Kerry Hudson: 'I don't want to be the poster girl for social mobility'
The first time I attempt to interview Kerry Hudson things don’t pan out too well. Cancelled trains and crossed wires mean we inadvertently stand each other up then spend the rest of the day emailing endless apologies. The second time I am ill and have to cancel. On the third attempt we have far more success.
Hudson is, by her own admission, “a pleaser” and when we meet in a café in a converted Glasgow city centre church that is certainly on display. She is as sparkly as the lights that adorn what was once said church’s altar and, though I was just as responsible for our previous attempts to meet being aborted, she is happy – insistent even – that all the blame be heaped on her. The suggestion that I might pick up our tab is completely out of the question.
That part of her nature has created problems for Hudson in the past, she says, particularly after Lowborn, the memoir that propelled her into public consciousness, was published in 2019. Subtitled ‘Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns’, the book details her own chaotic childhood, which was shaped by her mother’s fractured mental health and punctuated by poorly planned moves from one poverty-stricken part of the UK to another in search of a hoped-for but never-found better life. Though Hudson shares huge amounts of her family story in the book – and also fictionalises that story in her first novel, Tony Hogan bought me an ice-cream float before he stole my ma – she says telling interviewers she didn’t want to discuss individual family members was difficult.
“I had a blanket rule when doing live radio where I said I wouldn’t talk about my mother or sister or father because I had chosen every word in Lowborn so carefully – I was able to think about it and make sure it was exactly what I meant,” she says.
“That was hard for me because I’m definitely a pleaser, but it was good because it prevented me from having difficult conversations with strangers. It was also about the ethics of writing about your own life. […] How do you square what’s your story and what belongs to other people? I took a tonne of things out of the book. My partner read it. He’s as neutral as you can be – he’s like Switzerland. I asked him to tell me where things didn’t belong to me, and I’d take them out and change names, but I am also a firm believer that if you have a story it’s yours to tell and it’s important to be able to do that.”
In adulthood, Hudson’s life has changed immeasurably from the one she describes in the novel and memoir. She has been estranged from both parents for many years and, in her relationship with her husband Peter, has found the kind of stability that was lacking in her childhood. The pair are now parents to a two-year-old son born in pandemic-era Prague, where they moved temporarily following the success of Lowborn. The family has recently relocated to Glasgow, where Peter’s mother hails from and where they want their child to grow up. Having both worked as freelancers for many years, Peter recently secured a permanent job while Hudson writes a regular column for the Press and Journal, is writer-in-residence for Paisley Book Festival and in the new year will take up a full-time creative writing post at the University of Glasgow. With a home in the trendier part of Glasgow’s south side, her life now appears to be decidedly middle class.
Yet the impact of an upbringing marred by poverty, instability, hunger and neglect looms large, and is something Hudson has chosen to address in her next book, a memoir that looks at how you learn to mother – how you learn to function in relationships and in life – when you’ve never really been shown.
“I’ve just finished the latest book – I’m handing it in in January,” Hudson says. “It’s another memoir, about our time in Prague and pregnancy and early motherhood and finding out I had a one in 5,000 illness [Hudson recently had surgery to deal with the effects of a rare autoimmune illness that was restricting her breathing]. It’s about how you mother when you don’t have good role models. I found it really nourishing and hopeful to write because every negative thing I experienced as a child, I decided I’d do exactly the opposite – I’d give him a stable place to live and always give him enough of what he needed. I grew up with two parents with pretty severe mental health problems. I know it’s important to model that you are stable and happy. Coming from the background I did has made me a less-neurotic parent because I know how resilient children are. It’s an optimistic book. It’s about moving through what can be a difficult time and finding a lot of joy in what are often very difficult experiences for people.”
The idea for the book was partly germinated by a review Lowborn received on Amazon, where the reader responded to the part where Hudson says she wants to become a mother by urging her never to have a child. She had been searingly honest about childhood experiences that were entirely outwith her own control and they had used that to pre-judge and pigeonhole her. It is, she says, a perception people from poorer communities continually come up against. She feels it is her responsibility to use her platform to help change that perception – to show those who have judged her that they were wrong and to show those from similar backgrounds not just that their stories deserve to be heard but that it is them, not the society that judges them, that have the right to determine how those stories evolve.
“I really believe in the term ‘if you can’t see it you can’t be it’,” she says. “There’s something about visibility and that’s why I keep banging on about my background, the working class and the fact I left school early, had a tumultuous time in my teens and had mental health problems in my 20s. It’s important for people to see that the outcome can be different. People are very quick to tell you this is how it’s going to be. People project what you’re going to be because of their perceptions. I do think it’s really important to be visible. I’ve spent a lot of my time trying to be as visible as I can about all those complex things.
