victoria, who stayed behind in Leicestershire where she worked as an aide at an old folks home. One of the small pleasures of the book lies in piecing together the other half of the conversation. (“Sorry to hear about the gum bite… good job she had no teeth, but horrible anyway.”) Victoria didn’t like London and rarely visited, but Stibbe kept her sister apprised of all the exploits of the residents of Wilmer and her circle (everyone always dropping in on each other, like a big extended family).

These are wonderful letters: gossipy but not long-winded, punchy, dry, quick-witted, and very, very funny. (As I asked recently, what are the memoirists and biographers of the future going to do without letters?) Stibbe, who later takes a course on drama at university, is at her best transcribing bits of dialogue.

Describing a day out with her friend Misty in Brighton:

The best bit was when we went into an antique shop and Misty picked up a pickle fork with a pretty green jewel on the end.
“How much is this pickle fork?” she asked the antique man.
The man said it wasn’t a pickle fork but a runcible spoon.

Misty: What’s a runcible spoon?
Man: One of them in your hand.
Misty: But what’s it for?
Man: Pickles and such.

Later she tells Misty about Mary-Kay:

Me: She’s just very unusual.
Misty: Is she a bit mad?
Me: God, no, she’s 100 percent sane.
Misty: That’s unusual.
Me: That’s what I mean.

Mary-Kay (MK in Stibbe’s shorthand) comes across very appealingly: open-minded, smart, funny, kind to Nina, dedicated to her children but keenly aware of their faults. But Stibbe also makes gentle fun of her sometimes snooty, sometimes spacey intellectual friends, and her yuppie tastes. (It’s the early 80s, after all, and people with money are discovering eight-grain bread and balsamic vinegar.) What Nina loves most in MK is her dry wit. One letter starts “Good news! Mary-Kay has pranged the car at long last—a relief after all mine (prangs).” (Stibbe is not much of a driver, though she gives plenty of advice to her sister, who is taking lessons: “not sure Mr. T is the best instructor. He never sleeps and he’s eighty-nine.”) She goes on to fill Victoria in on the conversation at 55 later that evening:

Sam: It’s mum first time crashing.
Me: Yeah, but it’s worse than any of mine—in terms of damage done.
MK: Hmm.
Me: Mine never required any action to be taken.
MK: Only the untangling of deception and denial.
Me: You dented the number plate—irreparably.
MK: True, but my credibility remains intact.

Another time she and MK discuss the latest fad:

Me: Do you ever do yoga?
MK: No, but I hear it’s very good.
Ne So why don’t you go?
MK: I expect I shall at some point.
Me: Me too.

(This perfectly gets the sense that yoga or things like it—pilates, say, or whatever the next thing is that all right-thinking people who love themselves and want to live forever absolutely must do—will come to us all, even those of us who have absolutely no intention of ever doing them.)

Sam & Will are just as appealing, especially since they have such a foil in their nanny, who often wants to be more immature than they are. Both Nina and Mary-Kay love to banter with them. At one point, Stibbe’s brother visits and gives Sam a “sexy pen”:

Press the top and the woman’s bra disappears. We all like it and keep pressing the top to see the bra disappear.

MK: Don’t take it to school.
Sam: Why not?
MK: Your teacher will confiscate it.
Sam: What do you mean?
MK: She’ll take it from you.
Sam: She won’t want it.

I could go on quoting from the book all day. Instead, just read it for yourself. It’s not that life at 55 is perfect or even idyllic. It’s that Stibbe narrates it with such good-humour, such lack of mean-spiritedness (which doesn’t mean she isn’t judgmental, grumpy, frustrated, etc.).

Love, Nina is a joy because Stibbe has no problem laughing at her own foibles. People like this—my very best friend in the world is one, and it’s undoubtedly one of the reasons I’m so drawn to him—emanate a kind of ease that makes everyone feel good, a gift that I, irredeemably prickly and too-quickly offended, can only admire.

