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Without Warning & Only Sometimes

Kit de Waal

(Tinder Press, 2022)

Review by Anjali Joseph


Bestselling author of My Name is Leon, The Trick to Time, Supporting Cast, editor of Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers, and founder of a scholarship for students from low-income backgrounds to attend Birkbeck’s Creative Writing MA, Kit de Waal is on the edge of becoming a national treasure; a status that can simultaneously entitle its holder to universal approval and dismiss any real engagement with their ideas. In de Waal’s case, that would be a pity, because this memoir is her best work so far. Robust and tender, like My Name is Leon, it expands the conversation about where Britain is today, and does so through the most immediate and subversive type of writing: testimony.

The childhood described takes place in many worlds, all of them coexisting uncomfortably in 1960s and 70s Sparkhill, Birmingham. De Waal’s writing often pans cinematically across adjacent universes: 

‘The very top of our road meets Wake Green Road, which travels all the way into Moseley Village where huge Victorian mansions sit back behind gravel drives far from the pavement, villas with coach houses and turrets and acres of gardens for the children of barristers and solicitors, professors and surgeons. But we live slap bang in the middle of Springfield Road in a narrow Edwardian terraced house, our garden backing on to the playing fields of the local secondary school and beyond that the grammar school where the clever boys from Moseley learn how to take after their fathers.’

Taking after anyone is a loaded question for the O’Loughlin children (de Waal was born Mandy O’Loughlin, later dubbed Kit by a younger sister). Their mother’s family is from County Wexford, though settled in Birmingham, and their father, Arthur, is from St Kitts. Each parent, though present, is also importantly elsewhere; Arthur buying himself beautiful shoes and clothes and squirrelling away gifts for friends and relatives in St Kitts for his next visit even as Mandy and her siblings eat uneven meals – lumpy porridge is prepared by their paternal grandmother, Black Nana, before their mother wins a battle with their father and Black Nana returns to St Kitts. 

Food, especially ‘Proper Dinner on a Proper Plate’ (the title of a chapter), is an important topic and one that de Waal writes about vividly. The book is constructed in episodes, each one bright with event and longing, and very often rich in lists. We see Sheila, the children’s mother, walking to the shops just before they close so that ‘she can get things cheap: apples with marks and bruises, cold meat that won’t last the weekend, bread they couldn’t sell.’ We see Mandy at her friend Cressida’s house when Cressida sends away her indulgent mother and a tray of sandwiches, to Mandy’s tacit dismay – ‘I want to tell her I had no breakfast, lunch is only a possibility and dinner is in doubt’. We also see her father’s cousin, Uncle Mike, appear and invite the children to his house, where he feeds them Johnny Cakes and saltfish; and again Sheila in a whirlwind of activity and play, suddenly providing pens, coloured pencils, colouring books and cleaning the entire house before making meat pies and apple pies. Everything is far from grim, but nothing is consistent.

Nothing, that is, except the prospect of eternal damnation for Mandy, since Sheila has become a Jehovah’s Witness, and so: ‘Three times every week I am reminded that the world will end and I will die’ at meetings. As well as the strictures against ‘the liars and thieves and people who watch Top of the Pops instead of going to the meeting and people who accept birthday cards and people who want to have sex with their boyfriend or girlfriend or boyfriend and girlfriend and people who think hymns sound nice’, it is the social exclusion that adds a further layer of non-belonging to the lives of the O’Loughlin children (no hymn singing at school, no Christmas celebrations), at least until after Mandy leaves school. Unable to find a job because at every interview ‘as soon as they see me it’s the same thing’, she starts at secretarial college, discovers marijuana, finds work as a legal secretary and begins to read novels. 

Bright, funny, sometimes stark, Without Warning & Only Sometimes demands to be read, and will stay with you as a portrait of a childhood at once vivid, sad and appealing. It also expands a reader’s sense of the kinds of stories and individuals that go on to create literature and shape our contemporary literary culture.