What does it really mean to be poor in Britain today? Kerry Hudson explores her own childhood, growing up in grinding poverty, and some of Britain's most deprived towns.
Kerry is an award winning novelist, with a love of travel, art, music and culture. Yet her life was not always like this, as she spent most of her childhood living through poverty with a single mother who was always on the move. Living in any flat or B&B they could afford, Kerry attended countless schools before she was able to leave that life behind her, twenty years ago.
Lowborn is Kerry's journey to revisit where she spent her childhood, in the spirit of looking back to see how far you have come. She also visits deprived areas of the country to see if anything has really changed.
In a sense, Hudson has written a powerful book about survivor’s guilt – certainly, her heart breaks throughout, not just for the helpless child she was, but for the others still out there, slipping through austerity-hit welfare safety nets. Lowborn is also about the masks that working-class people are forced to wear as they move among people who, even well meaningly, deny and diminish their experiences. While Hudson’s honesty has cost her (she and her mother are estranged), and she starts the book terrified that her past will expose her to others as “lesser”, ultimately, her quest releases her. “In retracing the lines that held me to the path of the past, I’ve freed myself from so much shame and fear”, she writes. The result is not a “misery memoir”, rather it’s a compelling story about grit, hope and a young woman running towards an implausible “something” on a distant horizon, and actually getting there.
Hudson has the lived experience of someone who fell through the cracks... That she has been able to revisit some of her difficult past and the difficult places where it happened is a testimony to her own sense of recovery and pride in her working-class identity... You would think that this book is a testimony to the ideals of social mobility, since Hudson has worked hard and escaped the grinds of underclass life. But that would be missing the point of the memoir entirely. By returning to the towns of her childhood and finding them mostly unchanged or changed for the worse, Hudson demonstrates that only by lifting whole communities out of poverty, by properly looking after looked-after children and funding a well-rounded welfare state, can we hope to avoid consigning children and young people like her – vulnerable and blameless – to the worst of lives. Lowborn is a personal account of Hudson’s hardships at the extremes of working-class life, where one fifth of us live, in the poverty that has no safety net in York or Surrey, as it did for my middle-class student friends. It’s also the story of a personal triumph and setting things straight. Ultimately, it is a celebration of making peace with the past.
Lowborn is an insider’s view of the complexities of modern-day poverty, written with humour and compassion, but without judgment. It should be required reading for anyone who unknowingly believes poverty is a personal choice and that if you work hard enough you’ll avoid its fate. Hudson miraculously escaped, but not without making sacrifices — her mother is now no longer in her life. “I could not live with the rages and denial of the past,” she writes.
Hudson has written a moving and readable account of growing up in the poorest section of society. Her book is also a meditation on social mobility. Beloved by politicians of all stripes, social mobility is an important component of any decent society. Hudson is a product of social mobility, as am I.
Lowborn is a powerful testimonial. I haven’t sensed such Clash-like outrage from a book since Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel & Dimed. Here’s hoping it gives others the courage to tell their version of this story, at high volume.
Lowborn – which began as a column on the now-defunct website the Pool – is split between Hudson’s memories of her upbringing and her more recent experiences of returning to the places through which she passed. Its distinguishing features echo her two social realist novels, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma and Thirst: bracing prose and an eye for symbolic detail. When her American father found out he was to become a dad, we learn that “he fell to his knees and cried, ‘What am I going to do?’”, whereupon her mother left him...Lowborn is in part an indictment of a country that claims to still have a functioning welfare state, though help is now even harder to come by than it was when she was growing up. Most of all, it is a moving portrait of the survival and eventual flourishing of a remarkable spirit.
Hudson’s book is about getting out and going back. Now a prize-winning writer, she has written an emotional appeal to herself and, I guess, to her mother. She also takes a solemn look at Britain’s poorest towns from the 1980s to the present and argues that nothing has changed. Except it has: since then, the urban working class has had further indignities heaped upon its head, including the erosion of well-paid jobs, the degradation of public services, the scattering of communities, the transformation of neighbourhoods and virtual exclusion from representative democracy, as Geoff Evans and James Tilley have documented in The New Politics of Class (2017). This exclusion is most clearly evident in Parliament’s moves to stymie or reverse the 2016 referendum result. Britain’s poorest towns got their homework wrong. Now they must do it again. Not everything has grown worse since the 1980s, of course, but most things have, and one thing is for sure: Kerry Hudson is not the only person who journeys back and forth in anger and regret.
Already the author of two award-winning novels, Kerry Hudson has also established herself as a passionate activist for the "lowborn", founding the WoMentoring project, and writing many campaigning articles about class and about poverty. Now, in this remarkable memoir, she reflects on her own upbringing.