The Books That Built Nina Stibbe, Author of Love, Nina and Man at the Helm
‘Look,’ [says Lizzie Vogel, ten year old narrator of Nina Stibbe’s Man at The Helm, to her sister],
‘I know about the plastic parsley – but, in real life, she’s got plenty of friends and acquaintances and so forth who will all rally round and do their utmost.”No, they won’t, that’s not what happens,’ says my sister, sounding horribly grown up at only eleven years old. ‘That only happens when someone dies and even then not for long. If a lone female is left, especially if divorced, without a man at the helm, all the friends and family and acquaintances run away.”Do they?’ I asked.’Yes, until there’s another man at the helm.’ She said.’And then what?’ I asked.’Then, when a new man at the helm is in place, the woman is accepted once again.’
Man At The Helm is the ‘semi-autobiographical‘ novel Nina Stibbe began to write in her twenties, and at one point shows to Alan Bennett in Love, Nina, her first book, an epistolary memoir of her years as the nanny to the editor of the London Review of Books, in which the cast of walk-on characters includes the great and the good of London’s literary scene, Bennett included. He thought it was funny, and rightly so: more than twenty years later, Man At The Helm has emerged fully formed, its humour fulfilling the promise Bennett identified, scorchingly honest, and underpinned with that especially British pathos, the kind that keeps you laughing through the tears. After her parents split up, Lizzie Vogel and her siblings move to a village where they’re ostracised for their lack of the eponymous man at the helm. Anxious when their mother turns to booze, pills and – most worryingly – play-writing, Lizzie and her sister make it their business to find her a new husband and produce ‘The Man List’, of all the men they consider eligible in the neighbourhood and then send them notes on peach writing paper, purporting to come from their mother inviting them to a drink, in the hope it will lead to ‘sexual intercourse and possibly marriage.’
It’s hard to think of a more enjoyable guest for The Books That Built Me than Nina Stibbe, every bit as entertaining in real life as she is in print: dry, droll, charming, clever and generous. In fact, I enjoyed talking to her so much, I quite forgot to look at my watch, and only realised after an hour and ten minutes how far we’d strayed over time.
Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life
Man at the Helm
The Books That Built Nina Stibbe
1. Jill’s Gymkhana. Ruby Ferguson
In the first in a long series of Jill books, published in the fifties, lonely Jill Crewe makes friends with a neglected pony. She decides to buy Black Boy, but she can’t even unsaddle him, let alone ride him. And girls like Susan Pyke are very scathing that she doesn’t have the right riding clothes. But her friends show her the ropes, and encourage her to ride in the local gymkhana, where she has a few surprises for the unpleasant Susan Pyke.
‘Horsey but more interesting than most horsey books because Jill wasn’t as posh as most horse people or as well off and secure as the rest of her family (and had horrid posh cousins who thought her a bit of an oik).. and felt continually slightly out of place and had a writer mother and tragic absent father (deceased).‘ wrote Nina when I asked which books she wanted to talk about at the salon, ‘Jill’s stories were first person narrated and involved lots of straight to reader talk, and tiny mundane detail (‘I washed the carrots under the tap’). Jill was tough and worthy and nice. I loved Jill and loved her story telling style.’
There’s a marvellously recalcitrant pony in Man At The Helm called Maxwell who goes inside the Vogels house and climbs the stairs.
Jill’s Gymkhana (Knight Books)
2. Black Beauty. Anna Sewell
‘Black Beauty tells the story of his life in his own words. ‘This story stunned me as a nine year old. I couldn’t believe it was narrated in the first person. By a HORSE. I was very interested in the horse-voice and fascinated by Black Beauty’s slightly judgemental tone on things (such as alcohol) that he couldn’t possibly have known about (him being a six year old horse)….’ Black Beauty enjoys a rather idyllic life with the Gordons until he’s sold to Lord Westland where he’s ridden hard and horribly whipped by drunken groom Reuben Smith, then sold into quite a different life pulling a London cab – he’s treated well, but the hours are long and it’s terribly hard work’. Like Man At The Helm, it’s the story of changed circumstances –
‘My sister and I and our little brother were born (in that order) into a very good situation and apart from the odd new thing, life was humdrum and comfortable until an evening in 1970 when our mother listened in to our father’s phone call and ended up blowing her nose on a tea towel – a thing she’d only have done in an absolute emergency.’
There’s also a sense in which Lizzie’s mother is Black Beauty – one minute being driven around in a Daimler by Bernard the Chauffeur, the next in a relationship with an unsuitable plumber called Charlie and living off whisky and anti-depressants.
