Don’t call it poverty porn
(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)   

Cash Carraway is a single mother, with a strikingly direct and witty writing style, who has been through most experiences that the wringer of British poverty has to offer: unaffordable private rents, dirty and damp-ridden social housing, disintegrating women’s refuges, low-paid and unreliable jobs, sneering judgements, food shortages, despair and suicidal thoughts. Throughout, she has retained a vital spark and, in her memoir Skint Estate, a writer’s acute eye for fresh incongruities.

When she was pregnant with her daughter Biddy, and on the run from her abusive former boyfriend, for example, she worked in a seamy Soho peep-show. Numerous clients took a perverse pleasure in ogling her expanding, naked form (the author spares us no gruelling detail: one particularly charmless crack-head barked the instructions: “Turn around and spread. I want to see that baby’s head”.)

Just as the reader is reeling from the crudity of the clientele, Carraway – as ever – complicates things with details of the unexpected. The day before she is due to leave to have her baby, the peep-show boss and other girls unveil a surprise: a baby shower, with a cake and a room crammed with gifts from the ‘regulars’ such as a buggy, sleepsuits, a Moses basket (“one man even gifted me his ex-wife’s breast pump just before he ejaculated into my booth.”)

Poverty is no place for the squeamish. One of the most useful things about money, it appears, is that it buys you some distance from the bodily fluids of strangers. In its absence, they’re everywhere: the traces of urine or bloodstains on old mattresses in rented accommodation; the ancient semen that is simply recirculated with a desultory mop around the peep-show floor; the blocked toilet and the pan of vomit in the women’s refuge that mysteriously appears every morning.

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Carraway herself does not seem very squeamish, particularly as a writer. There’s a lot in Skint Estate which is shocking, sad and scary, as well as funny and painfully honest.

The author exposes herself, knowingly, to the judgement of those in more secure situations, while demonstrating an intimate understanding of how those judgements operate. (At one point she describes herself, having adapted her accent and fallen in with a posh coterie of prosecco-quaffing Maida Vale mums, joining them in tut-tutting at a group of young working-class mums having an impromptu picnic with their babies, Maltesers and cans of beer. Afterwards, she feels ashamed.)

She writes, for example, about fleeing domestic violence with her young daughter. She went to live with a well-off man, Kingsley, who had formerly been imprisoned for assaulting her but to whom she is, in some ways, still close. It is not a wise choice, as her female friends tell her at the time, but then wisdom is sometimes a luxury available only to those with other options. Exhausted by financial precariousness, she takes up Kingsley’s unusual offer of posing as his wife in order to secure an inheritance from his father (Kingsley is now gay, and his father is homophobic).

If that sounds like a 19th century plot, then so is the economic situation in which this single mother finds herself: eking out low-paid jobs as a sex chat-line worker, a ‘secret shopper,’ a ‘web psychic’ and a ‘kiss ’n’ tell girl of misery porn’ supplying real-life stories to women’s magazines, but still not making enough to avoid the trip to the foodbank.

For a time such concerns abate, and Carraway temporarily enjoys a fixed roof over her head, and an abundance of branded items which she details with self-mockery mingled with the memory of desire: Boden clothes, a Rangemaster oven, Farrow and Ball paint, Le Creuset pans.

The author argues, accurately, that these are the means by which social acceptability is signalled, albeit a fraudulent kind of acceptability. Then again, it’s easy to dismiss the importance of brands if they’re financially within reach: when they’re not, they mean so much more.

But when Kingsley kicks off again, the safety suggested by the brands is destroyed: “WHORE has been sprayed across my Farrow & Ball No 26 ‘Down Pipe’ bedroom wall in red spray paint.” Even when things are bad, Carraway can’t help spotting little ironies: “He tries to break the Le Creuset pans, but they are very durable. They have a lifetime guarantee.”

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The intimate details of poverty aren’t discussed much in society, largely because – to generalise – the people who currently tend to write books and articles aren’t regularly exposed to such hardships, and the people who are exposed to such hardships don’t tend to write books and articles.

There is, of course, the noble journalistic tradition of immersing oneself in poverty for the purposes of writing about it, undertaken most successfully by George Orwell in his Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier. But whatever insights such books deliver – and Orwell’s delivered many, including the unforgettable image of his landlord’s filthy thumb-print on an approaching slice of bread-and-butter – they cannot fully reflect the central panic of those who are trapped in the poverty cycle: that they will never, ever escape from it.

