“How are you feeling?” The producer asks, camera pointed towards me in the back seat of the car as we slowly drive along a dilapidated street in Aberdeen. I feel nauseous recognition. I haven’t been back to this place in over 30 years: I spent my whole adulthood running from it. I feel as though I want to be anywhere else.
I’m being filmed for a documentary about hidden homelessness and this is the first research trip for my next book, Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns. The book will be part memoir, part travelogue around Britain’s poorest towns, part exploration of whether things are better or worse now for the communities I grew up in. The producers are warm and sympathetic but my heart gallops, and my body is coated with a sticky film of cold sweat under my smart “TV clothes”.
It’s not just performance anxiety. It’s the emotional and physical response to finally speaking up. I’ve written two novels inspired by my working-class upbringing but Lowborn will be my first nonfiction book, and this is an introduction to how exposing writing nothing but the truth will feel.
It’s not surprising that someone like me might find it frightening to speak up: I’ve seen women who do make themselves heard routinely threatened with rape, victim-shamed, poverty-shamed, fat-shamed, slut-shamed (the list goes on), and vulnerable communities ridiculed and blamed for their difficulties. For as long as I can remember, I’ve watched the media demonise poor, working-class women.
At home, growing up, I learned quickly that what happened within our house was something only to be spoken of between me, my mum, my sister, “within these four walls”. Slipping up and saying something seemingly innocent would result in rage, accusations of disloyalty, and threats of being given away to the care system.
I understand – and knew even then – that this was partly to protect us, an isolated single-parent family, in hostile environments where any discerned weakness might be exploited. But as I got older, I realised another implicit threat beneath this silencing: ask for the truth of your childhood to be acknowledged and that violent fury will be followed by the absolute withdrawal of love. And it will be your fault for not staying quiet in the first place.
All my life I have been conditioned to remain silent, to bury the worst of it. Throughout my twenties, even while working for charities that focused on child neglect and poverty, I stayed quiet about my own upbringing. Beyond the occasional drunken confidence, I couldn’t tell even my closest friends.
I speak about the dingy bed and breakfasts my family lived in, sleeping together in one flea-ridden bed. I talk about waiting hungrily for benefits day to roll around again
In this moment, sitting in front of the camera, I am reconciling with the idea that it isn’t wrong to say openly that my childhood was a hard one and that there are still children who live this way, who experience much of what I did, 30 years later.
I speak about the dingy bed and breakfasts my family lived in, sleeping together in one flea-ridden bed. I talk about slum flats, violent council estates and waiting hungrily for benefits day to roll around again. I try to describe the fear and the shame of not having a home. I recount the names we were called – scroungers, chavs, scavs, NEDS – how career-guidance advisors laughed at my wish to attend university. How I had more schools than I can count and I left education at 15 with no qualifications.
Many of the people I will speak to over the coming months, in Britain’s most forgotten communities, will recognise this life. They’ll feel, as I have often, that no one wants to hear their stories and the personal consequences of telling them will be dire, even if they might be heard. As Jeanette Winterson says in Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?, “…unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence will never be forgiven. He or she must learn to forgive him or herself.”
I thought long and hard before deciding to write Lowborn, and those sleepless nights helped me understand I’m doing this because I think people need to hear someone say “This really happened to me” before they will commit to trying to change things. Because I’m sick of the lazy, often grotesque portrayal of our poorest, and I refuse to give in to the bullies who say I should be silent because it’s in their best interest. I’m writing to create a dialogue, a greater empathy and understanding.
Of course, there is a part of me that is terrified of writing this book, but in a society where almost a third of children live in poverty, where domestic violence is seen as a lifestyle choice, where there is a rape clause attached to benefits, the urgency of speaking out, when people might actually listen, seems obvious.
As with all of my writing there is also a very personal motivation for writing Lowborn. I was fortunate, my life now is happier and more fulfilling than I could ever have hoped for, but the things left unspoken make themselves known in other ways. In my case they take the form of anxiety, night terrors, often crushingly low self-esteem. A part of you begins to feel, if this is wrong to talk about, then you might be to blame, guilty. But I know the way I grew up, the things that happened, happened because I was poor, vulnerable, a woman and unlucky. By refusing to stay quiet, by telling my own and others’ stories, I hope to find some freedom too.
Back in Aberdeen, the car pulls up outside the squat grey council building that used to be my home, 35 years ago, when I was a just wee thing. I still have bad memories of that time, a searing slideshow when I close my eyes. The producers film me further down the street; the estate around us is mostly boarded up awaiting demolition but there are still some toys scattered in front gardens. I stand under the cold blue sky and stare up at the window of my old home and I am not afraid. I’m grown now. I have a voice.
This blog is part of series written by Kerry Hudson as she researches her new book, Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns.