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‘Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns’ by Kerry Hudson ****

Kerry Hudson was asked to write her memoir, Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns, by her publisher.  She did so even though the idea scared her.  When she received the book deal, she wept, ‘because’, she says, ‘I didn’t know how to free myself from the tyranny of silence and the growing shame that came with that voicelessness, because I was terrified of writing this book and also terrified I’d have to live in this pretend sort of way forever if I didn’t.’  This impactful memoir is her first work of non-fiction after two successful novels.

9781784742454Hudson ‘is proudly working class but she was never proudly poor.  The poverty she grew up in was all-encompassing, grinding and often dehumanising.’ Hudson was born in Aberdeen, and has lived all over the country – Airdrie, Coatbridge, the northeast of England, Great Yarmouth, and Canterbury.  She attended nine primary schools and five secondary schools, and scores 8 out of 10 on the Adverse Childhood Experiences measure of childhood trauma.

Hudson was born to a young Scottish mother – ‘extremely, possibly irretrievably, vulnerable and fractured, and extraordinarily naive’ – and a much older American father, whom she had little to do with.  She and her mother first lived with her grandmother in a tiny place in Aberdeen, and when she was older, she was taken into foster care for a while.  Hudson had an awareness of her situation from a young age, reflecting: ‘I knew we were poor, really perilously poor, from the earliest age.’

Now, her life is thankfully very different; she has the means to travel, as well as a ‘secure house, a loving partner and access to art, music, film and books.’  In her introduction, she writes: ‘Yes, I might have been lowborn but somehow, I ascended…  I eat well and always have somewhere decent to stay…  I heat my flat in the winter…  I’ve travelled the world several times over and made a living doing what I love which also happens to be the preserve of People Not Like Me.’

Still, of course, a huge part of her identity, Hudson was keen to explore ‘where she came from’.  She does this by revisiting the towns which she grew up in, ‘to try to discover what being poor really means in Britain today and whether anything has changed.’   In her introduction, she goes into more detail, writing: ‘While my life is unrecognisable today, I find myself able to reconcile my “now” with my past.  I can best describe this vertiginous feeling as belonging nowhere and to no-one, neither “back there” nor truly “here”.  I have come to believe that being born poor is not simply a matter of economics or situation, it is a psychology and identity all its own that, in me, has endured well beyond my “escape”.’

The central question which Hudson poses in Lowborn is this: ‘When every day of your life you have been told you have nothing of value to offer, that you are worth nothing to society, can you ever escape that sense of being “lowborn”, no matter how far you’ve come?’  Reflecting on the writing of her memoir, Hudson shows what an effect it has had on her: ‘When January came around I felt less and less inclined to go “home” to my old towns.  It seemed this strange process was splitting me in half.  I was an archivist of my dead life.’

At the point of writing Lowborn, Hudson has been estranged from her mother for some years.  Her memoir is raw, eye-opening, and unflinchingly honest, and it feels pivotal to be reading it, particularly at a time when so many people are forced to live as Hudson once did, and believe they will never find a way out of it.  There is such sadness present within the book, at moments like this in which Hudson speaks of her childhood: ‘It often felt like I’d never been a child at all, that only these eighteen years of burdened adulthood existed.’  Lowborn is a triumph; it feels entirely honest, and I greatly admired that Hudson does not shy away from writing anything down.

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The Brilliance of Non-Fiction: Five New Releases

I am a self-confessed fan of non-fiction books, and often find myself gravitating towards them in bookshops.  I have spent several hours of late in Waterstone’s and London’s excellent Skoob, browsing the history shelves for something which will both captivate and educate me.  With that in mind, I thought I would share with you five non-fiction books which I am currently coveting.  For each, I have copied the official blurb to whet your appetite as well as my own.

1. The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson 
“Twenty years ago, Bill Bryson went on a trip around Britain to celebrate the green and kindly island that had become his adopted country. The hilarious book that resulted, Notes from a Small Island, was taken to the nation’s heart and became the bestselling travel book ever, and was also voted in a BBC poll the book that best represents Britain. Now, to mark the twentieth anniversary of that modern classic, Bryson makes a brand-new journey round Britain to see what has changed. Following (but not too closely) a route he dubs the Bryson Line, from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath, by way of places that many people never get to at all, Bryson sets out to rediscover the wondrously beautiful, magnificently eccentric, endearingly unique country that he thought he knew but doesn’t altogether recognize any more. Yet, despite Britain’s occasional failings and more or less eternal bewilderments, Bill Bryson is still pleased to call our rainy island home. And not just because of the cream teas, a noble history, and an extra day off at Christmas. Once again, with his matchless homing instinct for the funniest and quirkiest, his unerring eye for the idiotic, the endearing, the ridiculous and the scandalous, Bryson gives us an acute and perceptive insight into all that is best and worst about Britain today.”

2. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
“Ancient Rome matters. Its history of empire, conquest, cruelty and excess is something against which we still judge ourselves. Its myths and stories – from Romulus and Remus to the Rape of Lucretia – still strike a chord with us. And its debates about citizenship, security and the rights of the individual still influence our own debates on civil liberty today. SPQR is a new look at Roman history from one of the world’s foremost classicists. It explores not only how Rome grew from an insignificant village in central Italy to a power that controlled territory from Spain to Syria, but also how the Romans thought about themselves and their achievements, and why they are still important to us. Covering 1,000 years of history, and casting fresh light on the basics of Roman culture from slavery to running water, as well as exploring democracy, migration, religious controversy, social mobility and exploitation in the larger context of the empire, this is a definitive history of ancient Rome. SPQR is the Romans’ own abbreviation for their state: Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome’.”

3. The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination by Dominic Sandbrook 
“Britain’s empire has gone. Our manufacturing base is a shadow of its former self; the Royal Navy has been reduced to a skeleton. In military, diplomatic and economic terms, we no longer matter as we once did. And yet there is still one area in which we can legitimately claim superpower status: our popular culture. It is extraordinary to think that one British writer, J K Rowling, has sold more than 400 million books; that Doctor Who is watched in almost every developed country in the world; that James Bond has been the central character in the longest-running film series in history; that The Lord of the Rings is the second best-selling novel ever written (behind only A Tale of Two Cities); that the Beatles are still the best-selling musical group of all time; and that only Shakespeare and the Bible have sold more books than Agatha Christie. To put it simply, no country on earth, relative to its size, has contributed more to the modern imagination. This is a book about the success and the meaning of Britain’s modern popular culture, from Bond and the Beatles to heavy metal and Coronation Street, from the Angry Young Men to Harry Potter, from Damien Hirst toThe X Factor.”

4. The House by the Lake by Thomas Harding
“In the spring of 1993, Thomas Harding travelled to Berlin with his grandmother to visit a small house by a lake. It was her ‘soul place’, she said – a sanctuary she had been forced to leave when the Nazis swept to power. The trip was a chance to see the house one last time, to remember it as it was. But the house had changed. Twenty years later Thomas returned to Berlin. The house now stood empty, derelict, soon to be demolished. A concrete footpath cut through the garden, marking where the Berlin Wall had stood for nearly three decades. Elsewhere were signs of what the house had once been – blue tiles showing behind wallpaper, photographs fallen between floorboards, flagstones covered in dirt. Evidence of five families who had made the house their home over a tumultuous century. The House by the Lake is a ground breaking work of history, revealing the story of Germany through the inhabitants of one small wooden building: a nobleman farmer, a prosperous Jewish family, a renowned Nazi composer, a widow and her children, a Stasi informant. Moving from the late nineteenth century to the present day, from the devastation of two world wars to the dividing and reuniting of a nation, it is a story of domestic joy and contentment, of terrible grief and tragedy, and of a hatred handed down through the generations. It is the long-awaited new work from the best-selling author of Hanns and Rudolf.”

5. The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin by Steven Lee Myers 
“An epic tale of Vladimir Putin’s path to power, as he emerged from obscurity to become one of the world’s most conflicted and important leaders. Former New York Times Moscow Bureau Chief Steven Lee Myers has followed Putin since well before the recent events in the Ukraine, and gives us the fullest and most engaging account available of his rise to power. A gripping, page-turning narrative about Russian power and prestige, the book depicts a cool and calculating leader with enormous ambition and few scruples. As the world struggles to confront a newly assertive Russia, the importance of understanding Putin has never been greater. Vladimir Putin rose out of Soviet deprivation to the pinnacle of influence in the new Russian nation. He came to office in 2000 as a reformer, cutting taxes and expanding property rights, bringing a measure of order and eventually prosperity to millions whose only experience of democracy in the early years following the Soviet collapse was instability, poverty and criminality. But soon Putin orchestrated the preservation of a new kind of authoritarianism, consolidating power, reasserting his country’s might, brutally crushing revolts and swiftly dispatching dissenters, even as he retained the support of many.”

