Thank you Kerry Hudson for baring all in this eloquently written yet gritty book. Abortions, homelessness, drink, drugs, violence, neglect, poverty, sexual assault and rape combined are all the ingredients of a poisonous cocktail, leading to devastating consequences for many, but luckily this remarkable author has lived to tell the tale, and what a tale it is.
Lowborn is Aberdeen-born Kerry Hudson’s first work of non-fiction. It is her own personal exploration of where she came from. She takes us on the journey of her turbulent childhood growing up in the 1980s and then revisits each place she lived, in the present day.
The book questions how much has changed within some of the country’s most challenging and impoverished areas.
Part of the book is about the author’s own quest to find out more about her own childhood – what went wrong, questions left unanswered, stones left unturned and demons left under the bed. What’s remarkable about the book, is the author’s going into the detail of the troubling things that happened to her as a tot, but also her ability to see the bigger picture: one girl’s bad experience in childhood is indicative of the country’s social problems of poor education, poor housing, and the everlasting ‘class divide’.
What is striking to me, is the length of the list of places that she lives, not to mention the randomness of the towns she moved between Aberdeen, Canterbury, Aidrdie, North Shields, Hetton-le-Hole, Coatbridge, and Great Yarmouth. She attended nine primary schools and five in secondary.
The list is nauseating. We know from research that lack of permanency in childhood can have a detrimental impact on that child for the rest of their life.
Hudson herself reflects on her lack of a permanent home and the stigma attached to it: ‘I don’t know why, of all the things I felt ashamed of as an adult, having been in foster care is the one that felt most taboo to speak about.’
We also know from literature and research into ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) that children with a high ACEs score are more likely to suffer poor health, education and employment outcomes later in life.
This book has been written at a time of great political and economic uncertainty in the UK and the author does not shy away from this. The facts are startling: a child from the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods is 18.5 times more likely than those in the least deprived area to be on child protection register; and in Scotland, kids from the poorest parts are 20 times more likely to end up in care.
You get an immediate sense of the author’s frustration and desperation at trying to fit the pieces of her childhood back together again. She has to search through her child protection files, contact an old relative on Facebook, reunite with a school friend, to make sense of it all.
In travelling up and down the country to her former life, Hudson is genuinely reliving her childhood and, at times, this provokes anxiety in her: ‘I was scared that everything that had made living there hard when I was a teen would still have the power to undo and undermine me now.’
Undeniably, writing can be therapeutic and restorative and Hudson is no exception here. She touches on this theme when she returns to Airdrie in 2018 and meets a community support group for addicts: ‘They get addicts to write their past down on a long scroll of paper and then throw it into a bonfire on the last night – writing is therapeutic.’
Lowborn also delves deep into the relationship the writer has with her mother, who she is now estranged from, and her mother’s relationship with her on-off partner Richie. Each time he re-enters their lives, he appears to be the cause of the family moving – a promise of something new and better – when in reality his presence just causes more uncertainty and instability.
Of her mother, she says: ‘More and more I was not her child but her partner. I listened and shared her troubles, looked after my sister, took on her grudges with people, carried and lifted and comforted her. I constantly worried about us all.’
In the process of writing the book, Hudson acknowledges that some of her own preconceptions change. In Motherwell, she meets a group of social workers – a professional group she was previously sceptical of describing them as: ‘do-gooders who were out to get you.’ She left the conversation with them with a newfound sense of respect for what they do.
Although the book does look at the bleak reality of an adverse childhood, there is a sense of optimism through the grime. Near the book’s end, the author returns to outside the house she was raped in and rather than this provoking further trauma, she explains that she feels nothing other than a strong sense that this part of her life is finally over.
Elsewhere in the book, when she returns to North Shields, she says: ‘Seeing the place, standing there as a grown woman, meant that I didn’t need to hold on to those feelings any more.’ It can be said that the ‘feelings’ Hudson describes here are of dread, of isolation and of being ‘lowborn’.
Hudson recognises that this is the book she almost never wrote, as it could have been too harrowing for her. But for us readers, I am glad that she has. She is part of a current generation of writers that are doing good in the world just now, not only in baring their all but also provoking discussion about the social issues that impact on us all.
Mike Findlay is book review editor at Psychreg. He is a Glasgow-based writer and communications professional. Connect with him @MikeFindMedia.