books poverty

Book review: Poverty Safari, by Darren McGarvey

“The apathy of the poor, in terms of politics, is so apparent that it’s factored into political calculations: leaders pitch policy to those more likely to participate. This, in turn, creates a cycle where the interests of those who do not participate are not considered, which leads to more apathy.”

That’s Darren McGarvey on how Britain’s lower income communities are shut out of the political process. It’s a key message in Poverty Safari: Understanding the anger of Britain’s underclass, which is an unusual, enlightening and powerful book.

The book owes its power to the authentic voice of its author. Darren McGarvey is a rapper and social commentator from one of the poorest estates in Glasgow, and as he acknowledges at the outset, “people like me don’t write books”.  His starting point is his own experience of childhood neglect, domestic violence, drug addiction and poverty. Most middle class people have no such experiences of their own, and the book aims to take an unflinching look at the reality of poverty in Britain so that we can learn from it.

McGarvey is painfully honest about his own mistakes. On the other side of depression and addiction, he is able to make useful observations about them. We see how easy it is for people to slip into drug use, and the ways that behaviour is justified and perpetuated. There is some very useful material on stress and the role it plays in poverty. (We write about this in The Economics of Arrival) “Stress is often the engine room that fuels the lifestyle choices and behaviours that can lead to poor diet, addictions, mental health issues and chronic health conditions.”

This an overlooked aspect of poverty, and that’s largely because of political framing. Labour politics tends to emphasize the system, portraying those in poverty as victims. Conservative politicians highlight personal responsibility instead. Neither understand the lived reality of poverty, McGarvey says. He takes the right to task for blaming the victim, but his most blunt words are to the left for making it taboo to talk about individual agency. “Striving to take responsibility is not about blame,” he clarifies, “it’s about honestly trying to identify what pieces of the puzzle are within our capacity to deal with… not about giving an unjust system a free pass, it’s about recognising that we are part of that system and are, on some level, complicit in its dysfunction.”

From the starting point of his own life, McGarvey examines the wider narratives and language around poverty and class. It is full of insights on politics, poverty and mental health. There are lessons for public services and academics. It touches on gentrification and how regeneration is ‘done to’ communities rather than done with or for them. Most of all, it describes the processes of political exclusion. “This is the other ‘deficit’ we rarely talk about or acknowledge. The deficit in our respective experiences when we come from lower class or higher class backgrounds.”

For all its heavy topics and political punches, Poverty Safari is a great read and a worthy winner of the 2018 Orwell Prize. It’s written with clarity, wit and an obvious love of language. I like the way the chapters are all book titles, in defiance of McGarvey’s admission that he struggles to read, and as if the book is filling in an unwritten literature of deprivation. There’s a real human story in it too, because for all the trauma and despair he describes, we know that McGarvey himself survives his addictions and goes on to write the book.

Britain is already divided, and we’re still at the narrow end of the mighty Brexit wedge. Unless we can develop more informed and more compassionate responses to poverty, more inclusive politics and more participative democracy, far more dangerous divisions may be on the horizon. Poverty Safari goes a long way to explaining that divide, and that makes it a very important book.

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