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Surprising letters written by unknown Nina Stibbe become a star event at Marlborough’s LitFest

Nina playing poolNina playing poolNina Stibbe was just a naïve girl from Leicester when, aged 20, she arrived in London for the first time in 1982 to become the nanny to two boys at house in Camden Town, north west London.

But her revelations from those past dizzy times, in the heart of a literary elite of famous names, all recorded in letters she wrote home to her sister Victoria, became a bestseller at Christmas in a book called Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life.

And now Nina is herself a celebrity – and a publisher living in Cornwall – who is the latest star due to perform at the fourth Marlborough LitFest in September along with the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, philosopher AC Grayling and biographer Jenny Uglow.

Their names have already been announced.  But Nina is new.  And so is Louis de Bernieres, author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which has sold more than 1.5 million copies, as well as being made into a movie staring Penelope Cruz and John Hurt.

But it is the comparatively unknown Nina who is likely to surprise LitFest regulars with her innocent tales of meeting so many famous names at the home of Mary-Kay Wilmers, co-founder and editor of the London Review of Books, and her sons, Sam, 10, and Will, nine, by the film producer Stephen Frears.

For nearby neighbours included Alan Bennett, whom Nina mistook for an actor from Coronation Street, Jonathan Miller, an opera singer according to Nina, both of whom were regular visitors to the house in Gloucester Crescent.

Nina photos and Sam and WillNina photos and Sam and WillAnd among many others were such star names as Claire Tomalin, Michael Frayn, film director Karel Reisz and his actress wife Betsy Blair, jazz singer George Melly, Delia Smith, Deborah Moggach, actor Rik Mayall and TV presenter Russell Harty and even footballers Trevor Brooking and Gordon Banks, plus the jockey Willie Carson.

As Nina reveals in her very first letter: “It’s fantastic here, the house, the street, London.  You can hear the Zoo animals waking up in the morning.”

Equally remarkable, Nina’s letters which cover a five-year period, were only rediscovered by Victoria when moving house years later.

They then came to the attention of the novelist Andrew O’Hagan, who was collecting tributes to mark the 70th birthday of Mary-Kay Wilmers.  And have now survived for posterity – and LitFest audiences.

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Former Archbishop Dr Rowan Williams is coming to Marlborough for this year’s LitFest

Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of CanterburyDr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of CanterburyDr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, is one of the star names already booked to appear at this year’s Marlborough Literary Festival in September – to talk about the war poets during the centenary year of World War I.

A poet himself, Dr Williams will be appearing with the philosopher AC Grayling, author of more than 30 books and founder of New College of the Humanities, the UK's first independent arts university, and Jenny Uglow, the publisher, critic and biographer whose subjects include Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot and William Hogarth.

Announcing their names, the LitFest says: “This year will be our fifth anniversary and we very much hope you can celebrate with us.  The dates are Friday 26 to Sunday 28 September.  So write them in your 2014 diary as soon as you can.

“While we put together our programme, no one can accuse us of 'dumbing down' as we bring you some of the deepest thinkers of our time.”

And it adds:  “We are especially thrilled to host Dr Williams here as Marlborough was the town where Siegfried Sassoon spent his formative years.  This former Archbishop has been an outspoken force for justice and fairness in our society, with particularly strong views about the evils of war.

“He was once arrested for singing psalms as part of a CND protest and more recently expressed his disgust at British policy on Iraq.”

In fact, 63-year-old Dr Williams, now master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, hit back at Christmas at what he described as “disturbing” comments made about food banks by Cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith.

The Work and Pensions Secretary accused the Salisbury-based Christian charity The Trussell Trust, which has provided emergency food parcels in Cambridge – and Marlborough too -- of being politically-motivated and scaremongering by blaming welfare reforms for the rise in the number of people it helps.

But Dr Williams, who is the patron of Cambridge City Foodbank, which supported 2,390 people in crisis last year, declared:  “It is not political point-scoring to say that these are the realities of life in Britain today for a shockingly large number of ordinary people – not scroungers, not idlers -- but men and women desperate to keep afloat and to look after their children or their elderly relatives.

“The real scaremongering is the attempt to deny the seriousness of the situation by – in effect – accusing those seeking to help of dishonesty as to their motivation.”

And Dr Williams added:  “I would urge the Secretary of State to visit any Food Bank he chooses and to listen to the accounts of what is actually happening.

“It may not change his policies but it might at least persuade him not to attack the motives of hard-pressed volunteers and generous donors.”

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