Escaping the Poverty Trap

Darren McGarvey was five when his mother tried to kill him. ‘I was upstairs in bed but finding it hard to sleep because of noise coming from the living room. My mum had people over and they were downstairs drinking, laughing and listening to music. My next memory is standing at the living room door, before a group of guests. I had my hopes pinned on my mum letting me stay up because she was drunk. I preferred her when she’d had a few drinks. She was much more relaxed, fun and affectionate. But tonight she was having none of it and told me to go back to bed. There was a bit of back-and-forth between us. I suspect I was showing off in front of her guests, probably winding her up or trying to outwit her in some way. Then her tone and posture shifted as she gave me a final warning to go back upstairs. I defied her.’

What happened next in the family’s semi-detached home on Pollok Estate in Glasgow could be lifted from a horror film. ‘She held my gaze for a moment, before leaping out of her seat and charging into the kitchen. She pulled the cutlery drawer open, reached in and pulled out a long, serrated bread knife. Then she turned round and began pursuing me. I already knew she could be unpredictable but this was like nothing I had witnessed before. I ran out of the room and naively made for the stairs as she emerged from the living room into the hall only seconds behind me. I scrambled up as fast as I could but she was closing the distance between us. With nowhere to hide I ran into my room, slamming the door behind me, but it just seemed to bounce off her as she came charging through, clutching the knife, like a monster in a nightmare.

‘Now I was trapped in my room, pinned against the wall, with a knife to my throat. I don’t remember what she said to me but I do remember the hate in her eyes. I remember thinking I was just about to be cut open and that I would probably die. Just as she lifted the knife to my face she was pulled from behind and thrown to the other side of the room by my dad, who then restrained her while one of the guests picked me up and bundled me into the back of a car.’

Five years old. Think of a child you know of similar age — your own, a niece or nephew, a friend’s kid — and imagine: the confusion, the terror, the betrayal, the loss of innocence, the psychological damage. And then imagine a childhood lived constantly amid this tension, this imminent threat, waiting for the explosions, never being quite sure when they’ll come — just knowing that they will. As McGarvey, now 33, puts it in his brave, moving, darkly funny and challenging new book, Poverty Safari: ‘if you are not safe in your own home, under the care of your own mother, then where else could you possibly drop your guard?’

McGarvey arrives for our interview in the third floor café of Waterstones in Sauchiehall Street dressed in the notorious uniform of the Glaswegian ned — grey, low-slung tracksuit bottoms, matching sweatshirt, and trainers. It is almost a deliberate invitation to underestimate him.

You’d do so at your peril. The man seems to be on his way to becoming one of the most compelling and original voices in Scotland’s, and maybe Britain’s, public debate. We meet shortly after he has appeared on Radio 4’s prestigious Start the Week, alongside a composer and a theatre director — ‘there was that thought, oh my god I’m not as clever as they are.’ His fluent performance created a media whirlwind and in the aftermath the book jumped to number one in Amazon’s list of best-selling memoirs, and into the top 10 across all genres. I won’t be the only one to say that Poverty Safari has had a greater impact on me than any other book I’ve read this year. In fact, the book carries a ringing endorsement from none other than JK Rowling on its cover: ‘This is a savage, wise and witty tour-de-force. An unflinching account of the realities of systemic poverty, Poverty Safari lays down challenges to both the left and right.’

In person, McGarvey is — and I don’t say this lightly — one of the most extraordinary individuals I’ve met. In a broad West Coast brogue he recounts stories, like the horrifying attack by his mother, that make your hair stand on end, and in the next breath delivers an insight into the relationship between the classes of real intellectual precision. He confronts his own prejudices and in doing so leads the listener to confront their own. You become aware of how little you really know or understand about poverty. This next statement may sound patronising, but it isn’t meant to be: if Scotland’s underclass could speak in a single, articulate, authentic voice to communicate to the rest of us what it’s like to be poor, isolated, brutalised, lost, it would sound very much like this.

