Monday, 13 June 2016

Love, Nina

North London crescent
A friend of mine regularly sees Alan Bennett from her office in Camden and in moments of boredom texts me his movements. "He just nearly got run over - again", she sighs, virtually.

Alan Bennett also features in Nick Hornby's delightful adaptation of the memoirs of North London nanny, Nina Stibbe. (The memoirs were originally letters Nina wrote to her sister.) For television, names have been changed. But in reality the fussy Scottish poet Malcolm Tanner, who turns up to have his dinner cooked for him most nights and then complains about what he is served, was Alan Bennett. The mother of Nina's wards was Mary Kay Wilmers, the editor of The London Review of Books, and their father the film maker Stephen Frears. And Ray, the man in the wheelchair that Nina's boyfriend Nunney cares for, was the son (Tom) of biographer Claire Tomalin, by then married to playwright Michael Frayn. As a link to the past, Nina Stibbe's real ward Sam Frears (Joe in the series) plays Ray. It's what Joe's Riley-Day syndrome looks like 35 years on from our 1982 setting, where he has regular and alarming bouts of extreme ill health.

All this may be rather confusing. But suffice to say, Gloucester Crescent, Camden (or Primrose Hill in postcode snobbery) is the hub of the London literati. It's Lady In The Van territory, but here seen through the eyes of a 20 year old girl from Leicester who has no idea who any of them are. (She thought she recognised Malcolm from Coronation Street.) Instead of being in awe of them she is entirely at ease, and tactless in her opinions. Nina's neuroses are instead to do with whether Nunney likes her, how not to giggle in her yoga classes, how much turkey mince to buy, how to rehome the cat, how to upgrade a bin, how to redial quickly on an old-school Bakelite phone, how to clean genitals off a pavement, and how to keep the exuberant, football loving boys safely occupied in a skip. (The boys' derision of Leicester City is of course rather ironic in 2016.) I am not sure of Nina's previous child care experience. She walks barefoot through the streets of North London, which not many would advise. Maybe it's to prepare for the boy's much feared nuclear war, or maybe the pavements were cleaner in 1982. The property prices were certainly lower. Nowadays a nanny in a similar location would have to serve spoilt bankers, Russian oligarchs or Arab sheikhs, rather than the creative core of our cultural heritage.

How to redial quickly on a phone like this?
Helena Bonham-Carter as mother George is brilliant - gruff, whimsical, rude, encouraging, dismissive, affectionate, emotionless but (deep down) extremely caring. The boys are delightful, Nina suitably kooky and cross, but Malcolm isn't quite Alan Bennetty enough for me, if Bennetty can be a word in NW1.

Some of this literary circle obviously rubbed off, as Nina, after a confused and cautious introduction to Thomas Hardy by the more erudite Nunney, eventually goes off to study English. And write a book or two.

North London is one of my spiritual homes. Alan Bennett or Michael Frayn are the neighbours of my dreams. Admittedly, my actual next-door neighbours in North London were a loud Brazilian family, ten Middle Eastern blokes crammed into a one-bedroom flat and an elderly man with behaviour issues who used to stand at his window in his pants, watching me on our roof terrace. But this was Crouch End, not Primrose Hill.

Not that I would cook dinner for Alan Bennett if he was that picky. Maybe that's why people keep trying to run him over - they served him tinned tomatoes in his Hunters stew and couldn't hack the criticism.

Aviary, London Zoo from the Camden Canal
Primrose Hill - those beautiful views over the zoo and the City of London, and the Greek restaurant Limonia, where we shared many wonderful meals with our dear friend Tony, who died recently.  The charming cafes tumble down to the markets and canals of grittier Camden Lock. But up on the hill, the space is light and airy. It's its own special world.

Of course Nina and Nunney, once married, settled in Crouch End. Just like all the good people. And most of the cast of EastEnders.

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