“When Lowborn came out I said I really don’t want to become the poster girl for social mobility because I was just lucky – I left behind 20 others who were just as smart and capable as I was and who could have done the same things. I feel at this stage I could write about or talk about anything I want to – I feel I’m in a real position of privilege, especially in this climate – but I also think it’s really important that working class writers are seen writing about this stuff.”
When Lowborn came out I said I really don’t want to become the poster girl for social mobility because I was just lucky – I left behind 20 others who were just as smart and capable as I was and who could have done the same things
It is a theme she will explore when she takes up the teaching post at Glasgow University and one she is already working on in Paisley. The book festival takes place in February next year and Hudson is working with children, the elderly and people with mental health problems to help them tell their stories in a meaningful way. Though the Paisley post is just for three months, she hopes the legacy of the work will be far longer lived, knowing first-hand how it feels to be part of deprived communities that have resources thrown at them then swiftly pulled away when the focus of the ‘help’ shifts elsewhere.
“In Paisley I’m co-producing a community-based project around the theme of rebel and remake,” she says. “I’m working with three organisations across a broad spectrum. I suspect one of the reasons I was chosen is because of my own background – I can relate to a lot of the people I’ll speak to. My body of work speaks to that. People from backgrounds like mine have lots of talent and lots of humour but are often never given the same avenues to express them or are not told they can claim that space. Because I’m from that background there’s a physical example that you should take that space and what you have to say does have value.
“We’re looking at themes of home, identity, rebellion, doing fiction writing and non-fiction. I hope to do a showcase of all the writing and I want it to be sustained after it’s done because I know from living in council estates that people come and do lovely work then they leave but the people are still there.”
Having started life in Aberdeen, Hudson has unhappy memories of council estates in everywhere from Great Yarmouth and North Shields to Airdrie and Coatbridge. Yet despite what she experienced in those places, she sees her move to Glasgow as a homecoming of sorts. “I’ve travelled all around the world and ended up 30 minutes from my old estate in Coatbridge – there’s something really lovely about that, it feels like home”.
That sense is helped in no small part by her belief that, no matter how bleak life is for so many people across the UK right now, in Scotland things are marginally less bad.
“I feel really grateful that we came back to Scotland,” she says. “I know there’s deprivation but I do have a sense that it’s a more competent government here [than in the UK]. They are aware and want to tackle things. If we were living back down in England, as we almost did, things would be different. I think it’s a good thing we didn’t because we would have known that we were living in a country where the government is actively hostile to poor people.
“Every government has a responsibility for what happens, but broadly I can see the [Scottish Government] is a government that is trying to address inequalities. They’re not perfect by any means but what I see is a government trying to do their best.”
Political activism sits at the heart of Hudson’s writing and since coming to Glasgow she and Peter have joined groups in the city’s south side that support striking workers and promote immigration rights. Having returned to the UK earlier this year, she says the country has been on a “pretty wild political ride” since and notes the similarities between the current climate and the one her family struggled to survive in in the Thatcher-era Britain of the 80s and on into the 90s.
“I’m amazed there aren’t riots, not just strikes,” she says. “I don’t understand why people aren’t out on the streets all the time saying this is just unacceptable. It’s been pushed too far. At this point we’ve got nurses not able to afford to feed their children or themselves so I’m really glad to see the strikes, I fully support them. I, of course, will be joining a union as soon as I join the University of Glasgow. I really hope people will support these strikes. I’m in a bit of a bubble because the people around me support it. People can see that what’s happened is we’ve been ridden roughshod over by the Tories. I lived in a Northumbrian mining town just as the pits were closing and there’s a familiarity to it. I feel like everyone is politically aware now. Everyone has something to say and that’s one of the very few positives about the situation. There’s lots more political engagement, particularly from young people. That offers some form of hope.”
The fight for Scottish independence is the political campaign she believes sits on top of all the others and is one she intends to become fully engaged with as the path to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘de facto referendum’ becomes clear. We meet before the Supreme Court hands down its ruling that Sturgeon’s government cannot press ahead with a straightforward second vote, but Hudson says that independence and, crucially, giving the people of Scotland the right to choose is something she feels “really passionately about”.
“Last time, I had a really big argument with someone who said he felt people who studied economics at Oxford knew better about what people needed than people who were living in Coatbridge,” she says. “My belief has always been that the people who are closer to the challenges understand the solutions. I believe an independent Scotland could be a really incredible thing for my son.”
Her son has just turned two and was recently enrolled in nursery. Having been born in a foreign country during a pandemic, he, his mum and his dad have spent huge amounts of time together, just the three of them, during those first two years. My meeting with Hudson marks a rare opportunity for her to spend a bit of time alone. She plans to take full advantage, even if it’s just for an hour, and so she pays the bill, we hug our goodbyes and she heads off to explore the shops in the centre of the city she and her family have chosen to call home.