IT has been a whirlwind few months for Darren McGarvey. The Scottish rapper – known as Loki – won the Orwell Prize for his memoir Poverty Safari in June. He's since had film and television companies vying for the rights to his life story and enjoyed a soaring public profile.

We've had this interview in the diary for several weeks beforehand and when McGarvey tweets about clearing his schedule as he lets the news of winning the prestigious literary award sink in, I fear our appointment may be shelved.

But here we are in a coffee shop overlooking George Square in Glasgow on a humid Thursday afternoon. McGarvey arrives a few minutes late apologising profusely (the decidedly unstarry mode of transport that is the bus from his home in East Kilbride was stuck in traffic).

In person, there is a shyness that belies his outspoken reputation. McGarvey's eyes dart warily as he attempts to get the measure of any agenda I may have brought to the table. Yet, there's no doubting his fierce intelligence as we quickly leap into discussing his often tumultuous journey.

It may seem as if McGarvey, 34, has suddenly exploded into the public consciousness, but the man himself insists it has been a slow burn since last November when Poverty Safari, a searing account of his life growing up in the deprived Pollok area on the south side of Glasgow, was published.

This burgeoning mainstream success doesn't feel completely overwhelming, then? "Actually, it does," he says, adding that recent weeks have seen him make the transition from managing everything himself to taking on an agent to cope with a slew of requests.

McGarvey has built his profile through the likes of Twitter and Facebook, candidly sharing all facets of his life and interacting with a legion of followers. But, equally, such platforms have made him openly accessible. I'm curious whether social media has become a double-edged sword?

"I enjoy social media. It is only the last couple of years that I have recognised that it's not just a megaphone – it is a number of public squares," he says. "You start realising that anything you say can be reframed or interpreted in multiple ways depending on what kind of day someone is having.

"Suddenly you get drawn into all sorts of things that you never intended to because it is subject to interpretation by every single person reading your words.

"I find that, even if I am saying something that is contentious or that people might disagree with, when I am in a room with them – they get a sense of me and I get a sense of them – very rarely, in fact never, does it degenerate into the mud-slinging that happens routinely on social media."

That is because, he says, human beings communicate better face to face. In cyberspace even the best intentions can become skewed, misunderstood or hijacked.

"Because we see everything through the lens of our own experience," says McGarvey. "Sometimes I can let myself down. There was a time when I used to enjoy being provocative for the sake of it. I come from a hip-hop culture where that is almost a prerequisite of authenticity.

"I also talk about other issues that aren't related to hip-hop which are quite sensitive. I learn through making mistakes. At first you have that initial feeling of defensiveness, but I try to sit with that rather than let it orientate my politics.

"If someone challenges me, as much as it might be difficult at the time – especially if they are making an accusation that is quite socially toxic – I just try to imagine where they are in their life and ask is there a kernel of truth in what they are saying.

"I'm always going to say something that will offend someone because you can't avoid that, even among the most mild-mannered people, but I try not to be deliberately offensive. I don't want to cause unnecessary offence or confusion. So, I take a lot more care to say what I mean."

We're building up to addressing the controversy that McGarvey became embroiled in two years ago when he made a film, Gaslight, during a stint as rapper-in-residence at Police Scotland's Violence Reduction Unit.

To his credit, it is McGarvey who raises the topic unprompted. "There have been times in the past where my intentions would become completely distorted or obscured," he says.

"I did a video a few years ago around gender-based violence. I had been given a brief by the Violence Reduction Unit to create something that targeted young men, either at risk of perpetrating that behaviour or in the midst of it.

"When the VRU decided not to release it – I think because they were anxious about the response – I released it myself. I had never conducted anything of that scale, so there was no PR roll-out. The audience weren't made aware of the brief I had which was to target young men.

"A lot of people, particularly women's groups, came to it with an idea that I had been pathologising domestic abusers and creating a sympathy narrative. Which was completely not the case. What I was trying to do was create a mirror for them to self-identify."

