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26 June 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 1:17pm

Why literary writing should celebrate working-class culture

By Frank Cottrell-Boyce

There’s a haunting story by Leon Garfield about a clerk who sells seven years of his own life to a satanic old gent for a million pounds. But as soon as the money comes, the clerk realises that the years he’s sold are not ahead of him. He has sold his childhood, and with it his deepest and dearest hopes and desires. He has money but can’t imagine why he ever wanted it. I remembered this story when reading Kerry Hudson’s incisive, often gut-wrenching, minutely observed memoir Lowborn.

Hudson revisits the towns where she spent her chaotic, nomadic childhood in an attempt to find the abused, bewildered little girl she used to be. She has kept this girl hidden all these years, because – as she puts it – although she is always proud of being working class, she’s never been proud of being poor. That is not surprising given that being poor for Hudson involved remembering not to put your hand down the back of the couch in case of dirty needles, washing in fairy liquid in a B&B where the shower was 20p a go, and ultimately being vulnerable to rape and abuse.

Bleak as it sounds, Lowborn is the opposite of a misery memoir. The chapters alternate between Hudson’s raw memories and accounts of her present-day attempts to confront them. There’s warmth and courage as well as pain and ultimately triumph here. The opening lines are “Shall we start with the happy ending? I made it. I escaped. I rose.” Lowborn is a big hit: Radio 4 book of the week, selling well and sure to win lots of well-deserved prizes.

In the course of publicising it, Hudson wrote a piece in the Guardian asking where all the working-class writers had gone. One quick answer might be that they all got together to create Common People, a carnival of an anthology that puts new voices alongside established names. It’s a terrific – hopefully game-changing – book, beautifully produced by Unbound. You might expect the established names to phone it in for a worthy project like this, but Kit de Waal has somehow managed to get many of them to do something new and challenging.

There’s a fierce poem from Malorie Blackman. Alex Wheatle’s “Dear Nobody” concentrates the themes of Hudson’s book down to a single sudden sucker-punch. Damian Barr’s account of being fitted for a new school uniform will be anthologised forever. Among the new names is a wonderful piece by Loretta Ramkissoon – her first time in print – about how to get a coffin out of a high-rise flat. Despite its possibly macabre theme, “What Floor?” is a substantial, hopeful work. As is Stuart Maconie’s “Little Boxes”, which celebrates the good values he learned – and good times he had – growing up on a big estate in Wigan. It takes its title from the nauseating Pete Seeger-Malvina Reynolds song; like Maconie I remember being hit by a mixture of embarrassment and defensive fury the first time I heard that. 

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Reading his piece brought home to me how rare it is to read literary fiction in which working-class communities are anything but places – to use Hudson’s words – to rise out of or escape from. Of course Kerry Hudson wanted to escape. Her life was dominated by terrifyingly unpredictable adults. But that’s not necessarily a class thing. The harrowing scene in Lowborn where the grown-ups start chucking biscuits round in a game that suddenly turns nasty on the child would play just as well in an Edward St Aubyn novel. It’s interesting that Hudson’s equally cracking novel – Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma – did not do as well as this memoir, despite dealing with the same experiences. Memoirs are different from fiction: they are evidence. It seems to have been easier for the book world to accommodate Hudson as a sociological specimen than as an artist. Strangely, the success of Lowborn underestimates her as a writer, and erases the distinction she was so careful to make between being poor and being working class.

The toxic atmosphere around Brexit has re-energised a contempt for working-class communities. They are now presented either as hotbeds of idiotic bigotry or as helpless victims queuing at the food banks. It’s not often noticed that many food banks – such as the innovative Fur Clemt in Wigan – have deep roots in those same communities. Or that it’s by and large working-class communities who are hosting immigrants and asylum seekers. The centre for asylum seekers where I volunteer is housed in the presbytery of one of the poorest parishes in Liverpool. This is not to take anything away from Lowborn’s well-deserved success. But I do wish the book didn’t carry a cover quote from Jack Monroe, saying that it will help readers to “really understand the complexities of being born working class in Britain”.

Hudson’s book, however, is politically important in a wider sense. Part of its grace, part of what saves it from being a misery memoir, is the care it takes to highlight the stepping stones of kindness and good will – the concerned teacher, the understanding librarian – that ultimately got her through these terrible times. Libraries – and safe public spaces generally – crop up too in many of the pieces in Common People. These are the very stepping stones that have been rooted out and tossed aside by austerity.

When Hudson asked her question about where the working-class writers were, she attracted a certain amount of heat on social media, and a list of writers of working-class origin who were doing very well in TV, film and genre fiction. One of the towns she visits is Coatbridge, birthplace of Mark Millar who – as the man who created Kick-Ass and rebooted the Marvel universe – is arguably one of the most successful writers on the planet. Nearly all of the writers named in response to Hudson’s question were proud of their roots and some – Millar for one – have stayed close to them. But not all have written about them. It’s hard to defend what you don’t celebrate.

Yes, Kerry Hudson’s childhood was extreme and unrepresentative. But if those of us who benefited from living in warm, supportive communities where cousins popped in and out, and the library was always open and the playing fields were well-used, don’t acknowledge our debt, then maybe Hudson’s kind of past will be a normal kind of future. 

Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns
Kerry Hudson
Chatto & Windus, 256pp, £14.99

Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers
Edited by Kit de Waal
Unbound, 400pp, £9.99

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This article appears in the 26 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Restraining order