The timing of the release of Kerry Hudson’s Lowborn couldn’t have been better, hitting the shelves just days after the cancellation of The Jeremy Kyle Show. In a show that made its name by fetishizing and dehumanizing the working classes, Kyle pitted some of the most vulnerable people in society against one another without taking responsibility for the lives he was exploiting. For some, the programme became a true representation of Britain’s working classes. So, there’s something quite wonderful about this memoir, which speaks of the real challenges faced by some of the poorest people in society, emerging just as Kyle’s empire is crumbling.
In the publishing world, at least from a grassroots level, there has been a recent upsurge of interest in working-class narratives. Anthologies of working-class writing, like Dead Ink Books’ Know Your Place and the recent Kit de Waal-edited Common People recognising the validity of these stories and Lowborn feels like an important part of that upsurge.
Hudson’s book takes us through her childhood, her years spent ricocheting back and forth between Scotland and England, experiencing life in care, neglect and assault, periodically bringing us back into the present day, where she sifts through it all. There is already something very disembowelling about interrogating ones past experiences but it’s another thing altogether to return to the areas where those experiences took place and deal with the resultant tremors, and this is where the strength of this book lies. To accompany Hudson as she revisits the towns and estates where she grew up and experience her sense memory along with her, drawing out things she had forgotten and buried, is powerful and at times distressing to anyone with a decent sense of empathy.
That said, Lowborn is never mawkish or oversentimental, it doesn’t milk Hudson’s experience. It’s unflinching but it does not dwell. In some hands, the passages about her parents mutually shirking their responsibilities for her when she was an infant, pushing her back and forth across a table in a game of “baby ping-pong” would be played for every note of sadness. But Hudson manages to press ahead into her story, these challenging sorts of images allowed to linger in her wake. There is no poor me attitude here, no romanticising of life on the lower rungs of society. Hers is by turns a story of struggle and rootlessness but ultimately of survival and escape, beating the odds and getting out of a world where opportunities are scarce.
Hudson is at pains to point out that she is one of the lucky ones, aware that she could easily be one of the people she sees around her old haunts. Were it not for the teachers who were supportive, the generosity of people who themselves did not have much to give, she may not have made it out at all. For some, trapped by a lack of opportunities and mobility, this is it. You don’t encounter a chance and then you’re done.
As a reader from a working-class background, parts of this book can be rattling, though quite how much really depends on your life experience. For me it was focus on those small desires, close but just out of financial reach. On the hand-me-down clothes that never quite fitted and on the better-dressed school kids who loudly noticed them. If your childhood fantasies ever involved a modest future where you could one day treat yourself to a new pair of jeans or a Vienetta without having to worry about unpaid bills, you will not fail to be moved by this book.
Reaching the end of Lowborn, I was reminded of Kintsugi, the Japanese ceramic repair technique, where damaged pottery is reassembled, the cracks repaired with precious metals, making the flaws into a notable part of the history of the object rather than something to hide. Similarly, Hudson acknowledges the qualities that her life experience has gifted her, if gifted is the right word, not necessarily suggesting those experiences were essential but that they are nonetheless now a part of her. And there are more stories like hers to be told. Other lowborn voices ready to be heard. Given the success of this book (deliciously, it’s already outperforming Jacob Rees-Mogg’s) it feels like we may be experiencing a sea change, shifting away from the notion that working-class stories are only fodder for misery memoirs and exploitative TV and into a future where they are as valid as any other.
Adam Farrer is a humorist, creative nonfiction writer and spoken word performer based in Manchester. His work can be found at BBC Online, This Is Not TV, The MagPi, The Drabble, Squawk Back, MacGuffin, Flashflood and in the anthology of comic essays ‘Flash Nonfiction Funny’. He is the inaugural Writer in Residence for Peel Park, Salford. He tweets as @AdamJFarrer and occasionally updates a blog, AdamFarrer.co.uk