I saw this book mentioned in, I think, The Telegraph, where there was an article about it headed something like ‘Alan Bennett mended my washing machine’. In the early 1980s, Nina from Leicestershire went to work as a nanny for ‘MK’, Mary Kay Wilmers. My first thought was, ‘Ugh, I can’t stand all that incestuous north London literati stuff’, thereby irrationally dismissing a number of my most admired authors. Nevertheless, I started reading the book and my worst fears seemed about to be realised. The thought of the concentrated brain power in the neighbourhood when Jonathan Miller, Michael Frayn and Alan Bennett, not to mention MK herself, all lived within a few doors of each other, was alarming, as were middle class ten-year-old boys allowed to say f***k a lot. Yet I did enjoy the book because, although it consists of Nina’s letters to her sister back home in Leicestershire, it reads just like a diary and I love diaries, real or fictional.
Nina finds herself in the kind of book and picture-filled house she’s quite unused to but seems quite unfazed by the unfamiliarity. For a teenager, she’s pretty stroppy about not helping clean the place up, although she has her moments. At one point, she thinks the kitchen would be improved by having a swing bin hidden inside a cupboard, but MK disagrees. ‘MK doesn’t care about having all our peelings and fag ends on display.’ That reminded me strongly of Adrian Mole (also from Leicestershire). Her main job is to look after the elder son Sam, who has a horrible, chronic illness which he ignores as much as possible. (There’s a book about this, called Being Sam Frears.) It’s an odd household, but seems to work.
Maybe the rarified atmosphere rubs off on Nina, because she decides to complete her education by doing a degree course. Here she is rather disingenuous. She doesn’t get Shakespeare, can’t stand Thomas Hardy, yet when she finds she likes Seamus Heaney (as MK told her she would), she writes, ‘I like/love it, but not sure I get it and it’s a bit late to get to know the man behind the pen. I don’t even think he’d want anyone getting to know him behind his pen. In my opinion, his pen is an embarrassment to him for not being a spade (like his dad’s and his dad’s dad’s).’ Not as dumb as she likes to appear, then. Earlier she had told her sister she was ‘Reading a good book (not on syllabus) that Jez put me on to. It’s about a bloke (called Josef K) who gets arrested even though he hasn’t done anything and it goes on like that.’
I guess the lawyers have been over this book because most of the characters are real, identifiable people. I bet the name Mary Kay Wilmers has never been so frequently Googled before. The star turn is Alan Bennett, always referred to as ‘AB’. A long time friend of MK, he lives just over the road and is the perfect neighbour, if he does criticise Nina’s cooking. When he remarks that you shouldn’t use tinned tomatoes in a beef stew, her response is, ‘Who’s more likely to know about beef stew – him (a bloke who can’t be bothered to cook his own tea) or The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook?’ AB is practical, able to mend bicycles and diagnose faults in washing machines. He’s willing to come over the road late at night in his pyjamas when Nina panics that there might be an intruder in the house. He loves gossip but not unkindness. He is pedantic. He is bluntly northern; when told of someone’s bad behaviour he remarks, ‘What a liberty.’ Can’t you just hear it? The publishers really should have called the book Alan Bennett Mended my Washing Machine.
I’ve just started another book of letters, Dear Lupin.