set in 1977
[Lizzie is 15 and has just started a new job in a care home]
The Owner’s Wife spoke to me while she arranged teacups on to trays. She told me that the nurses’ dresses in small sizes were like gold dust,. ‘I should hang on to that one, if it fits well, and put your name in it.’
‘I’ll keep it on and surprise my mum with it,’ I said.
‘Good idea,’ she said…
Normally I would have run home, it being slightly downhill all the way, but it seemed disrespectful – in the nurse’s dress – so I walked really quickly instead and skipped when no cars were in sight…
[A week or so later] Miranda and I walked up to Paradise Lodge together on the Friday. She’d been asked to do an extra shift too and was dreading it. She was in school uniform and furious that I hadn’t phoned her to tell her I’d be in my nurse’s uniform with a snake belt and white cap with bare shaved legs. I was forced to tell her about our phoned being ‘incoming calls only’ and she groaned and made remarks about my family being on the breadline. In self-defence I bragged about my rapport with the Owner’s Wife and Miranda said how repugnant she’d found the Matron…
commentary: I love Nina Stibbe’s writing: her Love, Nina letter collection about her years as a nanny in London instantly became one of my favourite books, and I have re-read it several times since publication in 2014 (I mentioned it in my recent piece on Carla Lane, and have been very much enjoying the BBC TV version of it, softened though it is).
Then came Man at The Helm, a novel, though I don’t think the reader can be blamed for assuming it is largely autobiographical. I wrote about it on the blog in 2014 and I said then ‘The book is simultaneously bleak, jaunty and desolating in a way that I simply have never come across before, but it’s so funny and clever that Nina Stibbe gets away with it. It will be interesting to see what she writes next.’ So – Paradise Lodge is next, and is very much a sequel to Man at the Helm, and presumably at least partly based in fact (?).
Young Lizzie gets a part-time job a nursing home for elderly patients, as an unqualified care assistant. This is meant to fit in with school, but gradually the job takes up more and more time and she just about stops going to school. Most of the book takes place at the home, part of it among her family. It’s easy to forget that she is still of school age.
The description of the staff and residents of the home is wonderfully well done, and wholly engrossing, and despite extreme moments of satire is all too authentic and convincing. The care assistants treated as full nurses and expected to do all kinds of things, the Matron with the doubtful credentials (she ‘could easily have been an over-indulged patient with delusions and a nurse’s outfit’), and the great reproductions of conversations - the dialogue is excellent - and the staff tearoom –
The day nurses were getting ready to go to the pub. It was like watching a Play for Today where the actors are that good you can’t see the acting and though nothing’s actually happening, story-wise, you want to watch. The Crazy Baby tongs were passed from one to the other and newly formed curls sprayed with Harmony hairspray. Tubes of mascara bobbed in a Pyrex jug of boiling water, cigarettes were lit from other cigarettes and the room filled with smoke, eau de cologne and the sound of chatter, laughter and scraping chairs.Isn’t that a fabulous piece of description?
There’s the authentic sprinkle of Stibbe shockers, reminding you that this is the 1970s, and she’s seeing life in a certain way:
I became expert at baby care quite quickly. I taught myself how to smoke without removing the cigarette from my mouth, for changing Danny’s nappy.
I knew all about prescription drug-takers, my mother having been hooked for years, and I’d seen her top up with Lemsips, dog aspirins and Fisherman’s Friends, baby medicine, you name it – anything to prolong the feeling of being medicated, rather than face the world.
At that, Miss Pitt grabbed the decorative cross that marked Rose Wilston’s grave and started hitting me with it.
I gave her the barest bones and she hit the roof. I mean, she actually punched the roof of the van and screamed at me.
The uniforms feature quite a bit, especially when a new member of staff introduces jade-coloured dripdry twopieces, which sound pretty advanced for the time.
It was before people really believed that honesty was a good thing in a relationship. No-one said to a newly-wed woman, ‘Tell him you don’t like the necklace, be honest, tell him you’d like to change it for something else.’
I loved this:
My mother’s world was part sonnet, part Bob Dylan song and part boarding school dormitory.The story rambles along – one reviewer said it would have suited a letter or diary format, and you can see that, but actually there is a lot more structure than appears at first, some proper plot, a few surprises and a satisfying ending.
Stibbe’s writing just does not resemble anyone else’s: she really does sound like a perhaps-16-year-old relating what happened last year, no hindsight, but without being annoying or self-conscious. The books don’t resemble anyone else’s either – I’m sure creative writing classes or courses would have made her change her ways. So we’re lucky that the happy chance of the Nina letters gave us the chance to read more of her - I certainly will follow her anywhere. These read like books written by someone who doesn’t know what novels are meant to be like (though we know from her story that Nina has read an awful lot of books) and all the better for that.
This is the second book about the care of old people that I have read recently – a Dutch bestseller, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, is coming out in the UK soon, and I will review it nearer to publication date.
The top picture is an advert for nurses from a fashion magazine of the time – hard to believe that this was the picture thought to lure the young women in to this career, it looks awkward and faked. In a crime story she would be about to inject the patient with poison.
The other page of photos is from the same magazine and shows the range of styles that young women were wearing at that time… so unlucky for those of us who had our primes just then. I used a couple of the small pics in Tuesday’s entry, representing 70s fashion there too.