My book Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life is the letters I wrote to my sister when I was a live-in nanny to two boys in the 1980s. The book focuses mainly on my relationship with the family I lived with and since publication it has been suggested (by some) that I wasn’t a very good nanny. And although I disagree with them (and would argue that I was perfect) I have to admit the evidence in the book for my not being good is quite compelling.
Firstly, I never did any housework. The house in Gloucester Crescent (which was already pretty shabby) became such a dreadful mess that my boss had to employ a cleaner. Not only that, the letters reveal that I felt a bit annoyed about it (‘a guilty/annoyed mix’) and was a bit irritated by the cleaner coming.
Also, after claiming at the interview to be a good cook, I turned out to be lousy. I made a fuss about the available ingredients and used packets of Batchelor’s savoury rice to pass off as a home-made biriyani. I used tinned fruit pie filler and lied about the flavour. I upset the family with barely edible turkey-burgers and complained about my bosses’ cooking methods and tea making. When neighbour Alan Bennett, who regularly dropped in for supper, used to arrive with a thoughtful contribution to the meal, say a green salad, I’d interpret it as competition (or a snub) to my own salad.
Then there was my child-minding style. I put Sam (aged ten and with some disabilities) into a builder’s skip for a laugh and struggled to lift him out again. I pushed him into a swimming pool because he didn’t fancy a swim and read Thomas Hardy to him pretending it was Enid Blyton. I did other things too awful to write here (things that are explained in detail in the book).
I completed nine-year-old Will’s homework for him to get it out of the way so that he could get on with a novel he was writing and taught him to draw a fake tattoo on his arm in ink and took both boys on grafitti-hunting expeditions. I pranged the car and made the boys promise on their mother’s deathbed not to tell her about it. I walked around barefoot and took them to the pub to play snooker. I smoked and swore like a trooper.
Listed like that, I know it looks bad. But what my letters didn’t spell out quite so clearly were all the intangible things that I think added up to my being a great nanny. That I settled in and was very happy straight away and quickly became close to the boys and their mum. And, feeling like an equal – like one of the family – my behaviour was like that of a fun-loving older sister. And, like an older sister, I was protective of the boys and I wanted the best for them. Not the ‘textbook’ best but what I thought really mattered. I didn’t think maths homework was as important as Will’s creative endeavors so I helped accordingly. I was fun to be with and looked for more fun and didn’t get hung up on Sam’s illness nor the demands of school homework.
It’s true I wasn’t very good at the sensible things (except for an insistence on tooth brushing and short fingernails.) I didn’t bother cleaning the house or doing the ironing. I never taught them anything useful except that you stick with your football team through thick and thin and that you should always try to see the funny side of things. And that might have made me rubbish for any other family, but I just happened to be exactly what this family wanted. And I think that made me perfect.