Nina Stibbe’s eye for the absurd is as sharp as ever

Nina Stibbe is back in London. It has been 20 years since she left, and 40 years since she first arrived from Leicester to nanny, ineptly, for Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the London Review of Books. Back then, she chronicled her adventures (minor car crashes; thinking Alan Bennett was in Coronation Street; inadvertently stealing Jonathan Miller’s saw) in deadpan letters to her sister Vic that became the delicious Love, Nina. This time she’s resolved to keep a diary of her year as ‘Debby’ Moggach’s lodger in a narrow Kentish Town terrace with an over-watered garden she already disapproves of. ‘I’ll write it Alan Bennett-style,’ she says in a gleeful

I’m glad Anthony Powell didn’t take my writing advice

There is general excitement among the legions of fans of A Dance to the Music of Time: next week a plaque to Anthony Powell will be placed on 1 Chester Gate, the house where he started to write the many-volumed work of genius. I have a particular interest in attending, not only because Powell was married to my father’s sister Violet, but also because I took advantage of the relationship to lodge for several years in Chester Gate. This was when my parents chose to live maddeningly in Hampstead Garden Suburb and at the age of about 17 I was beginning to go to parties. Go to them? But how

The diary of a tortured man: Deceit, by Yuri Felsen, reviewed

Yuri Felsen, born in St Petersburg, was an exile in Riga, Berlin and Paris and died at Auschwitz in 1943. Had his archive not been destroyed, we might find him on the same shelf as Vladimir Nabokov, Vladislav Khodasevich and Ivan Bunin – the glittering Russian literati of 1930s Paris – and Georgy Adamovich, who said that Felsen’s prose ‘left behind a light for which there is no name’. With this new translation of the 1930 novel Deceit, that light has been brought back from dim obscurity. In this first of three novels Felsen published, we follow the unnamed narrator’s tortured obsession with the ‘unequivocally irresistible’ Lyolya Heard, who drifts

Sheila Hancock takes pride in her irascibility

This book begins with Sheila Hancock wondering why she is being offered a damehood. I must say I slightly wondered too, but it seems that most actresses become dames if they live long enough: vide Joan Collins, Penelope Keith, Joanna Lumley etc. And Hancock, as well as acting and making brilliant appearances on Radio 4’s Just a Minute, also does lots of charity work. She considers refusing the honour because ‘it’s hardly in keeping with my Quaker belief in equality’, but decides ‘no, it would be dreadfully rude and ungracious’. Anyway, she admires the Queen, and also Prince Charles, who left flowers and a handwritten note on her doorstep when

Every village needs a kebab shop

‘A diary?’ said the lady in the chintzy gift shop, pronouncing the word very much as Edith Evans said ‘handbag’ in the 1952 film of The Importance of Being Earnest. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘a diary. Do you have one?’ I was standing in the middle of a shop so like one that would sell a diary that I could not express quite adequately how obvious I thought it was that they might. This gift shop and café is on the high street of the village where I live and is easily one of the prettiest gift shop/cafés you have ever seen. It has every kind of pretty thing inside, from

The view from the Paris bus — an appreciation of everyday life

Many would say the commute was one thing they didn’t miss in lockdown. But when Lauren Elkin was ‘yanked out of the public sphere and resituated, inescapably, in the private’, she felt nostalgic for the bus’s incidental intimacy. The Franco-American writer and translator revisited notes made on her iPhone between September 2014 and November 2015, after she pledged to ‘observe the world through the screen of my phone, rather than to use my phone to distract myself from the world’. The diary entries record biweekly journeys between her home in Paris’s fifth arrondissement and the university where she taught in the seventh. These private jottings take shape as No. 91/92:

The tragedy of Lebanon — from safe haven to bankruptcy

Mountains are humanity’s most comforting topographical feature. Wherever you find them you will also find those who have flocked to them for refuge. The Kurds, the world’s largest stateless people, span the most mountainous areas of their host states, while ‘Lebanon’ referred originally to the mountains in the eastern Mediterranean that for centuries served as a haven for all the region’s minorities. First came the Christian Maronites, fleeing the persecution of the Orthodox Byzantine Empire in the 7th century; then in the 10th and 11th centuries the Shiite Muslims, persecuted by the Sunni powers; followed by the Druze, persecuted by the Shiites. These are the origins of the modern multi-ethnic

Abandoned by Paul Theroux: the diary of a sad ex-wife who sadly can’t write

When I interviewed Paul Theroux 21 years ago at his home in Hawaii, there were already rumours that his ex-wife Anne had written a book about him. In fact their son Marcel said in an interview that she had sent Paul the manuscript. Theroux denied it to me, and said breezily that he wished Anne would write a book, because then she’d have greater respect for the work involved. And: I don’t see that if she wrote a book it’s going to be an attack on me. I don’t think it’ll be ‘I discovered his lies’. So it doesn’t worry me. I’m sure she’d show it to me, but it

The problem with Brighton’s summer hordes

I expect there are those among you who are pleased to see their home towns returning to something like normality this summer. Well, not me. Brighton and Hove was bliss during lockdown. Without the endless Southward drift of London chaff – pronounce that word anyway you feel works, hard F or soft – my adopted home regained something of the elegance that had led Noel Coward to include it and its seagulls in a list of things that have style. Now, it has become once again the Brighton that Keith Waterhouse said, had the perpetual air that of a town that is helping the police with their inquiries. Brighton does

Blonde with a bombshell: Sasha Swire’s revelations about the Cameroons

Ten years ago, reviewing Alastair Campbell’s diaries for The Spectator, I concluded as follows: Who will be the chroniclers of the Cameron government? Somewhere, unknown to his or her colleagues, a secret scribbler will already be at work, documenting the rise and, in due course, no doubt, the fall of this administration. Well, here it is. It comes from an unpredictable source deep inside that privileged little caste who governed us between 2010 and 2016: Sasha Swire, wife of Hugo, a middle-ranking minister MP for a safe seat in rural Devon and a man who, for all that he was a low-key figure, has a very sharp wit and is