“I am proudly working class but I was never proudly poor”, writes novelist Kerry Hudson in the introduction to her new memoir. An account of her childhood, spent between foster homes, B&Bs and nine different primary schools across England and Scotland, Lowborn offers a visceral, moving insight into the grinding reality of poverty. And with one-fifth of the UK population living in poverty, this book should be required reading.
When we arrived in Airdrie, if I fell, if I was hungry, if I was scared, if I was excited by something, I still ran to my mum. But once we moved into our flat it felt like I had been given glasses and the things that had seemed indistinct, the things that I could only make out the vague shape of, suddenly became clearer too. The glasses had an imperfect prescription because I still couldn’t understand the detail, the construction, the composition of things, but nonetheless I started realising that everything was not OK. That perhaps Mum wouldn’t simply always protect me. In fact, I might need to protect her.
Our new flat was at the top of one of the many tower blocks in Balquider Court in Holehills, which was surrounded by places with names like Thrashbush. ‘Hellholes,’ my mum used to say, ‘Thrushbush!’ and she’d throw her head back and laugh while Richie sat stony-faced removing a speck of tobacco from his tongue with those big fingers of his. Something else he wanted was his woman to be ‘ladylike’.
While writing this, I found an archive picture of Balquider Court and the concrete bin house next door that I can still smell – something animal, mulchy, dying in my nostrils. The blocks are smaller than I remember. Not the high high-rises of my memory, grey fingers reaching to the sky, but lumpen buildings, perhaps only six or seven storeys.
Our flat smelled of fresh paint and old smoke from the fire which had displaced the previous tenants and given us somewhere to live. Mum didn’t want to take it, so, for reassurance, Richie nailed a huge coil of orange nylon rope to the wall by the window.
‘How will that work?’ Mum asked.
‘We throw down blankets, mattresses, use the rope.’
‘We’ll kill ourselves.’
Richie turned to me smiling. ‘A few broken bones never hurt anyone.’
The flat felt fairly big, after Grannie Pat’s and the other place, but no one wanted that flat at the top of a block where the lifts never worked and with the bin house right on your doorstep. The lift was graffitied and smelled of piss. One of the landings always smelled of disinfectant and I feel sad to think of the woman, for it was surely a woman, who came out each day with her bucket desperately trying to hold back the deterioration of the building and the area around her.
Boys would go into the bin house with old tennis bats and planks of wood and whack away at the little birds that nested in the rafters. Mum used to go down and shout at them. I was so proud of her for that, I thought she was so brave. Richie never moved from his chair and his little knee-high table laid out with his cigarette papers, tobacco, his Buckfast drank from a tiny glass like it was a fine French wine.
Extract from Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns (Chatto, £14.99). Buy a copy here.