swings on an estate
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OPINION

Returning home, when home is a place where 4 in 10 children are deprived

Kerry Hudson felt rage, frustration and despair when she visited the towns she grew up in. But amid the pain, there were slivers of hope

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By Kerry Hudson on

When I arrived in London at 20, I knew I’d been given a second chance and I was voracious in seeking out the happiness I thought I’d been destined to be denied.   

That pursuit of happiness has informed everything I’ve done in the intervening 17 years. I asked myself two questions, “Am I being decent?” and “Will this make me happy?” The answers shunted me in and out of relationships and jobs, gave me courage to start threading words together, sent me to live in Buenos Aires, Berlin and Lisbon, and finally set up home in the Friendliest Place In The World, Liverpool.

It cultivated another character trait, too: I refused to acknowledge the hardships of those first 20 years. I became religiously, disingenuously optimistic – trying to see the best in all situations and all people. Put a big smile on it! Walk tall! Every challenge is a learning experience! Oprah would have been proud.

And it worked. It worked a treat. Enough for me to make the improbable journey from high-school drop-out to internationally published author to sending my thoughts direct to you, dear reader. It worked until last September, when I started writing Lowborn.

In early September, in a fit of ill-advised efficiency, I pinned up – manic Carrie Mathison-style – all 25 A4 pages of Lowborn’s book proposal on my bedroom walls. This meant that, each morning, I woke to a long list of all the difficulties I’d ever endured, staring me down as I read the headlines while eating my toast. And what headlines they were: deprivation, benefit policies that left families destitute, homelessness, women’s shelters threatened with closure. First came fury, then the slow burn of frustration, then despair, settling over me like a thick, heavy blanket. Perhaps it was because I knew those people. They were writing about my old neighbours and friends. They were writing about me 20 years ago.

For the rest of those days, I pulled myself back across the years and wrote about that little girl who knew she and her family were barely clinging on. I did it because that was my job. And, yes, I’d chosen it, I could see the value, but it was hard. I asked my partner, curled in his arms one day that no amount of strained, sunshine-y thinking could soothe, “Do you think this will make me strong and angry or just break me?” I was joking. But I also wasn’t.

I thought about the kindness of the people I’d met, of the sheer common-sense decency of seeing that something isn’t right and not just worrying or raging but actually doing

It was in this shadowy state of mind that I took my first trip back “home” to Coatbridge and Airdrie.

You probably don’t know much about Airdrie and Coatbridge, 30 minutes and a lifetime away from Glasgow. We lived first in Airdrie, when I was seven, and then in Coatbridge in my early teens. Each time, we found ourselves living in the most-deprived areas in the least-desired flats (top floors in towers where lifts didn’t work, houses with black mould still seething under a hasty slick of paint). My memories aren’t happy ones. Those areas are still some of the most deprived in the country, where four out of 10 children live in deprivation. I returned with gritted teeth and a dictaphone.

Kerry Hudson on a recent trip back home
 

It was a week of snow storms and amber alerts, the cold air full of the hush that heavy snowfall brings. My first stop was Coatbridge food bank. Angela and her volunteers welcomed me, offered tea, talked over each other, told me stories. When I asked why they volunteer, several replied, “We’ve all been there.” I refused lunch, much as I wanted to stay in their company, because in the reception area I heard a woman – older, very quiet – say, “Just anything. Any food you’ve got at all,” and I thought my heart might break.

I met Julie, a volunteer benefits adviser and grandmother who, after seeing a post on Facebook about a child not having a school uniform, found that child a uniform. Then she found hundreds of uniforms for other children, too. Galvanising the local community and partnering with Tesco, Cool School Uniforms aims to provide everything: underwear, shoes, winter coats, anything a child might need. I met Martin, who has devoted himself to campaigning against the exploitative, highly addictive, fixed-odds betting machines. Though half the high street is boarded up, and the population is just over 40,000, there are 19 betting shops in the area, with around four machines in each shop. A recovered addict himself, Martin told me of the brutal consequences of gambling addiction, though he didn’t need to – it was written all over his face. Next, I met Bill and Jane, organisers of Love N Light Recovery Cafe in Airdrie, set up to support not just those with addictions but their families, too, in a bid to break the cycle of dysfunction. Every year, they send families who wouldn’t otherwise get a break on retreats where they learn skills to help them recover. They also run a women’s group and 400 weekend cafes a year. All 25 staff are recovering addicts themselves. “We’ve been there”, Bill told me.

I asked them all, “What made you decide to do this?” They are, after all, just normal people with their own daily struggles. Each used different words to express the same sentiment, basically, “It was needed, so we did it”. I searched for signs of deserved pride as they spoke, but all I saw was decency, the very human response that if you could do something then you should.

After my last interview, I climbed up the hills from Airdrie’s tiny town centre towards tower blocks on the horizon. I hadn’t thought I’d remember where I lived, having had so many homes so young, but my feet carried me there automatically.

I walked through my old estate – the houses far worse for wear these days – by my old school, so much smaller than I remembered. I climbed a hill, shin-deep in snow, walking towards the blocks we lived in. Outside them, I stood by a rusty waist-high football goal I used to swing upside down on. My feet were soaked, my hands numb. I stared out at the estate. I knew how hard the lives of the people still living here could be; I remember well enough. I thought about the kindness of the people I’d met, of the sheer common-sense decency of seeing that something isn’t right and not just worrying or raging but actually doing. Of turning your own hardships into meaning and change. I smiled. I understood why I was there, how far I’d come and what I was writing Lowborn for.

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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