It is no coincidence that Carraway especially likes the writing of the US author Charles Bukowski, whose books, like his life, are full of financial uncertainty and an existence proudly played out beyond the boundaries of respectability. Like Bukowski, she keeps an authorial eye open even in the midst of howling chaos, mesmerised both by the potential awfulness and warmth of other people.

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Skint Estate, however, is also a sign of a recent phenomenon: that the publishing world is finally cracking open, after a long hiatus, a decisive conversation about class. It arrives just after Lowborn, the novelist Kerry Hudson’s powerful memoir of her peripatetic working-class childhood, being moved from one insecure dwelling to another by her troubled, heavy-drinking mother. Hudson’s book is written from the perspective of someone who has now escaped poverty, beginning: “Shall we start with a happy ending? I made it. I rose.”

Along with the tangible hardships and dangers she left behind – “sink estates, burnt-out houses and ice-cream vans selling drugs at the school gates” – is the weight of communal judgement that still falls upon the poor: “The names still ring in my head everyday: chav, scav, lowlife, NED, underclass, lowborn.” In her new lifestyle as an author, she can afford to eat well, enjoy films and books and can “heat my flat in the winter”. But there remains a sense of psychological dislocation: “I find myself unable to reconcile my ‘now’ with my past.”

Carraway and Hudson are two very different writers, and their experiences and voices are distinctively their own, but a couple of similar points arise from the histories they describe.

Both had ‘difficult’ mothers, although Carraway’s was more cruelly violent, both beating Carraway up and also rewarding her as a child for physically assaulting her own father as he slept. Hudson says of her grandmother – a former beauty who looked like Elizabeth Taylor in her youth – “my grandma was the most terrifying woman I’ve ever known” whose charm could easily turn to ice. Her mother, not ready for motherhood and largely adrift from Hudson’s father, struggled with depression and the erratic hope of fresh starts offered by unpredictable men.

There was love in the mix, too, although complicatedly expressed. For a child, it is the mother – so often harshly judged by society – who is nonetheless the last line of defence against a hostile world. But when the mother proves unreliable, buckling under wider pressures, what is it that keeps a struggling child afloat?

The lifebuoys, ideally, should be offered by wider society: the availability of social housing of decent quality, good state education with after-school provision, caring teachers, free school meals for children on low incomes, free or subsidised leisure activities, libraries that are geared towards welcoming children and encouraging reading. Such things were once imagined as the bedrock of a civilised society, and yet many of them – social housing and library provision in particular – have been steadily eroded, while teachers report trying to do their best for children in increasingly adverse circumstances.

A couple of weeks ago, for example, The Sunday Times carried a report on conditions in London’s Broadwater Farm housing estate, where the admirable headmistress of the estate’s Willow Primary School explained how she and her staff dreaded holidays, as many of their pupils would simply be kept indoors to keep them away from wider dangers of drugs and gangs. An accompanying photograph of accommodation for one family of six, a single cramped room with damp and ragged wallpaper, called to mind a Dickensian slum.

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The relatively modest leisure activities which come so easily to middle-class children – swimming, bowling, trips to the seaside or camping – are frequently unaffordable for families who are barely making ends meet: the parents can spare neither the money nor the time from work, often in jobs which do not provide holiday pay. A crowdfunded appeal will open up more opportunities for the Broadwater Farm children this summer – yet there are similar stories from streets and estates all over Britain.

There are some thoughtful initiatives happening: Hudson goes back to Hetton-le-Hole near Newcastle to revisit one of her old schools – where, unusually, she felt welcomed and not ‘embarrassed about being poor’ – which has just undergone ‘poverty proofing’, a process set up by a charity to help children from poorer backgrounds not feel excluded by details that adults often overlooked.

One significant source of embarrassment was at not having “the latest, expensive water bottle” – something the children were keenly aware of among themselves – which the school solved by introducing a standard, school-branded water bottle instead. Yet the great sweep of government policy, particularly in areas such as housing, has been travelling in the opposite direction: towards the entrenchment of social inequality.

