Kit de Waal is the professional name of Mandy O’Loughlin, a writer of colour and a citizen of Ireland as well as her birthplace, England. She is an accomplished writer (just elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature) and a generous spirit in contemporary literature, opening ground for working class and underrepresented writers in anthologies, putting her money where her mouth is by offering scholarships and access grants and discussing these matters in the media. Her moving and sometimes hilarious new memoir Without Warning & Only Sometimes, however, deserves to be read for its intrinsic merits rather than for background on an increasingly significant writer, although it will help with that too.
If the childhood the book chronicles could be described as deprived — often not enough to eat, poor clothing, among other indices of neglect — it seemed normal to de Waal until she was old enough to compare it with other children. Her parents’ care was erratic but genuine: Sheila Doyle and Arthur O’Loughlin were a classic odd couple and their strong personalities dominate the early part of the book. The young de Waal imagines her neighbours’ view of them: “a short Irish refugee so thick she’s living in sin with a six-foot-six enormous black man.”
Sheila and Arthur met while working on the buses; the handsome, sporty and narcissistic St Kittian with film star looks and the mercurial, loving, creative Irishwoman who “must have worn him down” into marriage. Sheila is resented in Arthur’s West Indian community as one of these easy white women who get pregnant quickly, traps their men and then can’t look after them properly. Because of her Jehovah’s Witnesses religion, she proselytises at every opportunity. Her faith also governs her children’s lives (Arthur was not a believer) with strict rules, frequent services and expectations of a then-imminent 1975 apocalypse. The children nevertheless enjoy much love from their mother and, occasionally, their father, especially when the mood took him to cook spectacular feasts to break the more usual famine, notably at Christmas, ignored by the Jehovah’s Witnesses as corrupted by pagan influences.
De Waal’s childhood in 1960s Birmingham is book-free apart from the Bible, but Sheila and Arthur’s children are clever, if unread. Both de Waal and her sister go to Waverley Grammar. With few pupils of colour, they suffer prejudice and are targeted for their Irish heritage and relative poverty. De Waal is made aware of what she is lacking, from birthday celebrations to regular meals, and she notes of a new friend: “Cressida is never hungry.” The surrounding anti-Irish feeling is sharpened after the 1974 IRA pub bombings, but here as elsewhere, de Waal manages to extract humour from grim circumstances, as when the police calling on Irish families’ arrive at theirs:
“Mr O’Loughlin?” says the copper.
“Yes,” says Dad, “What’s it about?”
“You’re Mr O’Loughlin?”
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Oh!” says the copper. “We’re looking for someone ... else.”
And they leave.
De Waal’s horizons broadened as she grew, culturally, politically and socially, and the hold of the Jehovah’s Witnesses was fatally weakened by the uneventful passing of their predicted date for Armageddon. She does well at school, goes to secretarial college, leaves home, makes sophisticated friends, discovers the joys of cannabis, black music and freedom. But she also learns tragedy: a mentally-ill friend’s suicide, the degeneration of her smart friend Faye through hard drugs into an effigy of her former self which propels her into her own breakdown.
This shocks de Waal out of her heavy cannabis use and, not long after, she gets her first fulfilling job as a committals clerk with the Crown Prosecution Service, where she sees first-hand the complexities of crime, the people involved and the application of state justice. More importantly, one kind senior prosecutor notices her tiredness and prescribes for her insomnia a reading list that includes Gustave Flaubert, Émile Zola, Victor Hugo, Alain-Fournier and Stendhal. Far from being bored to sleep, de Waal is enthralled, going to bookshops and furiously consuming the black-spined Penguin Classics as she once had cannabis: George Eliot, Charles Dickens, the Brontës, Mark Twain, Marcel Proust, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, Edith Wharton, Graham Greene. She’s hooked. Her book’s last two lines are: “I turn the page and keep reading. I’m going to live.” Her good luck was our good luck.
Without Warning and Only Sometimes is a delightful and harrowing book. I can’t think of another since Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son that gives such a well-written child’s-eye view of an upbringing in a suffocating Christian sect, quite different from Joyce’s cry of “Non serviam!” raised against the might of the Catholic Church, rather more like a chiliastic splinter group whose magnetism is lost on the next generation. De Waal’s repulsion from it, perhaps, fuelled her enthusiasm for life-affirming literature and her own life-affirming book which I highly recommend.
Ian Duhig’s most recent book, New and Selected Poems (Picador), was awarded the 2022 Hawthornden Prize for Literature