All of which is to say that Stibbe comes across, even in her child-like qualities, as mature and wise. Which is impressive since the book is really a coming of age story. (Hard to believe Stibbe was barely in her 20s when she wrote these letters.) The predominant narrative line tells the story of Stibbe’s acceptance into a Polytechnic where she studies literature. Stibbe becomes a proficient if not brilliant literary reader but never loses the skepticism that makes her immune to the most self-satisfied and airless qualities of the discipline. (Her struggle to complete her thesis on Carson McCullers—she soon decides she didn’t want to write about her—will be familiar to anyone who has embarked on a research project.) But Stibbe is cleverer than she likes to let on. She even allows herself a meta-moment about the best quality of her own book:

Me: Is the book OK?
Will: It’s hilarious.
Me: But you look so serious.
Will: I’m laughing on the inside.
Sam: I hate it when people laugh out loud when they read.
Will: Me too, that’s why I hide it.
Sam: They’re showing off about reading a funny book
Will: About finding it funny.
A[lan] B[ennett]: (from kitchen table) I think you’re allowed to laugh if something amuses you.
Sam: Not a book.
AB: I think one’s allowed an involuntary snort… or two,
MK: One.

When you dissolve into helpless laughter, as I did any number of times reading this book, you can decide if Sam & Will are right and you’re just showing off.

When I mentioned Stibbe’s “best quality” just now I meant her humour, of course. As I said, her book had me laughing out loud to the point of tears. My wife, who lovingly said it did her good to see me enjoying myself so much, and after asking me to read bits to her, which made me gasp further, kindly but firmly kicked me out of the bedroom. You can’t read this book just anywhere.

But in retrospect Stibbe’s best quality isn’t her humour. Nor is it her keen editorial eye. (She always knows exactly where to stop her transcriptions.) Instead, it’s her kindness, which appears in her openhearted respond to the gruff but loving Bohemianism of life at 55. She knows she was lucky to have landed with Wilmer and her sons, and even when she moves out, just around the corner, to go to school full time, she keeps coming back, like AB himself.

Late in the book she describes one of those evenings. The family is watching England play Germany on TV:

Sam: (speaking to Bobby Robson [England’s manager]) What do you go and pick two bloody Ipswich players for (taps the screen)?
MK: Stop tapping the screen.
Sam: (to Bryan Robson [team captain, no relation to Bobby]) Come on, Robbo.
MK: Stop putting your hands all over the screen.
Sam: Come on, England.
Sam: I can’t watch. I hate football.
Will: It’s only a friendly.
Sam: (to Bobby Robson) It’s only a friendly, Bobby (taps screen).
MK: Sam, stop touching the screen.
Sam: I can’t watch.
MK: Neither can we—all we can see is your hands.

I felt sad at the end. But I didn’t say anything.
I don’t think Mary Hope & co [her new landlords] watch much football whereas MK and S&W watch as much as possible. So I’ll have to come round here for it. Not that I like it much, but I like watching it with them. MK mentions if a player has nice hair and Sam puts the Vs up to the ref and Will covers his face at the tense bits. They’re just themselves watching football only more so.

As the title suggests, the letters all end “Love, Nina.” It’s a very loving book. Just the thing for this time of year, or any other.

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Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father—Alysia Abbott (2013)

I enjoyed Alysia Abbott’s memoir of growing up with an openly gay father in 1970s and 80s San Francisco, racing through it in a couple of evenings. But I didn’t like it as much as some people I know. Can’t say for sure how it will stay with me, but I’m guessing most of it will vanish as thoroughly as the sometimes gritty, sometimes gossamer world it depicts.

Steve Abbott met Barbara Binder when both were graduate students in Atlanta in the late 60s. His declaration of his bisexuality didn’t get in the way of their relationship, at least not at first. They married and soon had a daughter, Alysia. In a complicated story of which the young Abbott knew almost nothing, Barbara, perhaps pushed by Steve’s regular relationships with other men, entered into a relationship of her own. Her lover, Wolf, is a suicidal, drug-addicted patient she had treated in her job as a social worker. He is arrested in Michigan trying to run drugs across the border; when the charges are dropped, Barbara hurries to get him. On the way back to Atlanta they are in a terrible car accident. Barbara dies instantly. Alysia is three.

Father and daughter move to San Francisco, where they eke out a precarious, semi-nomadic existence as Steve struggles to succeed as a writer. Alysia’s grandparents help out, taking the girl for summers to their home in the mid-west and paying tuition for a private school. (Hers is a story of only partial, yet still real deprivation.) Steve begins to publish and makes his name as an editor and activist in the burgeoning gay community.

As the 70s become the 80s more and more of his friends become sick. Abbott’s ordinary story of teenage rebellion is complicated by the advent of AIDS, especially when her father is diagnosed as HIV positive. By the time she goes to college in New York he has full blown AIDS; eventually he asks Abbott to return home to nurse him. Abbott’s ambivalence about this request—which means putting the life she has painstakingly carved out for herself on hold—make up the central dilemma of the last part of the book. Most interesting is the way Abbott delays the moment of reckoning, how for years she ignores the severity of her father’s situation, even complaining, in a letter she reproduces in the book, about how his recitation of illnesses is getting her down.

Abbott makes good use of her father’s journals and the many letters they wrote to each other. (Side note: I’m old enough to experience today’s instant, omnipresent communication as a loss. I remember when long-distance phone calls were expensive and rationed, and letter writing was common. Those letters were exciting. You could revisit them in different lights and moods. I guess future memoirists will consult their emails or texts or something, but it’s hard for me to see how that ephemera will persist. I’m also jealous of Abbott: I’ve only ever received a handful of letters from my father.) Abbott is also willing to show herself in an unflattering light. Her college-age narcissism isn’t unusual, but it’s made more vexing, more compelling because it masks her fears for her father’s heath.

Yet Abbott’s self-presentation is disappointingly detached, almost affectless. That could be a function of the denial that characterized her response to the illness. But the effect is to keep readers from fully engaging with her story. This flatness infects Abbott’s prose, too. Her sentences tend to be baldly declarative, syntactically and conceptually simple even when Abbott is engaging in self-reflection. Through a combination of inability or preoccupation or refusal of bourgeois norms, Steve Abott was sometimes a neglectful father, failing, for example, to instruct her in certain ways of social being. Her school friend Niki took up the burden, advising her to start wearing deodorant, reprimanding her when she blithely finishes someone else’s leftovers in a restaurant. Abbott writes: “Though I didn’t exactly see what the big deal was, I suspected Niki was right, and I felt overcome with that familiar feeling of confused shame.” She adds, in the only sentences that reflect on that complicated emotion (“confused shame”),“Why was it still so difficult to contain my weirdness, to hide my dirt and mask my scent? These are painful memories to revisit, even now.” So painful, it seems, that the equivalence between weirdness, on the one hand, and dirt and scent, on the other, that is, the desire of someone who has led a non-normative life to efface not just her distinctiveness but her very self is simply posed as a question and then dropped. Here pain precludes analysis.

Similarly underdeveloped is the opening anecdote, in which the five-year-old Abbott, the only child at a party her father has taken her to (she is often the only child), is left alone in the pool. She is entranced y the water (“I’ve uncovered a secret pathway to a magic pace, a mermaid sea”) but doesn’t know how to swim. Before long she is splashing frantically in the water. Someone notices and alerts her father, who pulls her out. Abbott’s commentary reads, in full:

My father notes this day in his journal with the headline “Alysia’s Swimming Accident,’ and beneath it a small scribbled drawing showing my arm flailing above wavy water. When I later find the journal entry, I smile with delight.

