Posts Tagged ‘Kit de Waal’

Scenes from an unpredictable childhood 

This memoir had only been out for a short time when I bought a copy for kindle. It was my last read for August – and one of the books I read recently that I was determined to write something about, even as I struggle to find my blogging mojo. I had previously read two of Kit De Waal’s novels and attended an excellent author event where Kit was on a platform with Jackie Kay. Knowing that she comes from a part of Birmingham very close to where I live and near to where I have worked for over thirty years, I was very keen to read this childhood memoir.  

This is a memoir written with great warmth and honesty, aspects of Kit’s childhood were tough – but the enduring nature of sibling love particularly shines through. They became a resilient little band who together endured poverty, hunger and their mother’s religion until such time as they could get away.  

This is a memoir of a woman who as a child in the 1960s and 70s was caught between three competing worlds, British, Irish and Caribbean. Her family was a mixture of clashing personalities with a hard-working Irish mother who often juggled two or three jobs, but who rarely ever cooked at home and a Caribbean father who spent money on flash clothes and shoes and occasionally cooked up large elaborate meals. Born Mandy Theresa O’ Loughlin, Kit was a nickname that she gained later. The second of five siblings, Kit grew up in a house where birthdays and Christmas celebrations were forbidden, the bible was the only book in the entire house and her mother believed that the world would end in 1975.  

I will die for my grinding embarrassment when the teacher halts the school assembly before the worship bit starts so that me and my sister can walk out. And I will die for the shame I feel when I walk back in again past superior girls and sniggering boys in time for the announcement of detentions and who won the Art Prize, who won the English Prize. My sister, usually. I will die because while I sit outside assembly and they sing ‘There is a Green Hill Far Away’, I sing along but only in my heart. Worst of all, in my heart.

When Kit was around five, her mother found the Jehovah Witnesses – or rather they found her, as I think that’s sort of how it works. She dragged the children with her to the Kingdom Hall, where long meetings twice weekly had to be endured. At school Kit and her siblings were singled out – they had to sit outside the assembly hall – it sets her apart in a heartbreaking way. She longs for a birthday party, to pull a cracker, she is seventeen before she learns about the jokes inside crackers. Kit also loves to sing the songs she isn’t allowed to sing, and when she and her sister get put in a school Christmas concert, she sings out with gusto.

I learn my part, practise my part, guard it in my heart. Kim, a soprano, has had the same talk from Mr Martin, that we are singing Handel’s statement of fact that God shall reign forever and ever, accompanied by a little orchestral support, and we sing in harmony at the bus stop, on our walks home, in bed when the others are asleep. We sing until we are perfect, until Mr Martin has Kim in the front row, soprano, and me right behind her, and the concert is set for a Tuesday night. A Tuesday night. Meeting night. A Christmas concert.  

In an old, terraced house on Springfield Road in Birmingham about a mile from where I live now, Kit and her siblings grew up knowing both poverty and hunger – she knows love too – though it seems to be of an unpredictable kind. Long hours are spent watching TV with dad in absolute silence, she enjoyed a fierce solidarity with her siblings who were subject to the same experiences as her. Racism was a daily part of her life too – growing up in a family with Irish/Caribbean heritage she and her siblings didn’t fit in easily anywhere – and even her own maternal grandmother viewed Kit and her siblings as being second to her other grandchildren.  

Kit is clearly shaped by her early life – I suppose we all are. Despite growing up in a house with just one book, she does much later discover a great love for books – what a solace and escape they are, as all book lovers know – it is a relationship that continues today.  

This is such an engaging memoir that I found it quite a quick read. For me personally though, the landscape of young Kit’s world is one I know so well that it was fascinating seeing it at an earlier date through her eyes.  

Read Full Post »

thetrick to time

Kit de Waal’s new novel The Trick to Time has been eagerly anticipated by many of us who fell in love with Leon – the child narrator in her debut novel My name is Leon. I rather lost my heart to Leon – and so this novel had rather a lot to live up to. I enjoyed A Trick to Time every bit as much as I enjoyed that earlier novel – though probably in a different way.

