Darren McGarvey: My failure to read books could have killed me '“ but now I've written one

People like me don't write books '“ or so my head keeps telling me even now, despite having written one that a few people have said is really good. Then again, I don't know why I'm so surprised. When I think back, it's hard to see what else could have become of me, professionally speaking, given the fact that language has been an obsession since I learned to speak.

Darren McGarvey says he found reading a struggle, leading him to the spoken word instead. Picture: Getty

Since my schooldays, how words look, sound and what they mean has been my main interest. As a child I was keen to engage grown-ups in conversation, always ­trying to add new words my vocabulary. I’m told that by the age of five I was precociously correcting my ­mother’s terrible grammar, much to her annoyance.

By the time I was ten, I was formulating my first short stories, borrowing heavily, as one does, from my main influences at the time: Granny and Batman. But I don’t remember reading any books.

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I do recall occasionally picking them up and flicking through a few pages, or delving for a specific piece of information, such as the capital city of Turkey (which is not Istanbul). I don’t remember the life-changing moment so many people speak of – finishing the book that ignites their passion for reading.

I do, however, retain vivid memories of struggling with books and being intimidated by their physical size and word-count. Just the thought of a big book was enough to defeat me. In secondary school, when my ability to write put me in the top English class, I was out of my depth when it came to literature. People would tell me I just hadn’t found the right book, that I should persevere. They insisted that all I had to do was work my brain like a muscle until reading became less of a chore. But I secretly resented this advice – and those who dispensed it.

Instead, I settled on the belief that there was some unseen ­barrier ­preventing me from connecting with literature. It’s not as if I was the only one at my school who struggled. Regular readers were the exception.

Reading was not regarded as a leisure activity, more a necessary evil. Where I diverged from many of my classmates was that I privately longed to read every book I picked up. However, to my frustration and later, resignation, I always found, not long after starting one, that I could never see it through.

Lightweight paperbacks were deceptively small, often luring me in with an interesting cover, but I’d quickly return them to the shelf when I discovered the absence of illustrations. Those books were so crammed with words that they appeared cluttered and chaotic – filling me with the sort of dread an imminent house move triggers when you think about it for too long. Tiny lettering, coupled with tight paragraph spacing, gave off a sense of impossibility that only got worse.

I was still imbibing a lot of new words, increasingly from newspapers. But I came to depend on ­listening to other people discuss and debate as a way of ­grasping what I might otherwise have learned from books. Discussion was more engaging and fun, and was not an endurance test like reading. By talking and listening to what ­others had to say – and paying attention to how they said it – I developed an ability to communicate with different types of people on a broad range of subjects, which might even have suggested I was an avid reader.

Had I attended secondary school in a community where being smart was more socially acceptable, ­perhaps I would have been a ­better reader. In poetry, I found only frustration and confusion which is, again, ironic given I would later become a rapper. It wasn’t just the opaque metaphors and bizarre punctuation, but also the subject matter. These poems were couched in such high language that they seemed to sneer at me. I was sceptical that anyone could understand or enjoy it.

My struggle to find meaning – or rather, to find the meaning ascribed by the curriculum, in order that I pass a test – led me to take an increasingly hostile attitude towards poetry and poets, which matched my now belligerent attitude towards reading and readers. However, beneath my ­disruptive behaviour lay an aggrieved sense of rejection and exclusion, and a crushing feeling of personal failure. In my frustration at not being able to read a book and the sense of exclusion this instilled in me, I gradually adopted a world view that would place me at odds with nearly every person, place and thing I’d encounter. The beliefs I formed about public institutions and authority, generally, would later become the lenses through which I would view everything else in life. There came a point when such ­scepticism was not only self-defeating and dishonest, but potentially life-threatening. I became unable to discern between enemies and allies, truth or falsehood, and this partly fuelled a resentful descent into destructive drinking for nearly ten years. I stayed angry and adversarial until one morning I woke up drunk in a police cell and realised my life had to change radically.

The idea that people like me don’t write books still rings in my ears – even though I have one coming out. It’s called Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass and it’s my attempt to explore how early formative childhood experiences can evolve into deeply held beliefs about ­ourselves and the world – regardless of whether they are true or not.

I have no doubt that greater books than mine have been written about poverty. I just haven’t read them.

Darren McGarvey is also known as Loki, a Scottish rapper and social ­commentator @lokiscottishrap. An extract from his book, Poverty Safari, will be published in The Scotsman on Thursday.