Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns
by Kerry Hudson
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. Always on the move with her single mother, Kerry attended nine primary schools and five secondaries, living in B&Bs and council flats. She scores eight out of ten on the Adverse Childhood Experiences measure of childhood trauma.
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, revisiting the towns she grew up in to try to discover what being poor really means in Britain today and whether anything has changed. She also journeys into the hardest regions of her own childhood, because sometimes in order to move forwards we first have to look back.
Lowborn is a memoir that received a lot of praise in 2019, which I think is entirely deserved. It’s quite unlike any other memoir I’ve read, in that I can actually see a life I’m familiar with, and that my parents and grandparents actually lived.
The memoir is written almost in chronological dual-timelines: one chapter will have Kerry recounting her life in a city, usually a focus on her housing and school experience, before jumping forward to her now as she returns there as an adult. You’re seeing it through two different eyes– that of a child, and that of an adult– and it never feels like Kerry loses her voice when she reflects.
It’s an effective writing style, recalling how she felt in a place as a child, before she examines her life as an adult and comments on so many things that were wrong that she couldn’t have picked up on as a child. Sometimes it feels as if, in their memoirs, authors are judging their younger selves for not noticing issues and cycles of abuse, but Kerry avoids that blame.
Kerry Hudson is incredible at capturing how a younger version of herself felt, too. Even though you know where she is now, her childhood feels real and current, and that’s what goes along so well with the discussions of poverty. It’s also very honest in how she addresses belonging, and how displaced she continues to feel as an adult because of her childhood, and ‘being born poor’. Kerry’s honesty about such personal information makes you feel connected to her.
When she writes about her lack of contact with her mum, and, by extension, most of her family, many people expressed confusion about why she didn’t go into more detail on the why she severed contact. But I feel like the reason is already on all the pages.
I have family who grew up poor and working class in Britain, who distanced themselves from family over time, not because they were changing, but because, sometimes, family refuses to. And, just like you need to call it quits with friends who are toxic and use you, time and time again, family can do the same. ‘Blood is thicker than water’ is a saying I can’t help but cringe at, as that saying is why so much abuse continues to occur. It may not appear like it on the surface to some people, but for me, I understood why she made the decision she did.
While my life is unrecognisable today, I find myself unable 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 on its own that, in me, has endured well beyond my ‘escape’.
The places Kerry lived as a child are still home to people struggling day to day. There are children now who are having similar experiences that Kerry had. And still, little is done to combat it. Those who were privileged enough to not experience it, tend not to talk about it, and so often those are the people with the money to reach high places and actually put plans into action beyond perpetuating harmful stereotypes against working class people.
Upon reading this book, I became very passionate about the presence of libraries, especially in poorer areas, where they are more likely to be closed. Libraries offer a haven to people of all ages, some who are homeless, others who may not be able to afford heating during Winter months, children whose parents have to work and therefore need somewhere safe to stay.
Libraries are an educational tool for people who may not be able to afford to buy books or afford a computer. Shutting those libraries down, or not giving them the funding to open for longer hours, means these people lose out on a safe space, and a space to learn without fearing judgement of teachers.
I don’t know how to thank you, but I’ll try. Thank you for saving my life before I knew it needed saving. Thank you for understanding that books can be like medicine and therapy, and while they can’t transport you to a calmer home, they can make that home much more bearable. Thank you for knowing, too, that sometimes people haven’t come for the books at all.
Kerry Hudson’s Lowborn is an emotional look into the traumas of childhood, the things we bury just under the surface until we feel ready to dig them up and address them. It’s about class, and how, no matter where you find yourself later on in life, when you grow up poor, you never forget what that feels like.
Content warning: Rape and sexual assault, child neglect, drug addiction, alcoholism, some violence
If you liked this review, you might like:
🍎Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson
🍎The Trouble With Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
🍎Shame Is An Ocean I Swim Across by Mary Lambert
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