About The Author
Kerry Hudson was born in Aberdeen and grew up in a succession of council estates, bed-and-breakfasts and caravan parks. She now lives and writes in East London.
Her first novel was Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, and is now available in paperback. The book began life as a collection of short stories based on tales told to her by mother and grandmother, and then reshaped into a novel in a six-month writing stint in Vietnam.
Janie Ryan doesn't know her father, although she's been told that he's a glamorous American. Her mother, Irene, met him down in London, but she's returned home to give birth. Irene's mother misses the birth of her first grandchild to go to the bingo. The family's adversarial nature means that Irene and her newborn are soon out on the streets and Janie is taken briefly into care, but things look brighter when her mum falls for the charismatic Tony Hogan.
Informed by Kerry's own experiences, Janie's story is one of growing up in some of the poorest, most disenfranchised areas of Britain, domestic violence is widespread, where educational and employment opportunities are limited, and drink, drugs and sleeping around are conventional rites of passage for teenagers. Always condemned to be friends with the other outcasts at school, Janie's hopes are dashed by each new twist in a life lived on the breadline.
But hers is not a story of despair. This s a remarkable debut novel of love and loyalty, of fierce passion and scabrous wit, full of characters whose broad vernacular is direct and expressive. This is about a culture with just as much right to be called British as that of middle-class suburbia.
In this exclusive interview with Foyles by Jonathan Ruppin, Kerry talks about the advantages of being labelled a working-class writer, why only some people can get away bad behaviour and how a poverty of aspiration is letting down bright children from troubled backgrounds.
You can follow Kerry on Twitter: @KerrysWindow
Questions & Answers
Is your novel fundamentally autobiographical or was your own upbringing more of a starting point for the story you wanted to tell?
In truth it is a bit of both. The book follows the chronology and geography of my own upbringing, I'm exactly the same age as Janie would be now and I lived in the same council estates, B&B's and kiss-me-quick seaside towns that her family journey through. Those details provided a skeleton to work with but beyond that it was me moulding big handfuls of fictional meat onto those bones. I wanted the book to be really honest and I felt drawing on the world I came from allowed me to do that but it isn't a memoir by any stretch. I'm a novelist and I tell stories.
Janie's discovery of reading and libraries brings her great comfort. Was this the same for you as a child?
Absolutely. Libraries were free and safe places to go and because, like Janie and her family, we moved around so much the quality of schools (and my own inclination to attend classes) varied I was mainly educated via my library card. Throughout my teens I read indiscriminately because I was mostly interested in finding a good story but the books that really endured with me were the ones that highlighted a tenderness and human vulnerability that I was aware of but couldn't see openly displayed, or indeed show myself, in my own neighbourhoods.
Readers of certain middle-market tabloids may find your depictions of drug use, violence, promiscuity and bad language shocking, but are these the symptoms of poverty rather than problems in themselves?
I think Janie's sent down that road as a symptom of a poverty of aspiration. Everywhere she turns the implication is that it's impossible to get out and that she's not going to amount to much anyway. If you hear that every time you speak up and ask for more from your lot why wouldn't you just look for small pleasures where you can find them?
I also wonder whether drugs, sex and swearing are that shocking these days. You only need to pick up one of the aforementioned tabloids to see stories of celebrities, MPs, BBC broadcasters and footballers swinging from the chandeliers with lap-dancers, coked out of their eyeballs after a 'brawl' in a mirror-floored nightclub. Maybe what is shocking is seeing that in such an every day setting. Everyone's doing it, some just do it without the chandeliers.
Despite the unrelenting difficulty of her life Irene usually finds a way to carry on, but the men with whom she is involved seem to surrender more easily to addiction and violence. Is it fair to say that women from such backgrounds ultimately carry the greater burden? Could they even be seen as feminist icons?
They are very strong women. Iris, her Ma before her, her Ma's Ma were all fishwives which is one of the toughest jobs you can have as a woman both physically and because of the mental strain of doing something so painfully monotonous. And despite all that they face each day with courage and humour, still managing to find enjoyment in a good fish and chip supper or a few drinks on a Saturday night down at their local pub.
Iris is able to carry on because she loves Janie and Tiny and takes her responsibility to keep them safe, sheltered and fed seriously. All three are all helping each other carry on in one way or another. I suspect it's the same for many working-class women, they are still predominantly the primary care-givers for their children and they draw on huge reserves of strength, often in very difficult situations, to try and do a decent job of that. They simply don't have the luxury of falling into drugs or violence in the way the men might.
Irene tells her children, "The world's an awful place but I brought you kids intae it an' I've tae do my best tae protect yeh." Is she projecting her own fears onto her children here or giving them fair warning not depend on others?
She is projecting her fears onto Janie and Tiny but with good reason because that fear is absolutely real to her. Iris has had no reason to trust the world around her, all she has known is hardship after hardship and she wants to protect her children as best she can from the things that have happened to her. Though to a reader it might seem like a brutal thing for an adult to tell a child it's a natural passing-down of whatever knowledge you have as a parent. Janie and her family travel through environments where, if you're going to survive, you need to remain mistrustful until you know to be otherwise.
The careers advisor insists that Janie and her classmates be "realistic". Do you feel this damping down of expectation undermines many children from deprived backgrounds?
I can't speak for all people from my background (and never would) but yes, I certainly felt that very strongly when I was growing up. I felt my horizons growing ever narrower as a teenager because it was understood that I'd conform to what everyone expected of me, which was not very much. I used the term 'poverty of aspiration' earlier which is the best expression I've been able to find for that feeling of being written off before you've even had a chance to mature simply because you're from a certain estate, talk in a certain way, wear clothes that mark you as 'poor' or that horrible degrading term 'chavvy'. There are bright, promising kids on the estates of Britain but without anyone encouraging them or investing resources to nurture their potential it's hardly surprising that so many drop-off the edge before they even reach adulthood.
The book trade has a habit of promoting any book which featuring impoverished backgrounds or dialectical pronunciation as 'authentic'. Are you wary of being pigeonholed as a class spokesperson?
I have no issue with people labelling Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma as authentic. If the fact I grew up in that world lends the book a certain authority so that people can't say 'that doesn't really happen' then I think that can only be a good thing. I am a working-class writer and there don't seem to be that many of us so I'm hugely grateful to be able to write about the things I do and have that reach a mainstream audience. Labels will always be given and I understand the need for them. Here are a few: I'm Young(ish), Female, Working-class, Lesbian. All parts of my identity as a writer but nowhere close to making the sum of my parts.
You've already finished writing Thirst, your second novel. Can you tell us anything about it?
It's the story of fragile love affair between a young Russian woman and a recovering alcoholic security guard set during two scorching summers in Hackney and Siberia. Like Tony Hogan ... it finds humour in dark places and has very human, very flawed hopeful hearts at the centre of the narrative.