Why is it so? Part of the answer may be that policy begins in culture, the government’s instinctive reading of the public mood. For many years the prevailing cultural attitude towards those on the poverty line has been one of suspicion bordering on contempt, with middle-market tabloid tales of chavs and scroungers milking the system, being amply rewarded with benefits for irresponsibility.

Programmes such as the Jeremy Kyle Show selected the poor and vulnerable and held them up for mass ridicule and moral lectures. Even talent shows such as the X-Factor relied upon a mood of mockery, singling out any ordinary person who dared to believe they were more talented than the panel of judges perceived.

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In a world in which branded goods were increasingly used as a signifier of who and what you were – to a much greater degree, say, than when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s – to be unable to afford them took on a measure of stigma. The policies of austerity fell most heavily upon those who could afford it the least. Housing costs soared while affordable housing stock shrank.

At the same time as the cultural and political climate turned chilly for the working-classes, a new development entered the jobs market: the ‘gig economy’ and the ‘zero-hours’ model of employment rendered low-paid incomes more unpredictable, and ate away at many of the old securities, such as paid holiday and sick leave.

Despite high employment, we have seen the re-emergence of the ‘working poor’: according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the in-work poverty rate is now the highest it has been in the past 20 years. For young graduates without family money behind them, the rise of the unpaid internship often barred them from the first step on the middle-class jobs ladder. Money made the world go round, unless you didn’t have it in the first place.

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The publishing industry, up until very recently, has often seemed keener to discuss inequalities of gender and race than those of income and class (although frequently all such questions are intimately intertwined). That changed somewhat with Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass (the writing of which was crowdfunded), a searing account of growing up in a precarious household in working-class Glasgow which won last year’s Orwell Book Prize.

One of the things that McGarvey noted was how often the middle and upper classes spoke about the poor, and how little the poor talked for themselves. When they did, they were encouraged to emphasise shockingly personal stories rather than put forward any wider political critique (McGarvey’s own mother was an alcoholic and drug addict, who died aged 36). Class, he said, remained the “primary dividing line” in society.

Writing a memoir from the margins of poverty and family dysfunction is a courageous act: while reading Carraway, Hudson and McGarvey you can often sense the authors steeling themselves for criticism, fearing that – by exposing a troubled family history or their own complicated struggles to survive – they are somehow betraying those closest to them while rendering themselves dangerously vulnerable.

Those self-protective reflexes were learned in childhood, and for good reason. Hudson recalls how terrified she was of writing Lowborn, because children in impoverished, tough childhoods quickly learn to cover up abuse or neglect with silence, and it’s a hard habit to break in adulthood: “when I sit down to write it feels like an actual physical force is stopping me”. To speak in your own voice is automatically to invite judgement.

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Carraway is particularly sharp on parodying all the bizarre little nuances of class sneering that stalk her as an adult: “I am a terrible, scrounging, despicable little woman – when I celebrate my birthday at the Harvester, I visit the salad bar an unacceptable amount of times … I’m so disgusting that I’ve never even been to Center Parcs.”

The new writers on class are braced against their work being consumed as “poverty porn” or “misery memoirs” but they clearly hope for something more from it. They are asking to take up space in the public imagination, for their histories to be heard and considered, and perhaps to contribute to a wider movement for social change.

In a broader sense, that ground is also covered by the new anthology Common People, edited by Kit de Waal, in which 33 writers “reclaim and redefine what it means to be working class”. Being working class does not, of course, have to mean a parent with addictions or a childhood facing homelessness – many of these stories are decidedly joyful – but each one investigates a memory or a conversation that is not routinely heard.

One such is Daljit Nagra’s tender story of his academically gifted schoolfriend Steve, and the cultural factors that led to Steve – a white working-class boy – abandoning school at 16 while Nagra carried on to higher education “driven by a migrant psychology to succeed to a status higher than my parents”. They are still friends, and there are more insights in that moving story alone than in many a doorstop policy document.

It is one of the most insidious effects of class snobbery that it has tended to promote an image of working-class people as estranged from cultural expression, as if the arts automatically belong to a sphere that is never fully considered theirs. Yet this latest wave of working-class writers are demanding to be listened to, telling their own stories with freshly compelling, poetic, poignant and sometimes furious voices.

I hope that it is more than just a temporary phenomenon, and that a fundamental cultural shift is underway. Perhaps thereafter a changing culture will finally speak truth to policy, and this time ask the question: “Can things be different now?”