I already mentioned that I was reading Reasons To Be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe (thanks to Netgalley) a few blogs ago. I finished it yesterday and loved it so much I thought it deserved a blog post all of its own. It’s available for pre-order, and published on 28th March.
There are many reasons that I love Nina Stibbe’s writing. Firstly, she’s very funny. It’s really hard, writing funny books. Very often, even if a book is marketed as being hilarious, I find it can miss the mark, because humour is so subjective. I have never quite forgiven myself for falling for the marketing for The Finkler Question and then wanting to hurl it repeatedly across the room, for example. With Stibbe’s writing however, I find myself actually laughing out loud. I think it’s that our brains must work in a very similar way, but the things she finds absurd, or comical, are spot on.
Secondly she is really, really good at writing ordinary life. Again, this is not as easy as it sounds. If you’ve ever read back through your own diary, for example, you can see that even with your own life it can be pretty tricky to be absorbed in things like what brand of shampoo you used or the vagaries of shoe shopping. Stibbe gets all this tone perfect, and makes it interesting.
Thirdly she is stupendously good at bleak. All her books are riven through with darkness. What makes her so good is that she understands that it is very often this darkness that is most funny, and that it is the complexity of life, where things are both funny and sad, unbearable yet require you to keep buggering on that makes things real and relatable.
Last of all, she writes about my home city, Leicester. There is something profoundly wonderful to me about reading about the place that I grew up in, left and came back to. It’s wonderful because it’s just an ordinary place. It doesn’t have anything much to recommend it (at the time the books are set, not even Gary Lineker was doing much except going to school and serving on his parents fruit stall). As my children agree, Leicester’s a scummy place, but it’s our scummy place and it’s hers too.
In this book, the heroine, Lizzie Vogel, has left the old people’s home she was working in (Paradise Lodge) and is now ensconced in a flat in the city centre above a dentist’s surgery where she is working as a dental assistant. It is 1980.
I was 8 in 1980. Some of the things she writes about sent me spiralling into my own, childhood memories. There were three things in particular. Firstly, she writes about a restaurant/cafe called Swiss Cottage. Actually there were several of these. I never saw them outside of Leicester, so I presume they were a peculiarity of the city. My mum used to take me there for lunch from time to time. Mainly I remember that they had huge, rubber plants in there, which my mum called Swiss Cheese plants and I thought the restaurants were named after the plants, which tells you everything you need to know about my education and intellect. They were very Seventies in terms of decor. Sort of wood grained, underground bunker chic. I don’t remember hating the food, which must have meant that it was appealingly bland.
Secondly she mentions The Hungry I pancake house. My auntie used to work there as a waitress. I never went there myself, which I feel very sad about, because I love a pancake house. By the time I was old enough to be taken there it had been renamed The Good Earth and was a vegetarian restaurant. It’s still there, still run by the same people. It still has the same decor, and crockery and still only takes cash and my family have been going there for decades. When it was The Hungry I, it was also a part time jazz club and my mum actually has a record that they made.
And last of all, all the dentistry really struck a nerve (literal and metaphorical). When I was a child I was appallingly behaved in many respects and refused to brush my teeth ever, which meant that as I also ate tons of sweets and drank gallons of fizzy pop, I was always being taken to the dentist, usually in agony. We went to a dentist on London Road, opposite Victoria Park, much like the one in the book. It was in a tall, old Victorian building and the dentist had been my dad’s dentist for years. What I particularly hated was the fact that he did not believe in anaesthetic for children, so all my fillings were done without pain relief, and I had many. I also had several extractions, which for some reason he did do with pain relief, but used gas. The extraction room was right up in the attic, and the nurses would hold you down in the chair while he put the mask over your face and you would have the strangest dreams while the extraction was going on. I particularly hated this, and my most victorious moment was kicking him in the face, wrenching free of the nurses and making it down three flights of stairs before my mum caught me. I got a hiding and an extraction, but I wasn’t sorry.
I’m still not.
Anyway. None of these things are interesting to anyone but me, but I loved the book for these and many other memories (Woolco for example) that it brought back. So if you love her other books you will love this one. If you love great, funny writing, you will love this, and if you grew up in Leicester in the Seventies and Eighties, you will love this more.
Someone described Stibbe as the natural heir to Sue Townsend and I am inclined to agree.