Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbepublished 2019
[set in early 1980s]
I’m not proud that my mother was still so important to me- I was 18 years old and should have given her up by then, but to be truthful, she was like a character I had come to know and love from a comic or a sitcom and, although I could often predict what might unfold with her antics, I enjoyed watching and I loved her and still do. It was as though all the other women in the world had decided to go along with everything, and to behave with decorum and stoicism, whereas my mother had taken it up on herself to wave things away and call them nonsense…
People have tried to stop me writing about her – various relatives, envious of her popularity, and, on occasion, the woman herself – but she was central to my life, and so here she still is. For at least half of my childhood she had battled drink and prescription drugs and needed a degree of looking-after, but now she only allowed herself a glass or two of wine per day or, in emergencies, sherry and a Valium, and was rarely what you might call drunk…
Whatever my mother might say about never admitting it, I was lonely. Adulthood had come upon me like the creeping darkness of night and I felt lost.
Did it honestly matter that we’d been raised and shaped by eccentric mothers?
Mine: drunk, divorcee, nudist, amphetamine addict, nymphomaniac, shoplifter, would-be novelist, poet playwright.
commentary: I caught on to Nina Stibbe early on: gave away many copies of her first book Love, Nina at Christmas 2013. Her subsequent books have all featured on the blog: the entry on this one gives an explanation of her story.
Love, Nina was non-fiction, a collection of her own letters to her sister from the 80s; this new book is the third of her subsequent novels. (There is also a collection of Christmas pieces, here on the blog.) But it is clear that the novels are very autobiographical, and Stibbe herself has said as much in interviews, so I feel no qualms about treating her mother as a real person.
And it sometimes seems that the picture of her mother is going to be Stibbe’s greatest achievement: she is a monumental character, very real and rounded. Flawed, difficult but loving, and not a textbook great mother (see the children being sent up to London to collect over-prescribed drugs in Man at the Helm). But she is marvellous, a scene-stealer and full of good sense when she is not misbehaving. There is a moment when Lizzie (the Nina character) has bought a dress for an event and is very unsure about it. She also fears it would look better on her mother. Her mother replies that
yes, it would look nicer on her – 40 year old women were bound to look nicer in dresses than 18 years olds, they’d had 20 years of practice. The awfulness of 18 year olds in lovely dresses being partly the beauty of them, she said, which was perfect of her and made me feel better.Well isn’t that just great on all levels?
And then there is Lizzie learning to drive:
I was hoping to be a driver more like my mother – a relaxed, one-handed type, with Snoopy stickers on the back, eating lollies at the wheel, listening to Cat Stevens and tooting at my friends. But safely.We've all known that person...
And here is Lizzie telling her mother she has been offered a job with a flat:
‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘I shan’t take the flat…I’m not sure I’ll like living on my own in the city.’
‘Christ almighty, Lizzie, are you mad? You can’t turn down a flat of your own, you’d have to be crazy. Think of Cait and Baba moving to Dublin and dyeing their underwear black!’
‘Yes, but Cait and Baba had each other. I’d be alone.’
‘But you can write a novel or learn the mandolin.’[Cait and Baba are from Edna O’Brien’s early books - see Country Girls on the blog here.]
The book is – as I always say about Stibbe – unlike other novels in its structure, and gives the impression of being very casual and picaresque, a lot of funny stories and anecdotes strung together. But actually it is just that she has done the work for the reader – it is funny and entertaining, and every so often catches you out, and is a true novel about growing-up, very satisfying.
Lizzie wears ‘a prairie skirt in cheerful pinks teamed with a handwash-only bolero’ for a job interview, while her mother chooses a safari suit for a trip to London. Love object Andy wears ‘a most attractive cable sweater with a turtle neck – the sort you might see in a free knitting pattern - and dark blue jeans’.
One day I hope someone will make a TV series of the novels – Helena Bonham Carter played Nina’s employer in a production of Love, Nina, and would also be perfect as the mother.
Blog favourite Nick Hornby produced that series, which is a nice connection with this fact, about the title of this book:
Reasons to be Cheerful (Part 3) is a great song by Ian Dury, and Hornby once memorably explained why it should replace ‘God Save the Queen’ as the British national anthem: ‘the boost to national morale would be incalculable’. I have thought of it that way ever since.
In this book Lizzie is working for a dentist,and there are some rather disconcerting scenes featuring treatment (which I was rather squeamish about). In Paradise Lodge she was a care assistant at a nursing home, and I found this picture from a contemporary fashion magazine, and cannot resist bringing it out again: It is actually an ADVERT to encourage young women into nursing, as opposed to a reconstruction of a hospital murder, or a still from a lost black comedy film called Carry On Killing Old People.
A lot of Nina Stibbe all over the blog… And I made so bold as to describe my own Love, Nina years in this entry on TV writer Carla Lane.