With the UK general election looming, there has been renewed interest in the effects of years of austerity measures on poor and working-class people. It seems clear that inequality has increased and more and more people rely on food banks and charities to provide the basics. Many children live in poverty, and households cannot heat their homes in winter. Homelessness has been on the rise. Special features in publications such as the Guardian and documentaries like Growing up Poor have made all of this visible.
Yet even though these articles and documentaries include the stories of those affected, they seem to be created for the middle-class reader and viewer, people who are much less likely to have experienced poverty. They view working-class lives from a distance. But two new memoirs written by working-class women offer insights into poverty and hardship from a more intimate perspective. Kerry Hudson’s Lowborn tells her story of growing up in poverty in the 1980s and 1990s, and Cash Carraway’s Skint Estate relays her more recent experience of living hand-to-mouth as a working-class single parent. These first-person narratives seem to be written for working-class readers, who know how easy is it to slip from getting by to not affording the rent or bills. Such readers will find plenty in these books to recognise, empathise with and get angry about.
Lowborn jumps between Hudson’s early life moving around with her mother from Scotland to the south of England, back to the north, and then ending up in the east of England. She experienced huge disruption to her schooling and a dysfunctional family life. There is a sense throughout the book that Hudson, now a successful author who lives a mostly middle-class life, comes to terms with her childhood poverty. She returns to her childhood homes to recall in detail the experience and effects of poverty and to reconcile with her past. This is not a romantic journey. Her mother did not cope, and at times, Hudson was taken into care by the state. Their relationship was difficult, and they remain estranged, but through the process of writing the book, Hudson finds commonalties and closeness with some of her extended family.
What is striking when reading this book are the small details that working-class readers will recognise: the mad dash from her council flat down to the ice-creak van with a few pence in hand to buy the cheapest treat available, trips across the country on National Express coaches (rail travel was a real luxury), and the sheer delight of occasional fancy foods such as pop and mini-sausage rolls. While the more extreme experiences of being homeless, living in B&Bs, surviving neglect and abuse might not be as common, the working-class reader is likely to have lived in close proximity to families like Hudson’s.
The book also reveals how Hudson and her mother were let down by various institutions and individuals (especially the men in her mother’s life) and how the effects of being left behind accumulate and wear people down. The book includes stories of substance abuse and self-harm, which seem to be symptoms of poverty and life-long disadvantage. Ultimately, Hudson reclaims her working-class origins, but she also shows how the stigma of growing up poor can harm.
In Skint Estate, Cash Carraway also writes about working-class life from the perspective of a working-class adult experiencing poverty and homelessness. Where Hudson’s memoir is serious and reflective, Carraway’s is reflective but also very funny, written in a bawdy and abject working-class voice. Carraway is not afraid to include the graphic and gory details of life when poor, but she also writes about her experiences with sex work, the various privately-rented slums that she lived in while pregnant and with a small child in hilarious detail. This is not gratuitous poverty-porn. Instead, she uses humour as an effective tool to highlight the struggle and show how working-class women survive. She employs razor sharp, incisive observation and brings the reader completely into her world. The working-class reader can feel at home here, and the middle-class reader may feel slightly squeamish.
Lowborn and Skint Estate do not offer stories of happy working-class childhoods, and while the representation of dysfunction is necessary, I’d also like to read working-class memoirs that show how love, affection, and solidarity can hold working-class families and communities together. I’d also like to see more memoirs that represent the diversity of working-class experience across race and ethnicity, religion and ability. The collection of short pieces, Common People, edited by Kit de Waal, does do this and is also a must-read.
Hudson’s and Carraway’s books are important, timely books. They bring the reality of working-class life and the effects of poverty into sharp focus at a time when the UK is deciding whether to prevent five more years of austerity measures. They also feature the voices of working-class women. Working-class women are often represented only as victims (if they are considered to be part of the deserving poor) or as uncouth, loud, and obnoxious if they dare to speak out and resist. Hudson and Carraway show that working-class women’s stories are powerful, and the understanding they bring of class and its intersections with gender are valuable and make for page-turning reads.
Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney, editor Journal of Working-Class Studies