Hatching a nanny

It is curious how determined we are to stick to our preconceived notions about countries and people. I have just had a letter from an American friend who tells me she was to have a baby, her first, in November, and will I please tell her how she can set about acquiring a reliable, darling, old-fashioned English nanny.

This paragon, dressed in grey alpaca and with a creaking Petersham belt, this selfless nonpareil who never had a day ''off'' and who spread across the world, metaphorically speaking, warming flannel nightgowns on a million brass fenders and soothingly saying, ''Cheer up, chicken, you'll soon be hatched!'' to a million yelling children of every colour and creed, must surely have become extinct.

I can see my own nanny very clearly, pushing me in my pram through Kensington Gardens to join other nannies for a gossip, or carrying me downstairs, in a frilly frock, with my knees washed, to spend the sacred hour with my parents after tea. Grey and white she was, with a butterfly brooch her only ornament, and I loved her dearly. So, it seems, does my friend in Connecticut, who remains convinced that this ambassadress of trust and good sense still exists.

Though now well out of range of any nursery, thank heaven, I do occasionally have brief encounters with children and their keepers. As I remember, the keepers now range from the gardener's daughter, aged 15, to the non-English speaking Portuguese via the student waiting to become a priest. Whatever their qualifications, none of them look, sound, or seem remotely like Nanny Radford, and I cannot help but fear that my friend, with her touching faith in the stagnation of all things British, is going to be disappointed. We are advertising, pathetically, I feel, in likely papers, and are now waiting for that traditional well-beloved figure to come looming out of the mists of time to tell us we cannot have a slice of cake until we've had a piece of bread and butter, and to dry our ears on a clean rough towel before tucking us up in our cots.

Pondering the myths that glue themselves to nations, apparently forever - filling France with snails, America with horned-rimmed glasses, Italy with shoes and Australia with sopranos and all this despite evidence to the contrary (for our images are blurred beyond recognition) - I have written to my pregnant friend suggesting that possibly, just possibly, there might be a reliable, clean-living, child-loving, nice woman in the United States who has all the qualities of an old English nanny. I have insisted that nowadays you do not have to go to Dallas to buy a Stetson or to Florence to get pretty bed linen or to Dresden to study lieder singing, and that if a thing exists it can be found anywhere. That was what I said. With, of course, the inevitable exception. Which is the probability of finding an old-fashioned English nanny in England

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