McGarvey is unabashedly left-wing but he is not, like so many members of that movement, an unthinking cliché, a spouter of pre-prepared and pre-approved opinions. He has harsh words for the ‘poverty industry’ — the state-funded experts and programmes that descend on impoverished communities with lavish budgets, grand plans and good intentions that rarely survive first contact with reality. ‘Even the good guys make a mint from social deprivation,’ he writes. ‘Success is when there remain just enough social problems to sustain and perpetuate everyone’s career. Nobody can admit when they fail because everyone is terrified of getting their funding cut.’

He also has the courage to throw a challenge back at the individuals who live in the rundown schemes and tattered estates: you must take greater responsibility for your actions and work harder to escape the poverty trap, he tells them. As you can imagine, he makes friends and enemies in equal measure.

McGarvey is complex, uncommon. For the past decade or so he has been a leading member of Scotland’s nascent hip-hop scene, where he goes by the moniker ‘Loki’ (you can find his work on YouTube). He has presented a four-part BBC radio documentary called ‘Neds’, writes a weekly column for the Scotsman newspaper and is an increasingly prominent media commentator on issues around poverty and class. Although he campaigned for a Yes vote in 2014, he is critical of the one-sidedness and aggression adopted by some independence advocates.

His journey from the schemes to the pages of national newspapers and guest slots on Radio 4 is truly remarkable. His mother Sandra was an alcoholic and drug addict, and was dead from liver failure at 36. Her sad legacy lives on in her five children, and McGarvey has the statistics to prove it. Four have struggled with alcohol and substance abuse; three have a criminal record; all have experienced long-term financial problems; three were suspended or excluded from school; two have attempted suicide; one has been to prison. All smoked from a young age, and have suffered physical and mental health problems. There is a trail of dysfunctional relationships. None went to university, is on the housing ladder, has any savings, or goes on foreign holidays. And really, you think, what chance did they have?

He isn’t over it: he says he remains ‘fragile’. It’s all about managing, coping day-by-day. His 20s went by in a fug of alcoholism and substance abuse. He is now sober, living in Govanhill with his partner and their baby. He is pale, more youthful than I expected, and unusually serious, his brow creasing as he answers my questions slowly and thoughtfully.

For many of us, grinding poverty is something we largely only read about or see in voyeuristic TV documentaries. The reality of the lifestyle, its discrete pressures, challenges and barriers, is alien to us. I ask McGarvey for his view on what real deprivation is. ‘For me it’s about social mobility,’ he says. ‘People are more socially mobile when there are certain things in place. Part of that’s about being nurtured at home, and having a strong sense of self and a support network around you that grounds you in reality, making you feel safe enough to move in a different direction. Part of that is about the social environment. People are products of their environment and their environment’s a product of them.’

In poorer communities, he says, there is a higher concentration of the behaviours that inhibit social mobility — there is more conflict, more stress, more political apathy. There’s a deep scepticism towards public interventions, to the extent that people recoil from the institutions that are there to provide support, as they are seen as proxies for a system that excludes them.

‘Middle-class people will descend on the community with the best intentions, the best education, and to some extent a real grasp of the macro issues. But they’ll hit a wall because they don’t have the emotional insight to know what gradient they should enter someone’s life at, what tone they should take. Having been on both sides of that fence and been just socially mobile enough to move around in spheres where poverty is discussed at a distance I now have a deeper understanding of why this stuff is getting lost in translation. It’s the same moral world — it’s just a difference of priorities. In lower-class communities, people express their values differently. Giving information to the police is often seen as betrayal of your class — in those communities, people are subject to the law. So there’s a moral logic to that position, which is perceived as vulgar and unsophisticated over here in this [middle class] culture. In the middle-class community people are more inclined to phone the police and cooperate with the law because it’s an institution that they feel serves their interest — and it does. People in communities like Govanhill are often held up to middle-class standards of how you should behave and think and speak — good values, by the way, but often out of the reach of people.’