My Name is Leon, is a novel with the city of Birmingham very much at its heart. The Trick to Time is (in part at least) a novel about who some of the people who came to Birmingham from Ireland were. Where they came from, how they lived and the shattering effect upon them of the night of November 21st, 1974. I was just six in November 1974, living in a suburb of Birmingham, my mum was in the city centre that day with some other women from her church. She was in a different part of the city centre up on broad street, so didn’t even know about what had happened till she got home. It was an event that had a massive impact on the city – and I think continues to. The Birmingham pub bombings are a back drop to the novel – and highlights the volatile nature of the relationships between Irish and non-Irish in the city during those years.

However, it is also about much more than that, there is a deceptive lightness of touch here, but Kit de Waal executes this multi-layered novel exquisitely. The Trick to Time is a novel about love, loss and grief – what do you do when you lose the love of your life? Using three, time periods and three different settings, kit de Waal weaves together the heart-breaking stories of people who carry a grief inside them every day.

“One day, you will want these hours back, my girl. You will wonder how you lost them and you will want to get them back. There’s a trick to time. You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or make it longer.”

Mona grew up in a small town on the coast of Ireland. Her mother died when she was a child, for years Mona is her father’s constant companion. She is a witness to his grief, feeling the absence of her mother throughout her childhood. She and her father spend many Sundays with Bridie – a distant relative of Mona’s mother – who Mona is horribly bored by – not appreciating how for Bridie she and her father are all she has left.

As a young woman, Mona travels to Birmingham, gets a room in a boarding house, a job – the independence and excitement she had once dreamed of in Ireland. Here she meets William, also originally from Ireland, he’s charming with an easy smile and the two are soon smitten. Mona meets Williams’s aunts nicknamed Pestilence and Famine, they become family.

“In the evenings they go to the Bear in Sparkhill. It’s an Irish pub and a man’s pub full of labourers who want a break from their rented rooms and their own company, and middle-aged husbands let off the leash after mass. Nicholas Doyle is always in the corner with his accordion or violin and a couple of drinks lined up on the table to his right. That’s where William likes to sit, right near the music, near the musician’s elbow jerking his bow through the air or folding and unfolding the accordion that sits in his lap like a baby. Talking is almost impossible.”

Mona and William marry, but these are difficult days, and sometimes William has to work away. The world conspires to separate them at the end of 1974 – and Mona has to find a way of carrying on.

Now Mona lives in an English seaside town, she is contemplating her sixtieth birthday in a few days’ time, and works quietly in her shop, making dolls for collectors, creating gorgeously detailed outfits for them. With the help of a local carpenter Mona makes other dolls – special dolls that she uses to help women grappling with the over whelming grief of a stillbirth.

“‘It was only the kindness of a stranger that gave me the time to say goodbye. And that kindness gave me forty-five minutes with my child and I turned that forty-five minutes into a lifetime, into all the days and hours and weeks and years that we would never have together.”

The Trick to Time is a wonderfully compelling novel – I loved Mona – her story is one I’ll not forget easily. Many people I suspect will be profoundly moved and affected by the themes in this novel which are explored with sensitivity and understanding. It is a novel with a wonderful final line – I do love a novel with a heart stopping final line.


Read Full Post »


There were tears on Sunday morning – actual tears – and that’s not something that happens very often. The tears were for Leon, a child, albeit a fictional one – a boy who stole my heart and broke it a little bit.

Last week I was fortunate enough to see Kit de Waal and Jackie Kay at the Birmingham literature festival, they were wonderful. I don’t want to go on about that evening too much, despite it being amazing as I have a book to talk about, but I found both women extraordinarily inspiring, funny and moving. We had readings, poetry recitals and a lively question and answer session, alongside this, both women talked about their backgrounds and what had brought them to writing. Kit de Waal’s debut novel My Name is Leon had been on my radar for months – she is a Birmingham writer – and I always love to read local authors. Kit de Waal told us about her own background, growing up in Birmingham, becoming a mother, and sitting on an adoption panel. I was soon determined to start reading My Name is Leon as soon as I had finished One Fine Day.

