Lowborn: A grimly compelling account of the dehumanising effects of poverty
Chatto & Windus, hardback, 253 pages, €19
I grew up in the student area of Birmingham, solidly middle-class bohemian with a whiff of incoming immigration from surrounding poorer areas and over the waters. The posh students used to come, a fresh round every October, and flirt with poverty, with having only 20 fags for the week, with the thrill of buying a second-hand leather coat and being too cold indoors to take it off.
By Christmas, the fun of that had worn thin and they returned to Surrey and York to be fed and watered and have their allowances topped up. We, the constant poor, had nowhere to go for the holidays but back to the bedsit, still cold, with 10 fags to last us for the festive season.
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Reading Kerry Hudson's excellent memoir, Lowborn, I was reminded, as though I could ever forget, that there is nothing glamorous about true poverty. It is, as she calls it, "all-encompassing, grinding, brutal and often dehumanising".
She starts frankly, with the events of her first years, during which she experienced:
1 single mother
2 stays in foster care
9 primary schools
1 sexual abuse child protection inquiry
5 high schools
2 sexual assaults
What follows is Hudson unpicking those events and the UK towns in which they happened: Aberdeen, Great Yarmouth, Canterbury, Liverpool, Sunderland - poor towns or, at least, the poor side of each town where every economic boom has failed to penetrate to those most in need.
In Lowborn, she compares her life now - "I eat well and always have somewhere decent to stay, my clothes are cheap but I can afford to replace them, I enjoy the luxury of exercise. I heat my flat in the winter. I have access to art, music, film, books" - with the "unrecognisable" one she left behind.
So the chapters are titled 'Aberdeen 1991 and Aberdeen 2018', 'Hetton-le-Hole 1989 and Hetton-le-Hole 2018' and so forth, working us around the country and her childhood, her teenage years and family life. It's compelling, fascinating and well-written, undeniably grim but peppered with humour and tenderness, every chapter a testimony to someone's goodness or fortitude, to the kindness of strangers.
Hudson has the lived experience of someone who fell through the cracks. She begins her story well before her own birth, with her "terrifying" grandmother, who looked "like Elizabeth Taylor with violet eyes". She lived her life in the fish houses of Aberdeen in "brutal conditions and vicious workplace politics". This woman's advice to her granddaughter - to grab the hair in fist fights and "use my nails" - would many years later serve Hudson well in the backstreets of Great Yarmouth.
Hudson was born of a vulnerable mother and an older man, a US army veteran "already in the grip of alcoholism". When the relationship foundered, Hudson found herself with and without her mother in temporary accommodation, foster care and every other kind of unsuitable housing.
She says "from the earliest age, almost before I knew how to write my own name, I could recite to you the intricacies of the housing and benefits system", absorbing the vocabulary and language her mother used, like any child does.
Throughout her life, she moves again and again, from town to town, making and losing friends, growing towards adulthood, flirting with religion, with unsatisfying teenage relationships that resulted in the two abortions, with drink and drugs, realising that there was a "vacuum where my self-esteem should have been".
But she was also driven to change her life and the prospects it held for her. She wanted to go to London, to university. As is so often the case, an inspirational teacher who refused to give up on the poorest kids helped her to get an unconditional offer for a London university. From that moment, she says, "I started running and didn't look back." Not until she began writing Lowborn.
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. Towards the end of the book, she reflects on her history and the attitudes and falsehoods about poverty that left her feeling "other or lesser". She says "a large proportion of society believes that if you are poor then you are somehow undeserving of empathy. That, somehow, poverty is a personal choice or failing and had you only worked hard enough, you might have avoided the fate of daily, unrelenting hardship".
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.