Review: Poverty Safari, Darren McGarvey

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Poverty Safari

Darren McGarvey appears to be living in a whirlwind as he performs at sold out events on the Edinburgh Fringe this week, having secured a two book deal last week and won the Orwell Book Prize last month. All of this seems to be a natural outflow of the release of his debut offering – Poverty Safari (2017). With endorsements from the likes of Irvine Welsh and J.K. Rowling this book was never going to emerge unnoticed and, while it took me a while to get round to reading it, I believe the plaudits are well deserved.

Light years from this hurricane of life experience, however, my first encounter with McGarvey was in a dingy pub basement at the cultural epicentre of Dundee as part of a mini-tour in support of his book. It was a weird night, not due to McGarvey’s performance but because of the demography of his attendees. Having played many gigs in this pub before, I had never seen it so populated by academics and intellectuals, which was baffling given his often justified critique of the middle class.

Whether or not this is his target audience, he introduces his book (2017, p. 13) by stating: “People like me don’t write books…” It starts slow and seems to meander, as if the early chapters were written separately and later woven together, from a moving encounter in a woman’s prison to disparate approaches in middle class media reports. It is difficult to know where he is going until he describes the ongoing threat of violence, streets saturated in syringes and the stark contrast of class division.

One of the reasons, I believe, McGarvey has courted such attention from the middle class is because he simplifies complex issues from a working class perspective in a way others can understand. One example is his explanation for the extent of political apathy among “the lower classes” (2017, p.54). He asks, if you believed a system was rigged against you, that decisions about your life would be made by others and those same people were trying to conceal things from you, would you engage? Good point.

Pollok is a place close to my heart. Rooted in Glasgow’s Southside, it has become known as a thoroughfare for commuters and a destination for commerce much to McGarvey’s dismay. And given its rich cultural history, he has good reason to be unsettled. To this day, I have friends and family who live, and grew up, in Pollok and two nieces who spend much of their time there with Granny Theresa, whose hospitality is unrivalled. The Pollok I know is a home away from home for many.

It also shares a sense of solidarity with, as well as some of the scars of, my own surroundings. Like any populated housing scheme sitting higher in the indices of deprivation, streets that were once bustling with thriving local businesses such as bakers and butchers have pulled down the shutters and left behind only the bookies and boozers. As a result, Pollok is the perfect setting for the gradual unveiling of, what McGarvey himself describes, as a “misery memoir” (2017, p. 107).

As he unpacks early life experiences from his school and community to his family as well as encounters with childhood abuse and efforts to self-medicate, we see the picture he starts to paint. As anyone with experience of alcohol and substance misuse will know, retracing your inebriated history is not an easy task and, when you do, it often resurfaces like flashbacks after a night on the skite. The meandering in the early stages, therefore, begins to make sense and becomes quite endearing.

Despite the noticeable absence of a reconstruction of the 2014 referendum, one of the most engaging aspects of the book, for me, was the journey through a number of familiar experiences to the native Scot. From the politically and economically motivated decimation of Pollok by the M77 motorway and construction of Silverburn Shopping Centre to the depiction of the Glasgow School of Art furnace of 2014 as well as the social media storm that engulfed the now infamous ‘Glasgow Effect’ art project.

And given McGarvey’s views on issues such as personal responsibility, mental health and identity politics, I was intrigued by his recent critique of Jordan Peterson (The Scotsman, 2018), since both of them, from separate class backgrounds and spheres of influence, have released books within a few months of each other which share many of the same opinions and have both become bestsellers. I suspect McGarvey has not read Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life (2018) because, if he had, he would know this.

I also do not buy into McGarvey’s regular assertion that he belongs to the left. If he did, I think he would have less difficulty finding a political home. He writes: “we must open up another frontier in politics… to take ownership of our problems [and] begin rebuilding the depleted human capacity in our poorest communities.” (2017, p. 130) His vision is more refreshing and paints an evocative picture of a potential new political centre-ground that is not constricted by the polarities of left and right.

There will be no unexpected wildlife encounters on this cultural safari for those from working class backgrounds, with experience of addiction or living in deprived communities but I thoroughly appreciate McGarvey’s effort to distil his experience “as a working class person, attempting to escape poverty while traversing these wildly different cultural domains.” (2017, p. 206) McGarvey’s willingness to be brutally reflective and refreshingly honest is, for me, his greatest strength.

It does leave some threads unwoven like an outcome concerning his hard-working dad. For instance, is he still alive and well? But, the overarching message appears to be if we want to change society we should start with ourselves. McGarvey (2017, p. 220) powerfully concludes: “the most practical way of transforming my community is to first transform myself and, having done so, find a way to express how I did that to as many people as possible.” Fascinatingly, I am certain Jordan Peterson would agree!

 

References:

McGarvey, D. 2017, Poverty Safari, Luath Press Ltd., Edinburgh, UK

Peterson, J. 2018, 12 Rules for Life, Allen Lane, London, UK

McGarvey, D. [The Scotsman] 2018, ‘Jordan Peterson’s ideas must be countered by the left [Online] Available: https://www.scotsman.com/news/opinion/darren-mcgarvey-jordan-peterson-s-ideas-must-be-countered-by-the-left-1-4775953 [Accessed: 2018, Aug 1]