I devoured the book over the weekend, it is a novel about love, identity and family, it explores the bond which exists between siblings and reminds us how home may not always be where you expect.

Taking us back to 1980/81, and an unnamed city- which as a local I recognised as Birmingham, My name is Leon is brilliantly evocative of the early 1980’s and a childhood set against the back drop of civil unrest and a Royal Wedding.

Leon is nine years old, quite big for his age, he has a brand new baby brother Jake with bright blue eyes. Jake is white, and Leon is black. Their mum Carol is beautiful, and Leon likes to take care of her and help her look after Jake. Leon simply adores his baby brother. He tells his little brother all about the world.

“My name is Leon and my birthday is on the fifth of July nineteen seventy-one. Your birthday is today. School’s all right but you have to go nearly every day and Miss Sheldon won’t let proper footballs in the playground. Nor bikes but I’m too tall for mine anyway. I’ve got two Easter eggs and there’s toys inside one of them. I don’t think you can have chocolate yet. The best programme is The Dukes of Hazzard but there are baby programmes too. I don’t want watch them any more.”

Carol is finding life hard, and over the next few months following Jake’s birth – the children are beginning to get neglected. Leon is missing school, caring for Jake himself, their upstairs neighbour Tina is called on more and more often to look after the boys.

Social services come and take Leon and Jake to live with Maureen while their mum gets better. Maureen is nothing like Carol, she’s quite old, has a belly like father Christmas and fuzzy red hair. Leon notices all the adults around him speaking in strange, quiet voices, wearing what he calls pretend faces. Maureen has fostered lots of children – she has lots of love to give, and a big gold biscuit tin, but her health is not as good as it could be, and she isn’t getting any younger. It’s quickly apparent that Carol won’t be able to look after her children herself, Leon hears mention of a half-way house in Bristol – wherever that is. After a while the social services decide it would best to have Jake adopted – ‘to give him a chance’ – no one it seems wants a black nine-year-old boy and a white baby. The separation is hard on Leon; Jake is his baby – his responsibility – he doesn’t think that he’ll be happy away from Leon who is the only person who understands how to look after him. Maureen puts a photograph of Jake by Leon’s bed – but the hole in Leon’s world is huge.

Things don’t get any easier for Leon, Maureen is taken into hospital, so Leon goes to stay with Sylvia (Maureen’s sister – who social services have approved). Leon still hasn’t heard from Jake – and he finds it hard to cope with all the anger he has inside.

“Once when he was little, he was in the park with his mum and she covered him over with a blanket. He was lying on the grass. He remembers the smell of the earth and the feel of scratchy leaves on his legs. The sky was far away and everything was still and quiet. His mum was singing to him but it was more like a whisper and his dad was there as well. His dad was reading the newspaper and he was leaning against the tree. Leon had a blue and red ball and an Action Man and they left the Action Man at the park and his dad promised to get him a new one. And he did. But that was later.”

Sylvia is obsessed with the Royal Wedding – she and her friends are planning a street party. Meanwhile, Leon loves to ride his bike fast, he also loves curly wurlys and hanging out with Tufty down the allotments who reminds Leon of his dad – and teaches him about growing things. In his red rucksack Leon puts all the things he pinches, the coins he collects which will one day help him find his Mum, and rescue Jake. During the summer evenings, there is unrest on the streets near to where Leon lives with Sylvia, a strange feeling of excitement in the air, and some of Tufty’s friends speak of violence and police harassment. allotments

Leon has a lot of things to sort out in his head, about his mum, his brother, who he is, and where he belongs. Leon must learn to cope with his unbearable loss, and listen to the people around him who care for him.

Those of us who work with children, sometimes come home, worrying, wondering about the small people we had in our care that day. The world can be tough on children – and Leon is a heart-breaking reminder of how that world can appear to a child, and how it might feel.

This novel is poignantly powerful, and Leon is an unforgettable child character, who reminds us how vulnerable children are to the decisions that the grown ups make for them.


Read Full Post »