McGarvey says he did in-depth research as well as drawing from his own experiences "as a man who has felt insecure in relationships" and the lessons derived from a personal battle against addiction. He also insists that he did preview the film for domestic abuse survivors.

"I was trying to invoke as many of the tropes as possible that a young man might see and think: 'Hang on, I do that.' To have that moment of self-awareness I have had in the past with my drinking and drug use, where the penny drops and suddenly you think: 'I'm not the person I think I am.'"

That steep learning curve, says McGarvey, will form part of his show Poverty Safari Live which runs at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this month.

"It will attempt to show how an experience like that on social media, where people push back against you, can re-direct you to a whole other rabbit hole of politics," he says. "It feels so painful that you go looking for answers rather than sitting with the discomfort."


The subtitle to his memoir Poverty Safari is "understanding the anger of Britain's underclass". It is a subject on which McGarvey has spoken and written prolifically, much of it based on first-hand experience.

McGarvey charts a childhood in which his mother, an alcoholic and drug addict who died from cirrhosis at 36, chased after him with a serrated bread knife. He was just five at the time.

Another occasion saw her attempt to dig up the family dog, which had died after being run over, from the back garden with her bare hands. McGarvey also alludes to his mother displaying fire-raising tendencies. "That gave weekends at her flat in the high rise yet another unsettling edge," he writes.

The first half of the book deals with these struggles and the bubbling anger and resentment, coupled with deep self-loathing, that took root. Then, having lured the reader in with what McGarvey describes as "a Trojan horse", there comes a deliberate gear change to razor-sharp polemic.

Its underlying message is powerful: the so-called cycle of abuse and addiction can be broken. And McGarvey is the living proof of that.

"All of my life I have been prompted to tell that story," he says. "But that is the only part of the story people want to hear. Over the last few years I have really started to understand the landscape of social media, politics, journalism and even entertainment.

"I have tried to unify all of that knowledge to structure the book in such a way that I can pull the rug from under all the people halfway through. It was in a sense I guess manipulative but, at the same time, it was the only way I would have got a chance to do a book."

Such is the growing buzz around Poverty Safari that Pan Macmillan imprint Picador announced it is partnering with Edinburgh-based independent publisher Luath Press to republish the book.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, as well as authors Irvine Welsh and JK Rowling, have all publicly praised Poverty Safari. Director Ken Loach describes it as "another cry of anger from a working class that feels the pain of a rotten, failing system".

Granted, McGarvey and his rhetoric isn't to everyone's taste. He would be the first to admit having his share of detractors. Throughout our conversation, however, McGarvey refers to the many ways in which he remains a work in progress.

The rise of the #MeToo movement, he says, gave him pause for thought. "I went into a period of very, very deep reflection. These men were being accused of a spectrum of behaviour, from clumsy flirtations to genuine sexual abuse.

"Most of them genuinely didn't think they had done anything wrong. I thought to myself – as any man should if he is reflecting deeply on it – 'If I don't believe that my attitudes have been suspect at points in my life, then maybe that is a sign they have?'"

The upshot of such musings will form part of his Fringe show as McGarvey segues neatly to talking about a two-pronged narrative which juxtaposes what might have happened to him had he "decided to go down the rabbit hole", and also how he found his way back to the political left.

He hints at a new-found perspective when it comes to dealing with what McGarvey describes as "online call-out culture" and "tropes of social justice" that he has long railed against.

"If I am going to make middle-class people feel uncomfortable, coming from a working-class background, then I must be prepared to sit down and feel uncomfortable when women, people of colour or people with disabilities have very stern things to say to me as an able-bodied, white, heterosexual male.

"We all get our chance to stand with the megaphone, but sometimes we just need to sit down and shut-up."

Has it sunk in yet about winning the Orwell Prize? "No. Even the cheque bounced. I had to call them up and say: 'You're going to need to do a BACS transfer …'

"My financial position in life is changing quite quickly and dramatically. That means security for my children and extended family. All the things that I have always wanted to be able to do for them, I can do that now and more. There is a great pleasure in that, but it involves a s***load of work."