It’s unclear how much later this later is, but at least the final sentence has the virtue of being surprising. That’s not how I expected Abbott to respond—I expected her to say something like, “I can’t believe what a narrow escape that was, and how causally my father turned it into anecdote.” Is she so happy simply to be noticed by her father that she doesn’t care? Or was the moment not really that traumatic? (It’s certainly set up that way.) Why even begin with this story? Is it that, for Abbott and her father, at least, experience had to be recorded to become real? Perhaps the strangest thing about this moment is how idyllically it’s figured—disaster is averted, recrimination avoided. But then Abbott adds that she didn’t learn how to swim until she was in college, “a source of secret shame.” And there’s that shame again, running through the book like a livid thread, always unexplored.

Like her father’s poems, liberally included in the text, which are of primarily historical interest regarding both the gay scene in pre- and early-AIDS era San Francisco, and the Abbotts’ father-daughter relationship, Abbott’s book has more historical than intrinsic interest. Fascinating, for example, to see how much more casually people understood parenting in the 70s. That’s true even when we set aside Abbott’s father’s Bohemianism. For example, from the age of three onwards Abbott travels alone to spend summers with her grandparents. Her father coaches her to say she is four, since that’s the minimum age to fly as an unaccompanied minor. What amazed me was not her father’s little subterfuge but the airlines’ policy. I can’t imagine sending my daughter on a plane by herself next year. Yes, I realize this doesn’t necessarily reflect well either on me or on today’s culture of extreme, immersive parenting.

Where the book did hit home for me was in prompting these sorts of considerations of my own parenting. What kept me reading was its portrait of an intense father-daughter relationship to which I brought all my own complicated and overflowing feelings about being a father to a daughter. I was moved almost to tears by Steve Abbott’s evident love for his daughter, even though or perhaps because that love was sometimes so clumsily expressed. It says something about me (beyond the mere fact of me being a man, I mean) that I identified more strongly with him that with his daughter, the narrator of the story. Yet at the same time, I was surprised that the book didn’t distance my identification by presenting her father’s parenting as in any way distinctively queer. (In fact, I don’t think the book ever uses the word “queer” until the last line of the epilogue.) For all the ways Abbott records the strangely simultaneously loving and dismissive upbringing she received from the gay community she grew up in, she seldom considers what this has meant to her. She tells us what it was like to learn that she needed to dissemble about her father’s sexuality, before later embracing it, then reacting against it, then simply taking it as a given. But she doesn’t think about what queerness could bring to our understanding of family; indeed at the end of the book she casually announces that she realizes she never gave her father’s boyfriends a chance because they could never replace her mother, a surprising avowal of what I can only awkwardly call heteronormativity.

But maybe what I’m reacting to in Abbott’s writing is in fact a success not a weakness. Maybe what I’ve read as flat is in fact dispassionate, a sign of her ability to present a turbulent and unusual past evenhandedly. That’s a genuine accomplishment of the book. But I’m still disappointed in the lack of reflection on the part of the adult Abbot in relation to her childhood and adolescent sense. She rarely reflects on the past from the position of the present: I can understand wanting to keep her present life private, and I realize that the Fairyland of the title is a vanished world, such that part of the point of the book is to portray it as sealed off. Not everything needs to be Proust (though even as I write that I don’t think I really believe it), but this absence of a change in register between child and adult voices, or of a switch in temporal position makes the book less analytical, thinner somehow. Evenhandedness too easily shades into monotony.

It’s probably not fair, they’re not the same kind of book, and it’s not as though we have so many stories about gay parents that I should be pitting one against the other, but I couldn’t help comparing Fairyland to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, her remarkable comic about coming to terms with the untimely death of her closeted bisexual father. Fairyland comes off badly in this comparison, Bechdel’s prose (to say nothing of her drawings) so smart and funny and poignant, her book so much richer than Abbott’s. Fun Home is a book I’ve read and re-read, and taught, and pressed into other people’s hands. I don’t think I’ll do any of those things with Fairyland even as I have affection for the father who imperfectly did what he could with a child he always loved and admiration for the child who chronicles that love so even-temperedly.