Book review: Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey

Darren McGarvey PIC: John Devlin
Darren McGarvey PIC: John Devlin
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Readers of The Scotsman have come to know Darren McGarvey as an unusually scrupulous columnist, one who argues with himself as much as with anyone else. His columns are often exploratory; it’s his own response to experience that he is exploring. In doing so, he challenges himself. The act of self-criticism moderates his criticism of others. He coined the phrase “Poverty Safari” when an artist was given a grant to spend a year in Glasgow exploring “the Glasgow Effect”; a piece, you might say, of self-indulgent tourism, and that is more or less what he did say. Then he revised his ungenerous opinion; he recognised that the artist was serious, not condescendingly slumming it.

His book is a hybrid, part autobiography, part social and political criticism. The autobiographical part could be the “misery memoir” that was so fashionable a few years ago, and there is certainly the basis for such a memoir: poverty, an alcoholic mother dead in her middle 30s, a dysfunctional family, mental troubles, alcoholism, drugs, unemployment. But misery memoirs all reek of self-pity, and there is no self-pity here. On the contrary there is his realisation that there was no point blaming others for the difficulties he experienced; he had to take responsibility for his own behaviour, ideas, feelings, that’s to say, for himself. Dependency may not be a choice. Many are forced into that position. But acceptance of it is a choice, easier than rejection.

Growing up in poverty, surrounded by poverty, he naturally belonged to the Left. Poor people were trapped by an economic system that the Left sought to change. Fair enough, but he faces up to the paradox: that the benevolent Left has – may have anyway – a vested interest in perpetuating poverty. So many programmes and jobs are concerned with managing the poor. The intention is benevolent, idealistic. But the consequence may be that those whom the idealists hope to help find that they are being kept under, organised, and being told what is good for them rather than being asked for their opinion; and so resentment festers.

MacGarvey insists that it is difficult to understand just what poverty is, what it entails, unless you have experienced it yourself. It is material of course, but it is not only material. It’s a state of mind, that results from constant living in stress and uncertainty. It’s a denial of autonomy. It’s the realisation that you are required to accept that you are incapable. The child reared in poverty will suffer spiritual as well as material deprivation, will often suffer abuse of one form or another. He or she will grow up distrustful because the trust that is natural to childhood has been betrayed.

Resentment is natural but unproductive. MacGarvey, reflecting on his darkest, most disturbed years, writes that “my self-righteousness totally blinded me to the fact that the very society I was praying would fall, for all its glaring faults, was providing for my ever mutating needs”. I suspect he is too harsh on himself, but this led him to the conclusion that he had “lost all sense of perspective. I could only see where I had been harmed, never where I had harmed others.” If he has come through, it is because he has arrived at the point where he is capable of taking responsibility for his own life.

He remains a man of the Left –it’s the tribe he belongs too, part of his identity, even though he sometimes feels that “the left is no longer a safe place for someone like me”. Nevertheless, he has come to the realisation that “you are no use to any family, community, cause or movement unless you are first able to manage, maintain and operate the machinery of your own life”.

“It hadn’t occurred to me,” he writes, “that a root-and-branch analysis of poverty might involve asking some searching and difficult questions of myself too”.

Both that analysis and these questions are offered us in this intelligent and searching book. In The Aeneid Vergil wrote that the descent to Hell was easy, but coming back up, that was hard labour, hard work. MacGarvey has made that journey. His book is demanding, not always easy to read; but the reading is very worthwhile. There is insight into our social and economic state, and hard-won wisdom on offer.

*Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey, Luath, 223pp, £7.99