WWhen Mandy O’Loughlin was little, she fell hard off a table in her home at 70 Springfield Road, Birmingham while singing with (I Can’t Get No) contentment on the radio. After biting her tongue almost in half, she survived eating ice cream and had a lisp for weeks. When she asked her baby sister to give her a “hello,” her siblings nicknamed her “Kate.”
If you’d like to know how and why the cute, smart, and permanently uncertain Mandy grew up to become Kate de Waal – bestselling author of my name is leon, among others, and a tireless megaphone for working-class voices in literature – then you should read this book. I grew up in Mosley in the 1960s, that unusually bohemian enclave in Broome where poor kids and posh kids would play together and De Waal’s parents, a “little woman from Wexford” and a bus driver from St Kitts, raised five children without ever growing up. .
My mom and dad, Sheila and Arthur, are not so confused as to be thrown into life exactly as it was presented to them. Sheila was once a club-goer and lived a sort of working-class version of high life in London, and here she is in Birmingham, doomed to buy meager groceries on ticks and beat rats out of the shed. Arthur, for his part, obsessed with old romantic movies on TV, comes home from the bus stop stocked with new “beautiful and pretty” shoes and mohair lengths for custom suits, all for himself.
Meanwhile, kids are always hungry. At the home of her friend, Mandy’s posh classmate, Cressida, she refuses trays of food and pop that her mother brought because she “isn’t hungry.” Ashamed of not being heard, Mandy has to pretend that “Barbie is hungry” in order to get food she can’t get at home. Cressida is never forced to “walk around the house for stale bread and frugal ghee”, where her parents can buy food and clothes – which makes them happier and less stressed than Mandy, which raises curiosity.
One day, a woman with magazines full of pictures of happy people knocked on the door. Her mother lights up on the promise of heaven, where “nobody looks at her [her] As if it is not good to have black children”, and where “black people who have enough to eat live next door to white people who have enough to eat.” However, there is a small problem: for Jehovah’s Witnesses, heaven will come, but only after Armageddon, which is It will happen in 1975. “Or thereabouts”.
For the O’Loughlin children, becoming a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses requires spending endless hours in weekly meetings, ill-timed to engage them. Top of the popsMandy and her brothers nearly died of boredom and failed to satisfy their various forms of starvation. Like their parents, they yearn to escape, but unlike them seek escape to better places that already exist, through music, books and the busy life of Mosley outside their unhappy, crumbling home.
When Arthur returned to St. Kitts for the first time in 20 years, alone, he ordered a huge barrel to fill with the good things of distant relatives, the likes of which he had never seen his children: chocolate, gentle soap, candy, toys, bed linen. He returns four months early, even sadder than before. Sheila then travels to Florida to visit Aunt Mary, armed with a portfolio of “Irish Food, Ovaltine and Polo flavors.”
How can they do this? How could they starve almost non-existently with their children while hoarding things and possessions for their own use? But it all seems very correct. This memoir is a surprisingly good evocation of the dream and reality of migrating to post-war Birmingham, a city that seemed full of money to anyone moving from elsewhere. The immigrant working class promised to get rich while also providing a life of hard work and exhaustion.
They just wanted to get out, and who could blame them? De Waal went out and did not judge: she understands because she watches and listens closely. She wrote of her parents: “When the other comes out, they tell us stories about their lives before us. They both want us as their listeners, the repository of their dreams, their excuses, justifications, and explanations.”
To use it as a soundboard instead of having someone do things for you. In De Waal’s case, this made her an outstanding observer of relationships and the way no two people can accurately relate to each other’s experiences. In other words, a real writer. The cliché that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way could not have been more true in her case. The world didn’t end in 1975, but by then Mandy O’Loughlin had found a way to survive.
Lynsey Hanley is the author of Real Estate: An Intimate History (Granta), among other books