‘We are the walking wounded of the class war’ writes Cash Carraway, a south London single mum working for less than the minimum wage, negotiating the accommodation underworld of Gumtree, OpenRent ‘and the depravity of handwritten adverts in newsagents’ windows’ which offer a place to stay in return for sexual services. JAD ADAMS reviews her book Skint Estate
Lots of writers are called “fearless” because they take a shot at the government or patriarchy from a swivel chair in an office. Carraway is on the literary barricades and she genuinely has no fear – or shame or humility or any of the other emotions that keep people polite and in check. What she does have is a lot of anger.
She is angry about politicians sneering at the poor while owning the properties whose rents keep them in destitution; she is angry about “poverty porn” TV programmes that relish making an entertainment of the “economic gang rape that makes the poor and vulnerable the scapegoat for society’s decline”.
And she is very, very angry about the well-paid newspaper columnists whose intemperate outbursts against the underclass are mirrored here by Carraway’s invective. “We should be banned from all supermarkets except Aldi and Lidl and force-fed a diet of UHT milk and corned beef”, she writes, ‘grub for fallen women… Why didn’t I just shut up and know my place?”
She is also very funny. “Lots of things about living in a woman’s refuge make me laugh,” she says, which is not the most common response. She isn’t above selling stories about her wretched daily grind of budgeting to a trashy supermarket magazine. Even they found her piece about period poverty to be too strong to print, though at least they paid her for it.
There isn’t anything she does not want to share from “my tragic and dirty little life” from her vagina size (small) to her suicide (unsuccessful). Mainly, however, this book is about the crippling cost of living in London under the minimum wage, doing fragmentary bits of jobs she can fit in with childcare. As she says: “Everyone has their price. It’s not always monetary. Mine is though. 20 quid.”
She discusses areas of sex work that don’t usually get a lot of press: stripping, peep shows, telephone chat lines and a naked video app. She shares a detailed knowledge of household cleaners: semen stains on a dress must be attended to with a spray of Astonish Window and Glass. The smell of urine can be removed from the skin with vinegar.
Through the details of the injustices she suffers and the petty crimes she commits, this is at heart a mother and child memoir, or two such memoirs. One image is of her own mother, “My mum had beaten me at least seven times by the time I’d turned six,” she writes.
Carraway left home at 16 when her mother smashed her in the face with a Hoover. She then lived in 43 different places between 16 and 29, “hopping from bed to bed, from trauma to trouble”. Through the cheap jokes at her own expense emerge the turning points of her life: the ever-present question about the wreck of her own childhood: “What makes a mother reject her child?” and the desperation through all her difficulties to find a safe home for her own daughter, to prove that a child could be loved.
This second mother and child story, of her relationship with her daughter, is the one pure thing in this dirty world, and her fierce love for “Biddy” the principal redeeming quality of Carraway, who would otherwise appear as bitter and cynical.
Skint Estate is a carefully crafted memoir with each section satisfactorily wrapped up, for the ending to reflect the beginning of each chapter. It is ranged around themes or locations rather than being chronological, and her college and senior school years are absent.
There are definitely some bad choices described – like going back with the man who has previously been imprisoned for assaulting her; or deleting her affectionate message to (and all contact details of) the only man revealed in these pages to have treated her decently.
In the end, malnourished from weeks of eating nothing but pasta and with her housing benefit stopped due to an administrative misjudgement, she is evicted from her flat. She has to accept what she has always resisted: being moved out of her beloved London. She has finally been “socially cleansed”: placed in homeless housing in Kent, a place she despises for its racism.
Cash Carraway puts me in mind of Nelson Algren or Hubert Selby with their stories of degraded urban life, in this case with the vowels of Penge rather than New York. She is more overtly political than either of them, however, with an incisive invective.
Her “You’re only one Tory government away from an IRA comeback” sounds like an anarchist rant until you reflect that the present government is prepared to sacrifice peace in Northern Ireland on the altar of Brexit. As with most of what she says in this book: she may be angry, but she does have a point.
- Skint Estate: A Memoir of Poverty, Motherhood and Survival by Cash Carraway is published by Ebury Press (£14.99). To order your copy, click here
- Jad Adams, right, is a historian, journalist and TV producer who is the chair of Croydon Nightwatch, the local homelessness charity. To find out how you can help Nightwatch, click here
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