Oration for Nina Stibbe

Written and delivered by Professor Graham Shipley, January 2018

Nina Stibbe is a renowned comic writer. She is one of a growing line of novelists from the county of Leicestershire, such as Sue Townsend and Anne Fine, to mention only two. Her literary success, however, came relatively late in life.

Nina was born into the family that owned one of Leicester’s largest manufacturing businesses, Stibbe Machinery. The company’s factory stood on what is now the inner ring road. The name of Stibbe may be familiar to you from the recent University of Leicester excavation on the site of the former factory, which has yielded spectacular Roman mosaics. Nina says she has rarely had so many phone calls as when the mosaic came to light, from people assuming she must know all about the archaeology.

But the family firm went out of business in the 1970s. And even before that, life took an awkward turn. After growing up in a beautiful Arts & Crafts style house in Clarendon Park, not far from the University, Nina—with her sister and brothers—moved out to a Leicestershire village with their mother. Her poignant comedy A Man at the Helm dramatizes this unsettled existence with great good humour.

From an early age, Nina wanted to be a writer. In her teens, however, there seemed little chance of this happening, until one day she responded to an advertisement for the position of nanny to a family in London. The household turned out to be a hub of London literary life, with famous writers and television producers dropping in regularly. Nina started writing letters home telling her sister, with penetrating observation and delightful irony, about the amiable chaos of family life in the early 1980s and of the foibles of the creative minds she encountered every day.

It was only many years later, when she was invited to celebrate the birthday of the mother of that London household, that Nina asked her sister to dig out those old letters. When she read out some of them at the party, a publisher expressed interest. And the rest is history: Nina was offered her first book contract, at the age of 50. The letters were published as Love, Nina, and later dramatized on television. They proved a literary sensation.

Yet why should a teenager’s recollections of everyday chatter and family doings prove to have real literary merit? The answer lies in Nina Stibbe’s amazing memory and her acute ear for the way real people talk. The dialogue she writes must be one of the best records of intelligent English irony and sarcasm that has ever been put down on paper. There is also the interest of seeing well-known characters leap off the page, above all the renowned actor and dramatist Alan Bennett, whose fussy, lugubrious diction is irresistibly brought to life.

Love, Nina was Non-fiction Book of the Year at the National Books Awards, and has been followed by a series of books, some based around Nina’s fictionalized alter ego, Lizzie Vogel. These include Man at the Helm, already mentioned, and Paradise Lodge, set in a retirement home and described by one reviewer as ‘chaos among the commodes’.[1] Just a few weeks ago Nina published An Almost Perfect Christmas, a collection of ironic musings on the festive season. We can be sure that many more delights are in store.

Nina’s books have been translated into at least eight languages, but her work finds particular resonance in this region, since Leicestershire features prominently in her novels. Acknowledged as a Leicester writer, she happily responds to many invitations from the media to comment on local matters, whether it be (as she puts it) football or floor mosaics.

Before her new-found literary success, Nina had a professional career as a leading editor of education books. She recalls with pride how she commissioned schoolteachers to write about teaching practice and experience, shifting her publishers’ list away from educational theory towards works of value to working teachers.

She remembers her own joy in learning, especially at primary school. Despite this, it was only after she reached London that, thanks to the encouragement of her London family and friends including her current partner, Nina went to university to study English literature. She describes this as a turning-point, an opportunity without which she could not have achieved all she has. Education is one of her passions, about which she may say a few words in a moment.

Nina Stibbe has never stopped writing since her teens. Her deserved success shows the value of persistence. She attributes that success to learning how to write in her own voice—the true voice she first used in those teenage letters. For the wisdom and humour in her writing, and for her contribution to Leicestershire’s growing literary reputation, we are honouring her today.

[1] Lee Langley, Spectator, 28 May 2016, https://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/05/chaos-among-the-commodes-in-nina-stibbes-old-folks-home/

Share this page: