Kerry Hudson’s precise, intricate and intelligently written memoir, Lowborn, revisits the brutal realities of poverty and the deprived places of Hudson’s own childhood.
In her memoir, Lowborn, Kerry Hudson shares her experience of growing up amidst the chaos and uncertainty of homelessness. She recounts the shame of being that kid – the poorest in school – who cowers from constant bullying in clothes that are too small; she recalls the time when she was ‘crying, filthy, starving’ and taken into care. The book alternates between the story of Hudson’s childhood and her present-day journey to rediscover the deprived places where she lived.
Descriptions of Hudson’s early childhood are evocative of the 80s: spiked hair, double denim, space hoppers, Dallas, Wogan and 20p to spend at the ice cream van. But this is no sepia-tinted nostalgia. Events were so traumatic that as an adult Kerry wakes at night ‘screaming obscenities at phantom shapes, inky terror running through [her]’. As a toddler, she is put into care (of this time her Auntie Susan later says: ‘You were a tiny child. You didn’t even get a few years’ good start’). Once she’s back with her mother, the pair move up and down Britain in a series of desperate situations: damp council flats, unsuitable B&Bs. Her mother moves to escape domestic abuse, or a bad situation, or to catch up with Kerry’s step-dad.
Hudson does not sensationalise her past. She describes her early childhood with a dispassionate detachment that makes it believable, that engages empathy. You feel that, but for the accident of birth, the child taken into care, the wee girl flinging nunchucks near her mother’s face, the person packing up all her possessions and moving, time and again, across the country to start a new life: that girl could have been you.
Hudson’s descriptions of this life are written as if she’s performing intricate surgery: the narrative is precise and careful, so that although the pages burn with the fury of what young Kerry had to suffer, the text strains towards accuracy rather than melodrama. This precision, Hudson’s objectivity, gives Lowborn a tenor of understanding rather than blame. Most of what she endured – homelessness, neglect and abuse – are a result of her mother’s actions, but Hudson doesn’t condemn her. Although they no longer speak, Hudson indicates admiration for her mum’s ‘unyielding moral values’, for being a feminist ‘before she knew what one was’. Her mother’s bouts of ‘long sleeps’ which crop up again and again, are remembered starkly, but Hudson understands they weren’t deliberate; rather they were caused by the hardship of her existence, or perhaps the mental illness that blighted generations.
Alongside destitution, Hudson also depicts love. The name Kerry comes from her grandmother’s declaration: ‘She’s like a wee pound of Kerrygold Butter.’ Though her grandmother was universally disliked, she seems to have adored little Kerry, as did Hudson’s mother and her unreliable, absent father. Neither parent appears to have considered Kerry’s needs, but the book implies that it wasn’t due to a lack of love – it was simply that they couldn’t.
She recognises her fortunate position; the difference between now and then, between her and them, is scrupulously thoughtful.
One of the most poignant aspects of Hudson’s past is its isolation; it speaks of an existence on the periphery of society. Hudson never really has a chance to settle anywhere, but when she does those around her make her feel her dislocation and let her know she’s unwelcome. This is most apparent in Great Yarmouth, where she settles as a teenager. Despite her hope that she’ll ‘be different, be cool,’ Yarmouth gathers up the worst encounters an adolescent girl could imagine and flings them all at her. At school she deals with ‘daily degradation’: she’s called names by both pupils and teachers, classmates stick pencils and compasses in her back. Outside school she drinks, smokes dope, sleeps with many men. Tries to fill the void of self-esteem: ‘I was careening too bright and too young, too much in need of something to mend the cracks’. She falls pregnant, is beaten, sexually assaulted, raped.
Yet, despite all the horror, Yarmouth is also her salvation. As a teenager, Hudson has agency. Her mum effectively forces her into work at fifteen, and ‘the freedom of that money of knowing that while I had a salary I could go places … was what that shitty first job taught me’. She buys clothes for school, her family can afford more food. Life is marginally better. Later, she persuades her mum to let her leave school (she studies elsewhere). She is accepted to Camp America (an experience that changes her life). She enrols in a BTEC and her teacher is a key person who helps her, who encourages her to apply to university in London.
In the present day, Hudson is happy. She recognises her fortunate position; the difference between now and then, between her and them, is scrupulously thoughtful. She finds ten pounds at a foodbank, which she considers giving to a woman she has just met. However, she doesn’t want the woman to ‘feel the hot/cold, grateful / shameful burn of charity’, so she leaves the money where it is, hoping the woman will find it. She is constantly remembering many people she wishes she could thank.
There’s a sense that her past lingers, clings to her, threatens to claw her backwards. She has to steel herself to return to the places she grew up, a challenge that she beautifully describes as a physical manifestation. After revisiting places from her Aberdonian childhood, Hudson finds herself ‘filleted by exhaustion … tearful and irritable and tender’. But she indicates that the book helps her reconcile her present and past selves: ‘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 at the end of the book. It has ‘changed [her] future forever.’
Hudson dragged herself out by her own skill. Part of this is evident in her fiercely talented writing, in her intelligence but also in the portrait she paints of a stubborn wee girl, who couldn’t be silenced
Lowborn could be a self-congratulatory tale, but in Hudson’s deft hands the story is more nuanced. The narrative is peppered with support she received: a kindly school in Hetton-Le-Hole; salvation in libraries, the opportunity to attend Camp America and a BTEC drama teacher who set her on the road to university in London. Some of young Kerry’s escape is perhaps luck. She hasn’t been blighted by the mental illness and alcoholism that affected many of her family: ‘that’s done now’, her Aunt Susan says at the end of the book (though it’s unclear if that’s because Susan and Hudson have escaped from penury or if the bad blood has simply run out). I also wonder if her perpetual movement may also have been a salvation. For if Hudson and her mother had stayed in one place, would she then have escaped the sucking mire of familial and social connections, remaining frozen in the aspic of poverty for the rest of her life? And there’s her mother: scatty, self-centred, fierce, demanding, who takes up so much space in the narrative. Who knows what part the mother-daughter dynamic played in later success?
Most importantly, Hudson dragged herself out by her own skill. Part of this is evident in her fiercely talented writing, in her intelligence but also in the portrait she paints of a stubborn wee girl, who couldn’t be silenced, who worked at a succession of shit jobs because she understood they could, and would, buy her out of poverty.
There’s a quote in My Name Is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout’s novel about a woman who escapes destitution to become a celebrated author:
Many of us have been saved many times by the kindness of strangers, but after a while it sounds trite, like a bumper sticker. And that’s what makes me sad, that a beautiful and true line comes to be used so often that it takes on the superficial sound of a bumper sticker.
Lowborn is a remarkable book. Anyone who has an interest in understanding poverty in modern Britain should read it. It teaches us that if we were kinder to strangers, if we showed more interest, more compassion and more sympathy, we might alleviate the terrible circumstances in which some people, by no fault of their own, find themselves.
Kerry Hudson’s Lowborn is published by Chatto & Windus and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops. To find out more about Hudson and her other works, click here. You can follow Hudson on Twitter @ThatKerryHudson