He quickly adds: ‘That’s not to say those in lower-class communities who commit crime shouldn’t be held responsible.’ This is typical McGarvey, and what I think makes him so distinctive. He’s not letting anyone off the hook: everyone carries some of the blame. Equally, he attempts to see good on every side, to find what people have in common and where progress might be made. He would describe himself as a ‘cultural diplomat’, translating between different viewpoints and experiences.

‘I’m interested in looking at the faultlines between two perspectives that are hard to reconcile, because I feel like there’s often a lot of moral overlap between them,’ he says. ‘I came to a point in my recovery [from alcoholism] where I had to look at my own motives and agendas for certain things. What I realised was that a lot of the story I told myself about my life and where I come from and my politics was a fabrication to justify that my life wasn’t going the way I wanted it to go. I wasn’t ready to accept that was because of my drinking. That’s not to absolve society of its injustices or its internal inconsistencies, it’s not to say capitalism’s the answer to every problem, but a lot of the solutions I’ve found to my problems, I’ve found in this society. That tells me it still retains some sort of integrity and utility. It shouldn’t be controversial to be able to acknowledge that we have a long way to go but that I personally can feel grateful for the support that has been provided to me all through my life from society and public services. That seems obvious to me now.’

Similarly, he argues that personal responsibility is an essential virtue in life. ‘In the book I make a strong argument for public services because that’s what helped me through, but none of that support would have worked if I hadn’t made a choice too: to act, to meet my obligations, something as simple as filling out a form, making an appointment or even something really hard like staying sober for a day when the whole world is telling me ‘f*** it’. That choice is the proximate cause of any triumph over adversity, and the support supplements that choice. If someone doesn’t want to get sober, they won’t.’

One of the book’s most powerful passages addresses this point directly. McGarvey writes that he no longer believes poverty is an issue politicians can fix, ‘not because they don’t want to, not merely because of the magnitude of the task, but also because there is a certain level of personal responsibility involved that’s become taboo to acknowledge on the left. Contrary to what we’ve been told, the issue of poverty is far too complex to blame solely on “Tories” or “elites”. Whether it be the left blaming the rich or the right blaming the poor, we tend only to be interested in whichever half of the story absolves us of responsibility for the problem.’

Poverty Safari, for all its harrowing passages, is also witheringly and self-deprecatingly funny. Towards the end of his time at secondary school, McGarvey began to see a child psychologist in Glasgow’s chic West End. Despite his fierce intelligence and natural curiosity, it was the furthest he’d travelled from Pollok. Emerging from Hillhead underground station for the first time, he stopped in his tracks. ‘Where I grew up it was unusual to see clean pavements, but here the streets were in pristine condition and nothing like the turd gauntlet I was accustomed to running every day… I remember my first thought being “so this is how people dress when they aren’t afraid of being stabbed.”’

The famously bohemians of the West End left him goggle-eyed. ‘On Byres Road it is not unusual to find a small, fashionable dog waiting in the retro wicker basket of an upcycled penny-farthing while its owner proceeds into a café to politely complain to a barista named Felix about being undercharged for an artisan sausage. Byres Road is where I learned there was more than one type of coffee and discovered that fruit was a pleasure in its own right and not merely a cheap alternative to Haribo.’

On that first visit he saw a group of uniformed schoolchildren his own age coming down the hill from Notre Dame. They were ‘using the kind of words that I always had in my head but felt too inhibited to speak. A part of me wanted so much to walk over and join the conversation, as it seemed like we would probably have a lot of things in common.’ But as they approached, the group fell quiet. ‘Instantly I knew why: that’s what you did when you were walking past something that made you anxious… a way of showing deference to a potential threat.’ The reader’s heart plummets along with the Pollok schoolboy’s.

The book is full of stories like this — stories that join up society’s seemingly disconnected spheres and that explain each to the other. In these divided, unsettling times, and especially at a time of year when our thoughts naturally turn to love and luck, success and failure, its message is essential. As JK Rowling says, ‘It is hard to think of a more timely, powerful or necessary book.’

Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass, by Darren McGarvey is published by Luath Press

This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on December 9, 2017


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