It was a bitter Friday night in January 2018 situated in a dingy basement at the cultural epicentre of Dundee where I first encountered Darren McGarvey. That night, I picked up a signed copy of his debut effort – Poverty Safari. His honest and nuanced analysis of the poverty industry (the voluntary sector) was jarring. Unlike most readers who can shake off any shards of self-conviction when a moment of revelation alights upon you, I could not and started my departure from its ranks by instead becoming unemployed. I would, therefore, say it changed my life.
McGarvey wrote with devastating clarity about the austerity of his own environment and upbringing including a section where his inebriated mother, now sadly deceased, held a knife to his throat. At the time of its release, McGarvey had a slender Twitter following south of 10,000 and his book felt like an admirably DIY effort, where he toured aesthetically austere but culturally rich venues in an effort to create a platform for his insights and literally packaged his own books at home before posting them to people who had ordered copies. It paid off.
In the aftermath, this working-class lad became an Orwell Book Prize-winning author, sold out a string of dates at Edinburgh’s Festival Fringe and secured a new book deal with Penguin Random House. His star had risen and just kept ascending. Although sceptical as to how these successes may have changed him, it would be an understatement to say I was looking forward to his new book – The Social Distance Between Us – when an advance copy arrived on my doorstep only three weeks ago and I consumed all 400 pages within 10 days.
The issue McGarvey addresses here is proximity. He writes: “From wealthy politicians tackling poverty to drug counsellors who’ve never smoked a joint, and prominent commentators and celebrities opining on matters which do not sit within their experiential wheelhouse, Britain is riddled with problems of proximity…” This social distance between the governing and the governed is one to which he attributes most existential ills. He expounds this theory beautifully in chapters through the first section on everything from addiction and health to homelessness.
McGarvey has developed as a writer and the vernacular recipe with which he dispensed his perspectives in his first book has not eluded him. Unlike Poverty Safari however, which rested heavily upon McGarvey’s own experiences growing up, he has produced several culturally acclaimed BBC documentaries thus affording him with a burgeoning banquet of locations from which to draw his insights. He takes us on a UK tour from the rolling hills of Glen Clova to the community around Grenfell Tower and various other places, which anchors his thoughts.
The middle of the book seems to slide into a strange malaise. The chapter on social connection, for example, reads more like an academic journal and lacks the storytelling prowess of someone like Johann Hari, whose Lost Connections did this kind of material with greater finesse. This is not to say McGarvey should not divest here but his talent lies not in reels of statistics to illuminate the path to emotional wellbeing but his searing insights on the raw end of our human experience – an anthem often unheralded and unsung by those who know how it really feels.
The second section of the book, starting at 277 pages in, is brutally titled: “F***ed Left, Right and Centre”. Here, McGarvey takes us from the Palace of Westminster via observations on conservatism, the radical left and populism. However, his typically generous and nuanced appraisal of complex issues evades him here and this segue onto the slip road of politics neither aids the book’s main subject matter nor, I believe, enhances points already made. At this juncture, it feels as if there are two books emerging and Act Two is an unnecessary divergence.
A big question for McGarvey, and upon which the success of this book will hinge, is whether his existing readers attracted to illuminating ideas on everything from addiction to poverty, will they feel as enthused by the clearly more political tone of this book? Furthermore, as someone who would be considered among the working-class demographic McGarvey’s work reflects upon, I find his consistent appeals to a class dynamic in every facet and fissure of life as unconvincing among a throng of wider inequalities.
His analyses feels more polite and less polemical. Contrarian perspectives, like his historic emphasis upon individual responsibility – an underplayed rebuke from the left – are less visible. McGarvey wrote his first book like he had nothing to lose but he writes here as if he has nothing to win. He writes: “Suddenly my world has opened up, the possibilities seem endless.” It will be harder for McGarvey, in future, to rail against a glass window he has shattered and to limit the inevitable social distance gradually emerging between him and those about whom he writes.
Either way, for this book, I again salute him.
The Social Distance Between Us is released on Thursday 16 June on Ebury Press | RRP: £20