Book Review: Dear Lupin…Letters to a Wayward Son by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer

Dear Lupin: Letters to a Wayward Son; by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer, published by Constable

Dear Lupin: Letters to a Wayward Son; by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer, published by Constable

Dear Lupin is a collection of letters from former Sunday Times racing correspondent Roger Mortimer to his son, Charlie – who is not so much wayward as completely a drift in the sea of life for most of the correspondence.

The letters begin during Charlie’s truncated time at Eton, when Roger took to addressing his son as ‘Lupin’ after The Diary of A Nobody’s Mr Pooter’s equally flighty son. Roger, we learn, is never one to let an opportunity of wordplay go especially if it means having a little dig at one’s family.

Roger has a wonderfully endearing, old-fashioned narrative voice that can make finding a dead rat in the garden entertaining and amusing. He has, as he points out several times to his son, a great sense of the absurd and finds the humour in the smallest domestic detail, even if he’s not looking for it.

Dear Lupin reads like P.G Wodehouse with a hefty dose of Evelyn Waugh melancholia. The collection is hugely nostalgic, in all its gritty glory and includes some toe-curling Enid Blyton-style off-colour remarks (Roger Mortimer has as much time for political correctness as he does for the woman from the Inland Revenue who is continually pestering him).

Much of the humour in the book comes from Roger’s stream of consciousness, his juxtaposition of news that slips between fatal pile ups on the motorway, his wife’s current cantankerousness barometer reading, sage advice to his son (“in other words, try and have a good time without making a fool or a shit of yourself”) and spot on observations (“except for the first fortnight at preparatory school a honeymoon is for most people the least happy experience of their life”).

As funny as this collection is (and it’s very, very funny for the most part) there is something rather sad underneath the tales of Hot Hand Henry (his daughter Louise’s much disapproved of husband) and the un-housetrained dog. There’s an edge of darkness that hovers around both Roger’s letters and the snippets of Charlie’s life we hear in his father’s replies. Rather than diminishing the book, it serves to make this less a wot-ho rah-rah tale of upper middles out Bertie Wooster-ing Bertie Wooster and more a tale of one man’s bafflement at life.

Roger’s comfortable, if eccentric life, is at odds with the bleaker moments of his past. He spent five years as a prisoner of war after being captured in Dunkirk in 1940. His only mentions of these years are off-the-cuff remarks and tales of his fellow POW-pals, several of whom he still sees on a regular basis. For someone who endured such horrors, no wonder a pile up on the A3 is as trifling as a cold snap.

Plus, even more than the artery of sadness and the blistering humour, it’s the warmth and tenderness that spills from the pages of Roger’s succinct letters. Charlie can’t have been an easy son to love with his restlessness, boisterous and a drink and drug problem serious enough to land him in hospital for two months and, later, a rehab clinic.  But Roger, despite his penned-ticking offs, remains incredibly patient with his son and never abandons him to the vagaries of life without his emotional – and occasionally – financial help. And, of course, plenty of snortingly-funny anecdotes.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book review:  Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe published by Viking

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe published by Viking

This year’s literary hit, the much celebrated Love, Nina is a book worth all its plaudits. It’s a wonderfully heart-warming book with a rapier-sharp wit that cuts through any smugness, a potential hazard in a book where it’s normal for Alan Bennett to pop round for tea and people sprout ancient Egyptian when discussing a dog hanging out by the bins.

The Nina of the title moved to 55 Gloucester Crescent, NW1 from Leicestershire in 1982 to work as a nanny to Sam and Will Frears. Their mother, Mary-Kay (MK) Wilmers was deputy editor of the London Review of Books; their father director Stephen Frears (the couple were divorced and Frears has only a cameo in Love, Nina). Alan Bennett (AB) lived across the road and would often pop round for dubious sounding 80s suppers. Inspired by her booky surroundings, Nina goes on to study for an English A Level while minding S&W and later enrols at Thames Poly, but she’s still a regular visitor at 55 (she even ends up moving back into the nanny quarters, even when she’s no longer the nanny).

Love, Nina is a sharp and witty book of letters that she wrote to her Leicester-living, London-hating sister Vic. They are full of wonderfully witty observations detailing the everyday domestic dramas of her adopted family. Written like a script in progress, the letters often contain snippets of the day’s conversations at 55. The Frears/Wilmers family (+ Bennett) are a bright, liberal bunch and their supper chat reflects this – not that they discuss Goethe over dinner (it’s more likely to be the humming fridge), but there’s a captivating and charming intelligence even in their most banal chat.

This is a delightful book that shimmers with humour and warmth, showing a microcosm of brainy north London in a breezy series of incidents on Gloucester Crescent, a place where it’s routine to borrow saws from Jonathan Miller, and Shirley ‘Lace’ Conran annoys the neighbours with her dodgy burglar alarm. This is a world where the f-bomb is dropped over dinner as casually as discussing the right way to cook new potatoes (do not mash). Nina is an engaging writer and her ear for dialogue enables her to pick out the humour from the smallest of events (mislaying Jonathan Miller’s saw, AB fixing the fridge).

Love, Nina  makes you wish that you sitting around MK’s kitchen (MK sounds terrifying, but brilliant) eating badly cooked tarragon chicken, discussing the strange sexual preferences of Nina’s fellow students with AB (not with him, to him) while also inspiring you to re-read Chaucer (despite Nina finding it as frustrating as I did when I read it for my A Level).

A truly joyous book, read it on the bus at your peril.

by Suzanne Elliott