Which are your favourite non-fiction books, and which newer releases do you hope to read soon?

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One From the Archive: ‘The Fabled Coast’ by Jennifer Westwood and Sophia Kingshill ****

First published in August 2012.

Folklore is still inherently entrenched into life in the United Kingdom and, indeed, in a vast number of countries and communities on an international scale. The introduction of The Fabled Coast: Legends and Traditions from Around the Shores of Britain and Ireland states that ‘… the coastline of the British Isles plays host to an astonishingly rich variety of local legends, customs and superstitions’, all of which the authors have tried to incorporate into the book. Their main aim, they tell the reader, is to ‘examine the facts behind the legends’.

The introduction, both far-reaching and well-written, describes how such legends came to be. The traditions of storytelling are outlined and then elaborated upon, and instances of the earliest recorded folklore of the sea have been included. Many historical figures also feature on the book’s pages, ranging from Sir Francis Drake to Grace O’Malley, ‘the sixteenth-century pirate queen of Connaught’.

The Fabled Coast is split into a variety of different sections, all of which encompass different counties and districts around the Britain and Ireland. These range from Wales and the Scottish Lowlands to Southern Eire and East Anglia. Every stretch of coastline has been included, as have the majority of the islands which are dotted around our shores. ‘Legends flourish in these borders between land and sea,’ we are told, and such places provide ‘a setting for some of the most beautiful, terrible, and memorable tales of folklore’.

Maps have been included at the start of each section in order to pinpoint the exact areas which the following text refers to. In each separate section, a host of different places have been incorporated, along with the legends, lore and tales which are believed to have originated in them. All are in alphabetical order, hence the first section on ‘South-West England & Channel Islands’ begins with Abbotsbury, Bideford, Bodmin and Boscastle, and the ‘North-East England’ section ends with entries about Skinningrove, Staithes, Whitby and York.

The legends and folklore which the authors have included have been taken from almost every period in the history of Britain and Ireland, and the stories which are so wonderfully evoked are both ancient and modern. These range from a tale originating in seventeenth-century Bristol regarding a ship believed to have been ‘infested with witches’, to the unexplained phenomenon of St. Elmo’s Fire in Norfolk; from Mrs Leakey, the whistling ghost of Minehead, to the legend of King Arthur’s sword; and from the tale of how the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland came to be, to the ‘drowned city’ of Dunwich in Suffolk. These stories, ranging from the amusing to the chilling, are incredibly well-balanced, and great care has been taken to ensure that no two similar events have been included. References are made to similar tales occurring in other parts of the United Kingdom, but there is an ingrained sense of astuteness on the part of the authors throughout to make certain that each tale can be viewed with the fresh eyes of the reader.

Not just legends and folklore people this volume. Double paged spreads dotted throughout reveal what we know and believe about such stories as Atlantis, The Flying Dutchman and smugglers and wreckers, as well as pages which explain the origins of figureheads and the naming of ships. Events of historical significance, findings from various archaeological digs, mythical creatures and the influence of sea gods upon ancient communities are all woven into the book, creating rather an astoundingly multi-layered volume. Various primary and secondary sources are referenced and quoted throughout the book, and the bibliography and list of references are both impressive in their scale in consequence.

The Fabled Coast is wonderfully set out. The headings are bold and the typeface throughout is consistent. Two sections of glossy pictures can be found in the book, most of which are in colour, and a whole host of black and white illustrations have also been placed next to the appropriate text throughout, adding a wealth of information to the stories they relate to.

Kingshill and Westwood’s book is a rich and far-reaching account, filled with exquisite historical detail. A lot of work has clearly been put into the volume and it is meticulous in its detail. The Fabled Coast is a must-read for anyone interested in folklore, the origins of British traditions and superstitions, or merely as our heritage as a nation. It is perhaps not a volume to read all in one go (as this reviewer did), but one to dip into here and there. Such a book is an incredible achievement, a vast collection of folklore and tradition which deserves to reach an extremely wide readership.

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