McGarvey has spoken openly about his addictions. Does he feel in a good place now? "No, I'm not. That's all I can say. I am experiencing a lot of conflict between the fact that I am held up as this paragon of self-honesty, awareness and recovery, but I have always struggled on my recovery journey.

"I wasn't prepared for the success. There are things I can't even talk about which are going to be announced soon and will push this to the next level of the stratosphere.

"So, for me, it is about being in constant contact with people in recovery, sponsors, speaking honestly and making sure I don't regress back into how I used to live. Because it is so easy to do that."

It is about being vigilant about his triggers, he adds. "Everywhere I go now it's 'This way, Mr McGarvey …' which is nice and satisfying because I know there are a lot of people out there who, if they'd had their way, would have had my career derailed before it started."

McGarvey catches himself. "But that's resentment. Did you see that coming out of me there?" He looks thoroughly self-chastised. I suggest to him that most humans feel resentment on some level? "But for me, that gets me drunk. That is what I need to watch," he replies.

"There is a lot of people out there where I'm like: 'Oh, aye. Get it up ye!' And thinking it feels good at the time. I'm not saying it to them, but in my head, I'm thinking it. That becomes an engine room for me. It is corrosive. I need to be in a place where I can forgive and forget, move on and help others.

"That is the key: helping others. Not just by writing books about poverty. I mean sitting with someone who is rattling off a methadone script. But the constraints on my time, the emotional impact of all of this. Deep down I'm not a very confident person."

Family life is his anchor. McGarvey and his partner Becci Wallace, 31, a singer-songwriter and lecturer have two children – Daniel, two, and three-month-old Lily – and he clearly loves fatherhood.

"It is about being able to provide them with the material and emotional resources to deal with stress a little better than I have in the past," he says. "Having children is everything, it is beautiful and profound.

"For me, the best thing about it is having something else at the centre of my life. See when it is all about me? That's when I am ill."

One of the most jarring parts of Poverty Safari is when he talks about how for a long time, McGarvey believed that "withholding my DNA" would be his "greatest gift to the world".

"Aye. I thought I was defective. I thought that if I passed these genes on to someone else, then who knows what might happen? That was at a different time in my life where I was drinking all the time and my whole perception of reality was so askew.

"These habits we pass onto our kids are not just behavioural – it is wired into our DNA. If I raise my son in the same environment I was raised in, then all those little systems come online."

Recent weeks have seen him deactivate his Twitter account on a couple of occasions and talk about doing likewise with Facebook. Is it a case of circling the wagons and making sure he has the right people around him? "That's what I am doing. It is just taking the necessary precautions."

McGarvey draws an analogy between the long-lasting impact of stress and the fight-or-flight response many of us have experienced when undergoing a painful procedure at the dentist.

"Imagine you woke up in the dentist's chair every day. People who grow up in stress are primed for stress. No matter that my living conditions technically aren't as stressful now, I still have that misfiring stress response where I go into a state of panic and anxiety unnecessarily.

"It is a like a spider sense that misfires. It tingles at all the wrong things. It tingles at a plate smashing. It tingles at a siren racing past your house. If I walk on public transport and someone looks at me, I'm thinking: 'Do they know me? Or am I just a real self-important, egotistical a*******?'

"There are all these new things happening that create a sense of confusion about what your value is in the world. It's like: 'Who am I? What am I worth?' Because everyone is treating me differently now. I need to get anchored. I'm just a bit rudderless with it all."

Yet he is determined to keep the momentum going. McGarvey has newly signed a two-book deal with Ebury and aspires to turn his hand to screenwriting. He plans to give a final performance of Poverty Safari Live in December.

"I just need to move on," he says. "I need to move on to the next thing. I don't want this to be my 36 Chambers. Every album the Wu-Tang Clan puts out, people are like: 'It's not better than 36 Chambers …'

"It is about showing range and saying: 'I can also do these things as well, you know.'"

Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey is republished by Picador/Luath Press on Thursday, priced £8.99. Poverty Safari Live is at The Stand's New Town Theatre, as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, until August 26