Person in woolly hat on snowy road
Photo: Ashim D'Silva 

OPINION

“Poor” remains in your marrow – it can’t be outgrown

As she looks back on her childhood, Kerry Hudson realises the impact poverty has had on her present – and that of so many other women

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By Kerry Hudson on

When I wrote my first blog for The Pool, I expected online skirmishes, hot-take smart-arsery, maybe the occasional Twitter troll. I didn’t expect to be given a gift that would help me to write Lowborn.

They arrived over the course of a week, Twitter DMs and emails. Though each woman’s message was different, a common thread stitched our stories together. They’d grown up poor and struggling, still endure aftershocks of that past reverberating through their newly built, better present and they’ve told barely a soul about it their whole lives.

Each woman apologised for the intrusion, but I was grateful. The messages moved me. I felt heartsore and proud of us all, as though we’d grown up together. Just as the #MeToo movement had helped me feel less isolated, so these strangers’ stories did, too.

I know they’ll also have spent years sidestepping questions about their past, recrafting or redacting most or all of the first few decades of their lives. They’ll have analysed, learnt and adapted, making themselves into a shape that would fit in a world very different from the one they grew up in.

They also struggle to sleep through the night and think of people they grew up with who weren’t as lucky. Like me, they might have softened their sharper edges. I used to be mouthy, full of bravado, bitchy if required – useful qualities when sexual value is often the only one attributed to you. My very first lesson in adulthood, outside the council estates I grew up on, was that I should be “nice”. Smile, stay calm, never “make a scene” or have my cover blown.

I suspect those women who have contacted me also see a young mum at the supermarket checkout and will know, just from the way she places her items on the conveyor belt, that she’s done sums in her head all the way around the aisles, terrified in case she doesn’t have enough in her purse. Those women will kindly look away to save her embarrassment because they know that’s what they would want in her place.

They’ll have spent their adulthood gulping down hot fury as people, mouths twisted like they’ve tasted something bad, casually spit out words like “chav” and “scrounger”.

If, like me, those women ended up with partners who had comfortable childhoods, they’ll have navigated their early relationship patiently translating their childhood, “No, I didn’t ski”, “No, we never ate out”, “No, that’s when I was in care”, “No, I never went to prom. I didn’t even finish school.”

And still, your partner will never fully understand why you ridiculously refuse to use a voucher in a restaurant or carry an Aldi bag. Why you’ll buy only the cheapest of everything, but have the heating on full blast and constantly overfill the fridge. How, no matter what your bank balance is, you’ll redo your budget not monthly, or even weekly, but daily. How it doesn’t matter how far you’ve come, “poor” remains in your marrow – it’s not something to be outgrown or outrun. God knows, you’ve tried.

I stare at grainy pictures of the blocks of flats we lived in, now demolished, and can’t believe that names like ‘social housing’ or ‘home’ were given to such destitute places

It’s these women I think of as I wake at 6.30am to write. A new habit, developed to trick my most closely guarded memories into focus while my mind is still half-asleep. I write everything as true as I can, compartmentalising the painful, raw parts into those earliest hours.  

For the rest of the day, I scrabble about for clues from the past and present. I plot my route from Aberdeen to Kent, a zigzag down the country, planning research trips to towns I never wished to see again. I book coach tickets because that’s how my family made those long, nauseous journeys 30 years ago and, besides, I’m a writer, not a millionaire. I spend hours poring over Google Street View trying to find the houses I grew up in. I interview charity workers doing exceptional things in the towns of my youth but who, truly, sound tired and angry that things are actually getting worse. I stare at grainy pictures of the blocks of flats we lived in, now demolished, and can’t believe that names like “social housing” or “home” were given to such destitute places. I call to request my child-protection records with my heart thumping in my throat. Every two weeks, I go and see a therapist to talk over the long shadows cast during those early mornings' writing.

This is not my first book, but writing Lowborn, this strange inhabiting of my past, is entirely different to anything else. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t often fighting to get it right and frightened of failing not just myself, but the many others I hope to speak for, too. I’m not a trained journalist, academic or sociologist. Speaking to strangers on the phone terrifies me. After all, I used to spend my days with made-up characters. I’m learning as I go.

When I falter, when that inevitable inner critic gnaws away, it is those women and their stories I return to. I remember that I can do this because we share another common thread stitching us together: we’re strong as fuck. We’ve not only overcome the barriers every woman faces each day but also the many obstacles that exist for those who grew up deprived of the most basic things we’d wish for our own children. We strive when everything says we shouldn’t – even that voice in our heads.

I respond to each of the women as though they are friends since they probably know me better than many of mine. I tell them, the women who haven’t told anyone how they grew up, that writing about my childhood has helped me more than anything else. I say I’m glad they have good lives now. I thank them for sharing their story, for reminding me why I should keep on writing even when it’s hard. Then, I sit down and write. Piecing together fragments, connecting clues, relying on everything my upbringing gave me to do their stories, and mine, justice.

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.

@thatkerryhudson

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Photo: Ashim D'Silva 
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