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Book Review Devastating dispatches from the war against the poor

LIZ JONES recommends a visceral account of one woman's experience of life on the margins in Britain now

Skint Estate
by Cash Carraway
(Penguin Random House, £14.99)

OPEN Skint Estate on almost any page and you are likely to encounter shit, semen or blood.

From page one, where we find the narrator hiding in a train toilet to avoid buying a ticket and discovering that her jeans are smeared in “someone else’s shit” from the toilet pan, to the smell of stale semen at the peep show where she works, to a blood-drenched account of how she “lost her vagina” during a botched childbirth, this is a book soaked in bodily fluids.   

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Beneath the barrage of gutsy, in-your-face swagger, there is a vulnerability. Cash Carraway’s memoir of her life as a single mother on the margins of austerity Britain is touching and, surprisingly, given its subject matter, very funny too.

Endlessly resourceful, Carraway works as a stripper in an upmarket West End club. When she falls pregnant, she switches to a job as a peep-show model  — as one of her better-paid jobs, it allows her to save up three months’ rental deposit on a flat.

After the birth of her daughter, she has a landline fitted so that “in lieu of maternity leave” she can work as a telephone clairvoyant. She also earns extra income as, in turn, a mystery shopper, a low-level drug dealer, a cleaner and by selling her human-interest stories to the Daily Mail. “Poor women can’t afford morals,” she comments.

She is a living embodiment of the Tory mantra of hard work and enterprise, yet she can’t escape her precarious existence. One slow week at work or another round of benefit sanctions is enough to send her straight back to the food bank. A very bad week will find her contemplating — and, on one occasion, attempting — suicide.

A dramatist before she became a published author, Caraway is great at, well, drama. Her visceral, high-octane prose, a cocktail of Irvine Welsh and Charles Bukowski with a splash of feminist polemic, has made her a prime target for trolls on social and mainstream media — think Melanie Phillips and all the usual suspects.
 
As Carraway is all too aware, she is attacked because she is poor and a single mother. Poor women like her, she argues, are not supposed to speak up unless it is through a Take a Break journalist or a producer of a Channel 5 poverty-porn show.

Carraway is that rare thing, an outspoken voice from the margins. Skint Estate is a full-throttle dispatch from the front line of the war against the poor, an account of degrading jobs, zero hours contracts, forced “self-employment,” payday loans with three-figure interest rates, benefit sanctions, food banks, slum flats, domestic violence, homelessness and more.

Carraway’s voice is loud, raw and all too rare. Let’s hope there will be others.  

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