Carmel Elwell

posted Mar 27, 2010, 5:03 AM by Dick Pountain   [ updated Mar 27, 2010, 5:05 AM ]

It has occurred to me before now that Nina had a lot in common with George Eliot – a writer we sometimes discussed and I know she admired. So preparing for today, I looked back at the last page of  Middlemarch and found some apt comments in the summary of Dorothea’s life. She is described as having  “ a noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state” and “ the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive.” These comments seem to me very fitting when thinking about Nina.

George Eliot and Nina had a lot in common including intellectual energy;  they were both strong minded, unconventional, interested in all manner of people, and, as was increasingly true of Nina, they were both writers of very long books. But of course they were very different, too. Nina was much prettier and had a much better sense of humour than George Eliot is known for. Nina’s  good humour, her sense of fun and her generosity as has been mentioned by others – are elements of her character that I would like to stress.

I first met Nina in 1984 when we were both attending a teacher-training course in Roehampton. I was living in Finsbury Park, and Nina in Highbury so we would make the long trek back together on Friday evenings. I was a naïve and enthusiastic new teacher and Nina, a reluctant participant in this compulsory training, would  give me the benefit of her experience.  Our friendship developed quickly and Nina was soon showing her generosity in all manner of ways. She gave up her time to help us shift furniture when we moved house; she came to give my Access students a practice lecture; she gave me wise and down to earth advice on office politics, union conflicts or history teaching. How do you teach the general strike to students who have never even heard of it?

Where I particularly appreciated the combination of these elements of her generosity and good humour was in her relations with us as a whole family. When our babies were born she and Phil tolerated our obsessions and saw us through from toddler tantrums to teenager disengagements – always interested and patient – even offering to babysit!  To have Nina and Phil cycle over to join us and Harriet and Ali and their sons  became a regular part of our Christmas mornings.  They tolerated the absurd puppet shows from the kids when they were young, and later became real friends and advisers as the boys became young men. I’m sure other people here today with children recognise the great contribution Nina and Phil made to our families’  lives. We’ll miss Nina so much in that respect.

But Nina did have one blind spot. She couldn’t stop herself recommending cultural events, especially Shakespeare performances, that she was SURE my teenagers would enjoy. I couldn’t quite convey to her that this would NOT be how my sons would choose to spend their weekend evenings.

I have to admit that I was a tiny bit scared of Nina and I did want to earn her approval so when , towards the end of last summer, she strongly recommended that I should go to see the Trevor Griffiths play, ‘A New World’ (about Tom Paine) at the Globe, I was hesitant in voicing my reluctance, but I did tell her that I wasn’t awfully keen . I’d heard it was very long, the reviews were mixed , it would be pretty uncomfortable at the Globe.  Her riposte was a scolding: “Sometimes sacrifices have to be made!” So Jonathan and I went to the last night of the season and shivered in the draught and did rather enjoy it, but the very next morning  - a Saturday - at 9.30 Nina rang, partly I think to check that we hadn’t chickened out, and partly to discuss the finer points of the play with me.  

There is so much more I could say, but it will become very personal and difficult to express. So I’ll finish by stating the obvious: we’ve lost a really very wonderful friend, and my family has lost a great support,  which is the cause of great sadness. But Nina taught me to be more optimistic than perhaps comes naturally to me, so I do believe that her ‘diffusive influence’, her inspiration,  will stay with us.


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