Black Beauty: Faber Children’s Classics
3. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged thirteen and three-quarters. Sue Townsend
Adrian Mole reminds Nina of her ‘Love, Nina’ years with Mary-Kay Wilmers’ children, Will and Sam, in Gloucester Crescent. Published in the early 1980’s, Adrian Mole is a much more political novel than I remember it – it’s not simply its backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain (and Townsend herself endured great privation), but the things that one forgets like the SDP. I think I’d also forgotten what a comic tour de force it is.
What was endlessly fascinating for me (and probably the reason I lost track of the time) is that in all the books Nina chose, it’s possible to track the things that speak to her as a writer, that have built her craft and made Man At The Helm into such a finely honed and brilliant novel – first person narration, the effortless ability she shares with Townsend in particular to inhabit the voice of a child, bringing to a story a tremendous combination of naiveté and knowing.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4
4. The Country Girls, Edna O’Brian
Edna O’Brian’s first published novel tells of innocence eventually lost. Narrated in the first person (see the theme emerging…), it’s the story of Caithleen, who at the beginning of the novel is a 14 year old girl living in an Irish village, and at the end, an 18 year old in Dublin, abandoned by her first lover.
‘I read this as a teenager and was thrilled,’ said Nina, ‘Very excited that someone who lived in the country (as I did) was so thrilled to move to a town. Also, I loved the nothingness (yet the hugeness) of her relationship with Mr Gentleman until the very end when she compares his penis to an orchid (an orchid of two different purples). At that point I rushed around looking for pictures of orchids and got quite freaked out. Loved her relationship with best-friend Baba. Who was a total bitch and yet a loyal friend at the same time. Which can happen’
5. Jane and Prudence. Barbara Pym
‘I picked it up in my teens,’ said Nina, ‘and couldn’t believe how utterly dull it was. My mother was a huge fan and claimed Pym was hilarious. I finished the book and thought I’d avoid Pym in future. For some reason, I came back to her via Some Tame Gazelle, and then re-read Jane and Prudence and fond it joyous and funny.’
One of the great delights of Pym is how she captures life’s mundanities in great detail. It’s a style which creates a particular intimacy with the characters, who stay with you long after the novel is finished. I came across a review of Love, Nina in which Kate Kellaway wrote, ‘What makes the book special is her understanding that it is often in the most inconsequential details that people reveal themselves most fully.’ and this is absolutely something that she and Pym share.
6. Diary of a Nobody. George and Weedon Grossmith.
Pooter, the ‘hero’ of Diary of a Nobody is one of the great literary comic creations. A City of London clerk, he and his wife Carrie have moved to their new house at ‘The Laurels’, Brickfield Lane, Holloway and he begins to record the minutiae of his daily life. With every small vexation, often arising from his unwitting pomposity, the humour quietly builds.
“I told Sarah not to bring up the blanc-mange again for breakfast. [writes Pooter in his diary]. It seems to have been placed on our table at every meal since Wednesday….In spite of my instructions, that blanc-mange was brought up again for supper. To make matters worse, there had been an attempt to disguise it, by placing it in a glass dish with jam round it…I told Carrie, when we were alone, if that blanc-mange were placed on the table again I should walk out of the house.”
One of the things Nina nails so brilliantly in Man At The Helm is the pooterishness of little England, the sneaky censoriousness, the self-importance of villagers like Mrs Longlady at the Village Fete
“Mrs Longlady, our almost neighbour, was one of the judges and seeing her there … she seemed tall and important like her name and she kept saying Thrice which seemed important too ‘The Entrants will be viewed thrice,’ she announced to the entrants and their mothers in her echoey mic voice, ‘walking, standing and close up before we adjudge who is to be awarded the prizes.”
The Diary of a Nobody (Wordsworth Classics)
I hope I haven’t made the salon sound like a forensic examination of a writer’s style – all lit crit and no wit. Although I always intended The Books That Built Me to describe how an author’s favourite novels must inevitably reflect the kind of writing they respond to and admire – that lovely quote of Sarah Churchwell’s ‘how the books you love meet the books you write’ comes to mind – I hadn’t expected Nina’s to give me quite so much insight into Man At The Helm. Perhaps it’s because I too adore first person stories, and those in which the ‘inconsequential details’ create a conspiracy between author and reader, that I find myself so captivated by her journey as an author. Man At The Helm is a triumphant achievement – incredibly sad and incredibly funny as all the best books are, and I feel quite sure that, like Adrian Mole, Jane and Prudence, Diary of a Nobody, et al, its appeal will endure.