Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns
In many ways Kerry Hudson is lucky to be alive. She starts Lowdown with a happy ending when she tells the reader:
I escaped poverty. I escaped bad food because that’s all you can afford. I escaped threadbare clothes and too-tight shoes. I escaped drinking or drugging myself in oblivion because…I escaped Jeremy Kyle in a shiny suit telling me my sort was scum…I escaped hopelessness.
So we know there is going to be a happy ending of sorts but not before we have been dragged through the emotional mangle of her past, that of an impoverished, working class life. It is a life she has had to leave behind, and this includes most of her family and in particular her mother.
Over a decade ago I made the painful but wholly necessary decision to estrange myself from my mum. Perhaps inevitably this has meant I have become estranged from the rest of my close family, too…In the end, I removed myself because I could not live with the rages and denial of the past.
The book is the outcome of questions that Kerry had about her transient childhood. She wanted to find out if the towns she lived in had got better. Or why she sometimes woke up screaming with the night terrors. Kerry decides that the only way to find out is to go back.
I decided to go back to Aberdeen where I was born into a clan of matriarchal fishwives and follow the staggering, itinerant route of my childhood down the country: Aberdeen, Canterbury, North Lanarkshire, Sunderland, Great Yarmouth…I would be casting my net for stories and facts, then I’d cut them open and see what the guts told me.
This is a fierce, brave and outspoken memoir. Kerry is a traveller who takes the reader back and forth both in her mind and in reality. Each chapter either takes place in her childhood memory, her present – which is often a relief from the trauma Kerry lived through and a reminder that the girl done good – or physical travelling on coaches or trains back to the many places she had lived as a child.
Early on Kerry tells the reader in recipe style she attended nine primary schools and five secondaries, living in B&Bs and council flats. She was sexually assaulted twice, raped once, had two abortions as well as a couple of stays in foster care. This is where Kerry slips through the net and we realise that it is only by luck that she didn’t end up on the front page of the press like so many poor children failed or just missed by social services.
I don’t know why, of all the things I’ve felt ashamed of as an adult, having been in foster care is the one that felt most taboo to speak aloud…there’s a particular sort of family where children are taken away from their mother and I didn’t want to think that my family, for all its complexities, was one of those families.
Family loyalty like family secrecy explains Kerry, is very hard to voice, but that writing it down in a book which will become public is even harder. Like having to learn to write with a different hand, so she decides to get some help in the form of a therapist.
It seemed this strange process was splitting me in half. I was an archivist of my dead life. I was a private investigator digging my way through my own deeply buried secrets, both desperate for answers and fighting to keep them hidden.
Kerry Hudson is proudly working class but she was never proudly poor. The poverty she grew up in was all-encompassing, grinding and often dehumanising.
Twenty years later, Kerry’s life is unrecognisable. She’s a prizewinning novelist who has travelled the world. She has a secure home, a loving partner and access to art, music, film and books. But she often finds herself looking over her shoulder, caught somehow between two worlds.
Lowborn is Kerry’s exploration of where she came from. She revisits the towns she grew up in to try to discover what being poor really means in Britain today and whether anything has changed. But more than this, if Kerry didn’t go back, did not face the past, her life would always be haunted by the blank bits of her memory, that unknowing many children with traumatic pasts have.
I realised that I could only really answer these questions if I went back. If I looked my monster in the face in the hope that it would be a shadow, after all.
This is not an easy read but it is a necessary one. Those of us who scraped through our childhoods and somehow escaped our pasts will identify with much of the writing. The haunting from ghosts past that take work to exorcise, the constant not fitting-in and the many moments of love and kindness that splatter through the pages. As somebody in my book group said ‘We don’t often hear from people who have been through this sort of childhood, it is an important voice and one we can all learn from.’
Hatfield Book Group was one of several reading groups that won 10 paperback copies of Lowborn from Vintage Books in return for an online review:
Reading the book was as good as a tv programme. I love the fact she’d travelled despite the problems she had as a child, haven’t gone away just learns to live with it and get on with her life.’
‘Compelling, couldn’t put it down’
‘I googled her afterwards, I never do this and discovered she’s expecting a baby.’
‘Brutal but gripping’
‘So many terrible experiences horrific to live through. Difficult to express that – how do you survive that horror? Incredibly brave to go back. Also a kind of healing, when she went back and revisited – a way to let go.’
Kerry Hudson was born in Aberdeen. Her first novel, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, won the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust First Book Award and was shortlisted for an array of prizes including the Guardian First Book Award and the Sky Arts Awards. Thirst, her second novel, won the prestigious prix Femina etranger. Lowborn is her first work of non-fiction, and her journey has led to a highly successful column for the Pool. She currently lives in Liverpool.
Follow Kerry on Twitter: @ThatKerryHudson