I had Kerry Hudson’s new book Lowborn in my to-read pile for some time, but it took me a while to pluck up the courage to open it. In the end, it was like pulling off a sticking plaster quickly and I raced through it in just over a day.
As it turns out, it took the author some bracing before she felt sure of taking on the subject matter herself, peering into a memory with all its holes and question marks. “I decided to seek answers to my questions because, now, I believed I could open my mouth to ask and not be punched or punished or ridiculed.”
What follows is a work of unusual honesty. It is no exaggeration to say bravery, too – can you imagine examining the most uncomfortable parts of your childhood for anyone to pick up and browse? Hudson has done just that, tracing a disrupted early life through nine primary schools, five high schools, interventions from social services and as many houses, often uncomfortable or unsafe, revisiting the places she lived as a child to better understand what living in poverty meant then and how it looks now. The adults tasked with looking after her faced alcoholism and mental health problems, and their own generational instability. An estranged father blew in with extravagant gifts once in a while (an antique violin, a china doll smashed at a wedding which ended in a fight), but never child support.
Moments she felt safe and happy, as a child should, are catalogued too. One day her mother took her out of school for a “family emergency” and instead they spent the afternoon in a beer garden; it sticks in Hudson’s memory as an enjoyable day. But moments of levity are in stark contrast to the ever-present lack of stability, and threat of packing up time and time again for a “fresh start” in this town or that. A lack of money is persistent and grating, like a dripping tap unable to be shut off.
Hudson refers to the Adverse Childhood Experiences questionnaire, which states anyone with a score of four or higher is significantly more likely to face various health problems, 460 per cent more likely to experience depression, and 1,200 per cent more likely to attempt suicide. She scored eight, which puts things into context. It also shows the lifelong implications of a childhood in poverty.
In my own writing on class, I’ve frequently been tasked with defining it as a starting point, before exploring any further. For me, that meant pointing to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, which measures factors including health, education, and employment, and the streets I grew up in being within the top five to ten per cent of deprivation. Class is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, which has meant workplaces and arts organisations looking at diversity have have struggled to get to grips with it. As an identity, class is very personal and how individuals define themselves ranges from economic bracket to habits and lifestyle. Stereotypes are also used maliciously; by politicians using rhetoric about ‘ordinary people’, stoking seeds of distrust in ‘experts’ and education rather than campaigning for ordinary people to have equal access to it, while libraries close down all over the place.
For many, poverty is outside the realm of their experience; they will never come to imagine what it feels like to choose between bus fare and bread. For others, they don’t want to hear about it. Hudson recounts a man saying, not unkindly, “growing up here couldn’t have been that bad”, and her sense of diminishment afterwards. It is interesting, particularly as a woman, how often people will dismiss what you have to say about class if you do not pertain to macho stereotypes, using it as a way to undermine your authority on the subject. There’s one part in Hudson’s book where she describes an older woman whose life had been hard and sad, driving her into a “bitter place”. But “she’d stayed there too. She’d hunkered down and hurt everyone around her.” Ultimately, they became estranged. I recognise that pain being turned outwards; I’ve seen it on many occasions, but also, unfortunately, from some men who feel they have the right to aggression and spite towards any woman they perceive to be “middle class”. Where there are few working class stories, there are fewer still from working class women. Lowborn stands out as rare, as well as compassionately and skilfully told.
Hudson is upfront about how her life has changed – being a published author and in a loving marriage (after which they shared out bubbles in plastic cups with fellow passengers on the train to Wales) is a ‘happy ending’ of sorts; her partner features throughout as a mark of stability and care that was sorely lacking in her childhood years. But as anyone who has grown up in poverty will know, whether they have remained so or found some foothold in a world often hostile to the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, there are some things that stick. Habits; expectations; a way of sizing up how welcome you are in a room. Hudson describes a professional situation, and the expected social protocol, familiar to anyone else there, as a dance she hadn’t been taught the moves to. At the beginning of her journey back into her past, she was having nightmares, troubled by the gaps in her memory.
Who doesn’t love a map inside a book, for helping us to orient ourselves as we read as well as the simple pleasure of poring over it? Inside Lowborn is an outline of Great Britain filled with the criss crossing lines of Hudson’s trajectory. It takes in Aberdeen in the North-East of Scotland and Canturbury in the South-East of England. In-between are Liverpool, Hetton-le-Hole outside of Newcastle, and Great Yarmouth. What really catches my eye are dots marking Airdrie and Coatbridge, the latter where I grew up, rarely visited in books. What a thing to see. Books are one way in which we come to understand our country and its history as well as each other. Too often, there are gaps on the shelves.
I think I would have been friends with child Kerry, who is a little older than me, if our time in North Lanarkshire had overlapped. Some books help us understand the world around us. Others do that, and make us feel less alone in it, too. Lowborn is one such book, holding out a hand of friendship to anyone who might pick it up and find something forgotten or familiar among its pages.