Poverty Safari

Darren McGarvey

Luath Press Ltd, £7.99

Review by Dani Garavelli

AT the beginning of Chapter 24 of his book, Poverty Safari, Darren McGarvey, better known to many as the rapper, Loki, writes this: "When you take a strong dislike to someone, everything they say or do becomes irritating and suspect.”

Those words pulled me up short because they express, more or less, how I feel about McGarvey. Indeed, it was because the reaction he provokes in me is so uncharacteristically negative that I was keen to read his book. I wanted to challenge my own preconceptions: to test if they were fair, or based on prejudices as deep-seated as the ones he admits to harbouring towards people like me.

Before I start the review, then, I should probably unpack the baggage I bring to it. My dislike of McGarvey, a widely-acclaimed cultural commentator, is based on a belief that his insistence on viewing the world through the prism of class is outdated and reductive, but also that, for a man who claims voices like his struggle to be heard, he makes an awful lot of noise from an awful lot of platforms.

This dislike has been amplified by his depiction of the people of Pollok, the Glasgow scheme in which he grew up, as uniformly dispossessed; his conflation of alcoholism and poverty; and the way in which he seems to turn everything he writes into a personal psycho-drama. One thing I do like about Loki, however, is his willingness to examine his own prejudices; and it was in this spirit that I began.

So: Poverty Safari (subtitled Understanding The Anger Of Britain's Underclass) does what it says on the tin: it is a good – at times very good – analysis of the roots and consequences of deprivation by someone with first-hand experience and an inventive turn of phrase.

Born into a dysfunctional family – his mother was a violent alcoholic who left home when he was 10 and died when he was 17 – McGarvey has worked through his own addictions and gone on to forge a successful career as a musician and writer, and to work with initiatives such as Police Scotland's Violence Reduction Unit.

As a result, he is in an ideal position to talk about the ineffectual interventions of local authority or third sector workers as captured in Tom Leonard's famous poem, Liason Co-ordinator, and about the self-perpetuating nature of the poverty industry: the way outsiders breenge in to set up community ventures, then leave without any effort to ensure what they have put in place is self-sustaining.

Worn down by accusations that he exploits his family's suffering, McGarvey is almost apologetic for the book's misery memoir leanings. Used to editors demanding all the gory details of his mother's abuse, he says he has learned to use his traumatic past as a Trojan horse in which to smuggle unorthodox opinions past establishment gatekeepers. He is bleakly funny about this, finishing one lengthy section of polemic with the words: “And something about my dead mum.”

For those who have not heard them before, these details will be shocking and it is a testament to his resilience that he has not only survived but reached a stage where he can feel a degree of compassion towards her.

More compelling for those already familiar with his back story, however, is the way he interrogates his own flaws and charts his spiritual growth. Like most people, McGarvey is a contradiction: growing up, he was suspicious of “middle-class” people, and mocked their affectations, but he also yearned for what they had.

Visiting Glasgow's west end for the first time, he was captivated by this alternative universe where the threat of violence was not all-pervasive. Yet, when people dropped their eyes when he passed, he concluded he was being judged. So he channelled his sense of grievance into a generalised hostility towards anyone he considered “posh”.

The catalyst for reassessing his attitudes was was a well-publicised stooshie involving artist Ellie Harrison, who was given Creative Scotland funding to spend a year living within the confines of Glasgow.

Outraged, McGarvey branded Harrison's project a “poverty safari”. Later though, he was invited to appear on a panel with her and – seeing how upset she was – realised he had unfairly condemned her. “I was so consumed by my own anger and moral certainty, it had blinded me to the fact that Ellie Harrison, in all her middle-class glory, was not an enemy but an ally in the war I'd been fighting all my life,” he writes.

Despite McGarvey's epiphany, I still experienced moments of profound irritation with Poverty Safari. In the chapter headed Garnethill, he succumbs to all those lazy prejudices he spends the rest of the book resisting. First, he patronises his own community by suggesting few there mourned the destruction of the Mackintosh library at the Glasgow School of Art; then he claims there was little coverage of the impact of the Commonwealth Games on the communities of Bridgeton and Dalmarnock (I read so much on this I can tell you the name of the woman who fought the Compulsory Purchase Order on her home without checking). Finally, he launches into a diatribe against the "middle-class liberals, progressives and radicals" he says blamed disenfranchised communities after losing the Brexit vote.

He has a legitimate point: that the left is as guilty of ignoring the concerns of deprived communities as the right, but it gets lost in sweeping Daily Mail-style slurs about twibbons and gender-neutral gingerbread products.

Overall, I think McGarvey overstates the middle-class domination of Scottish culture and misses the point that social mobility in the 1960s and 1970s means many of the people who now live in affluent suburbs of the south side, if not the west end, were raised in Govan or the Gorbals. The irony is that he is in the process of making the same shift. A father now and no longer living in Pollok, he is on the way to becoming a paid-up member of the “intelligentsia”.

McGarvey is aware of his own defection. “Who knows, maybe allowing myself to evolve is a betrayal of my class or a renunciation of my heritage?” he says. His mistake is to think this dilemma is unusual; the ambivalence of those who transcend their roots has already inspired many a crisis-in-masculinity novel.

Having said all that, the book left me with plenty to reflect on. It made me think more about the alienation that has taken place in deprived communities across the UK; it made wonder if I too am sometimes guilty of rushing to judgement.