Cash Carraway’s memoir details a life lived between the cracks of austerity Britain. She attempts to forge a home in a city that no longer has space for her, learns how to show love even though she was never taught it, and searches for self-worth in a country that thrives on her demonisation. Skint Estate fights for a way to articulate these experiences. Through it, the author takes back control of her own story and challenges the voices that speak for and over working-class single mothers in contemporary society.
In unashamed and emotionally bruising prose, Carraway interrogates the notion of inter-generational trauma and shows us that it is possible to break legacies of abuse and hurt. When she learns she is pregnant, she does everything within her means to construct a world in which her daughter will be protected. This feels particularly poignant as the welfare state around them is destroyed, Grenfell burns, food banks multiply and working-class families are driven out of London because their lives are deemed less worthy than luxury flats.
Carraway works in a Soho peep show throughout her pregnancy to earn enough money for the six months’ advance rent landlords often demand from single mothers without guarantors. She sticks her baby scan on her side of the peephole so she can look at her unborn daughter and be reminded that she is making a life for them both, as men get off over her pregnant body. Her sharp tongue and celebration of flesh in all of its sweat, piss and ruin, ensure that she is always in possession of her body and herself in a world that constantly tells her she has no right to move through it.
Through electric anger laced with humour, Carraway shows us the personal is always at the root of the political. ‘The housing crisis’ means striking deals with lonely men who will exchange rooms for kisses in bed, moving from borough to borough every few months and taking jobs as a psychic, sex caller, joint dealer and mystery shopper in order to make the £1,500 a month rent for an ex-council flat in South London. ‘The closure of women’s refuges’ leaves women and children sleeping side by side below the charred skeleton of Grenfell, forced to start a Twitter campaign because no one will come to help or claim responsibility. ‘Grenfell’ means Carraway’s daughter asking why the government is burning poor people. ‘Period poverty’ means staying at home and crafting sanitary towels from nappies. And ‘visiting a food bank’ means living on pasta sprinkled with sugar even though you work full time and standing in front of a line of kind volunteers and feeling only hot, red shame.
Skint Estate is a call to arms emanating from the details that make up our daily lives: the Fanta Lemon and the Hubba Bubba, the charity shop dresses and the embarrassing tattoos. She shows us the crushing power of patriarchy and government policy in colour and emotion, from Chicken Cottage and Kidzania to having enough money to get to hospital in an emergency.
She is honest about the desire working-class people sometimes feel to escape our own lives: to lose our accents, own an Aga, shop at Boden, change our names and shape our stories into something else. She portrays identity as something flimsy and interchangeable, fractured and broken by the systems around us, with a burning fire at its core.
Carraway challenges the notion of poverty porn by taking ownership of her story. She asks us why we are compelled to tell stories, who is given a platform to share them and questions who commissions them and the kinds of people they are written for. Her story shows us that art is absolutely necessary and not a leisurely pursuit of the middle classes. She demonstrates that art gives us the tools to tell our stories and it is a way to pool collective power, which can lead to systemic change. She gives us the specifics of her own story in order to show us the ways her life has been dictated by the state, yet by telling her story she is forging open space for other women to do the same.
Skint Estate is bold, funny and irreverent with a vital message at its heart. It is an indictment of the true effects of austerity under a Tory government and demonstrates the reality of life for women and children living on the barbed edge of society. It illuminates the impossibility of trying to protect people you love when they are not protected by a world that threatens to topple around them.
It feels even more potent in the current political landscape, as the devastating effects of Covid-19 on the most marginalised people loom in our future, with the glimmer of potential for reinvestment in the welfare state. It will make you feel angry and it will teach you how to hold onto your anger, how to articulate it and use it as a force for change. Carraway shows us that every life is a political life and that we have the right to tell it even if we don’t have the ‘proper’ language with which to do so. Her story is chaotic and blistering and does not necessitate sympathy or redemption but offers us a vision of hope in the next generation.
She says: ‘[There] are working-class kids who learned from a young age just how government policy shapes their lives. They woke up early. I think that when these kids grow up then the elite will be in trouble. I think they ought to be afraid of these kids, because it’s people like my daughter who will come out fighting.’
Jessica Andrews is a writer and poet. You can follow her on twitter @jessicacandrews.
This review originally appeared originally appeared in issue #228 ‘Climate Revolutions’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media.
#229 No Return to ‘Normal’ ● Sir David King blasts the government ● State power, policing and civil rights under Covid-19 ● Hope and determination in grassroots resistance ● Black liberation and Palestine ● The future of ‘live’ ● Pubs, patriotism and precarity ● Latest book reviews ● And much more!
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