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.
Hudson ‘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.