When Mandy O’Loughlin was little, she fell hard off a table at her home at 70 Springfield Road, Birmingham while singing along to (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction on the radio. After nearly biting her tongue in half, she lived off ice-cream and had a lisp for weeks. When she asked her baby sister to give her “a kith”, her siblings gave her a nickname that stuck: Kit.
If you want to find out how and why the sweet, clever, permanently uncertain Mandy grew up to be Kit de Waal – the bestselling author of My Name Is Leon, among others, and tireless amplifier of working-class voices in literature – then you must read this book. She grew up in 1960s Moseley, that unusual bohemian enclave of Brum where poor kids and posh kids played together and De Waal’s parents, “a little woman from Wexford” and a bus driver from St Kitts, raised five children without ever really growing up themselves.
Mom and Dad, Sheila and Arthur, aren’t so much bemused as utterly thrown by life as it is presented to them. Sheila had once frequented jazz clubs and lived a sort of working-class version of the high life in London, and here she is in Birmingham, condemned to buying meagre groceries on tick and beating rats out of the shed. Arthur, for his part, obsessed with old romantic movies on the telly, comes home from the bus depot laden with “beautiful, beautiful” new shoes and lengths of mohair for bespoke suits, all for himself.
Becoming a Jehovah’s Witness family involves meetings inconveniently timed to clash with Top of the Pops
Meanwhile, the children are hungry, always. At her friend’s house, Mandy’s posh playmate Cressida turns down trays of food and pop brought by her mother as they’re “not hungry”. Shamed into voicelessness, Mandy has to pretend that her “Barbie is hungry” in order to get food that she can’t get at home. Cressida has never been forced to “roam the house in search of old bread and economy margarine”, as her parents can afford both food and clothes – which, curiously, makes them happier and less stressed than Mandy’s.
One day, a knock at the door comes and it’s a woman bearing magazines full of pictures of happy people. Her mother lights up at the promise of paradise, where “no one looks at [her] like she’s no good for having black children”, and where “black people with enough to eat are living next door to white people with enough to eat”. There’s a small problem, though: for Jehovah’s Witnesses, paradise will come, but only after Armageddon, which will happen in 1975. “Or thereabouts.”
For the O’Loughlin children, becoming a Jehovah’s Witness family involves interminable hours spent at weekly meetings, inconveniently timed to clash with Top of the Pops, at which Mandy and her siblings nearly die with boredom and fail to have their various forms of hunger sated. Like their parents, they long for escape, but unlike them seek flight to better places that actually exist, through music and books and the teeming life of Moseley outside their unhappy, falling-down home.
When Arthur goes back to St Kitts for the first time in 20 years, alone, he orders a giant barrel that he fills with goodies for distant relatives, the likes of which his children have never seen: chocolates, nice soaps, toffees, toys, bedclothes. He returns four months early, even sadder than before. Sheila then flies to Florida to visit Auntie Mary, armed with a case of “Irish food, Ovaltine and Polo mints”.
How could they do this? How could they semi-starve their children while hoarding treats and possessions for their own use? But it rings all too true. This memoir is an astonishingly good evocation of the dream and reality of migration to postwar Birmingham, a city that must have seemed flush with cash to anyone moving from elsewhere. It gave its migrant working class a promise of riches while delivering a life of hard work and exhaustion.
They just wanted to get out, and who can blame them? De Waal got out, and doesn’t judge: she understands because she watched and listened so closely. “When the other one is out,” she writes of her parents, “they tell us stories about their life before us. They both want us as their audience, for the depository of their dreams, for their excuses, justifications, explanations.”
To be used as a sounding board rather than a person does things to you. In De Waal’s case, it made her an outstanding observer of relationships and the way no two individuals’ experiences can ever map neatly on to each other’s. In other words, a true writer. The cliche that unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way was never truer in her case. The world didn’t end in 1975, after all, but by then Mandy O’Loughlin had found a way to survive.
Lynsey Hanley is the author of Estates: An Intimate History (Granta) among other books
• Without Warning and Only Sometimes: Scenes from an Unpredictable Childhood by Kit de Waal is published by Tinder Press (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply