Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns by Kerry Hudson- A Review
Date Posted: Thursday 28th January 2021
Publisher: Vintage, 2019
Review by Heather Griffiths
This book has been looking at me from the shelf for some time now and I picked it up tentatively as I do with any book I am reviewing. What if it is really boring or I hate it? Although I am not sure if scholars can ever really hate a book, even if they are critical of the whole thing. After the first few lines of the introduction I realised Lowborn was not going to be boring and once I picked it up I could not put it down. Kerry’s writing is captivating and she builds a comfortable amount of suspense and intrigue as she develops her story.
It won’t be giving anything away to say it is a sad and very moving story. It is sometimes hard to remember that Kerry talks about real life, her life, and not a television drama series or documentary. It is powerful without being sensational and if anything, the book is filled with rather humdrum visits around the towns of Kerry’s past. Yet it is a wonderful example of how the everyday can be so fascinating and informative. It is easy to get lost in each little vignette, your senses humming as if you were there with her.
Sometimes these feelings sat uncomfortably and I wondered at times if this book was encouraging a voyeurism of being poor in modern Britain. I am still undecided about this but nevertheless I admire Kerry for her bravery in speaking out and exposing herself in this way.
For years, as a novelist who travels around the world, she has used other people’s assumptions to hide her true past and in the first few chapters, she talks about the visceral fear she felt about writing this book and putting her real and often traumatic life out there for all to see. The story chronicles Kerry’s struggles in reconnecting with her past and how this affects her ability to write, showing how writing and emotion are so intertwined.
This is cleverly done, as the chapters jump from past to present, documenting Kerry’s trips back to the towns and cities she grew up in, starting in Aberdeen (1981) where she was born and concluding in Great Yarmouth (1999) where she spent her formative teenage years. It was these later chapters that stuck with me as I think the thoughts and wants of teenage girls translate across all backgrounds, and Kerry is only a few years older than me so the cultural backdrop was all too familiar.
As an autobiographical account, Kerry is undoubtedly the protagonist of the story but the other main character is her mother with whom Kerry has had a very tumultuous relationship. They are now estranged but there are moments of tenderness between mother and daughter that cut through the coldness. We watch Kerry ride the highs and lows of their relationship and begin to realise the co-dependency that is at the core of this troubled bond. As Kerry herself explains in the book:
‘Our relationship was extremely intense simply because she was all alone and I felt I was at odds with everything and everyone around me. I wasn’t just her daughter- I was the only person she trusted in the world.’
Kerry later discovered her mother, and several other women in her immediate family, suffered from bipolar disorder and many of the men were found to have a ‘genetic disposition’ for schizophrenia. Kerry and her mother did not have much contact with the rest of her family, instead support came from her mothers’ boyfriends who Kerry portrays as unreliable and often cruel. Very often, Kerry and her mother would move to the next town or city based on the aspirations and promises of ‘Richie’ who was in and out of their lives for most of Kerry’s childhood.
Their arrival in North Shields in 1988 is typical of how these storylines played out. Kerry and her mother moved in with Ritchie in a small red-brick terrace, where they played chess in a house full of furniture and there was ‘a semblance of peace’. But after a while:
‘Richie was suddenly gone again and we had to leave that house and go and live in a B&B […] the other guests were largely older men. It was essentially a homeless shelter’
This insecure life saw Kerry start to suffer, much like her mother did, turning to drink, drugs and men for solace. What follows are emotional stories of troubled friends, destructive lifestyles and sexual assaults. But also glimmers of hope as Kerry starts college at 16 where she said she was ‘probably the happiest I’d ever been. I sensed a sort of opening up of the future.’ As it is for many children who have abandoned hope, Kerry’s inspiration and motivation came from a handful of good teachers who saw her worth and ability and encouraged her not to give up.
We know how this story ends but as Kerry would herself admit, she is one of a minority; no one else at the literary events she now attends grew up on benefits, living in B&Bs and wearing charity shop clothes. Lowborn is a powerful insight into the lives of so many children in the UK and although exploring her own ‘demons’, Kerry is giving these invisible and forgotten children a voice. By doing so, this book has sociological research principles at its core and although it may not be ‘scholarly’ by some standards, lessons ought to be learnt from Kerry’s experience and as such, Lowborn deserves a place on any undergraduate reading list.
Heather Griffiths is a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the Centre for Diversity Research and Practice, Oxford Brookes University.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Women’s Budget Group.