Darren McGarvey: A journey from wits’ end to Orwell Prize nomination

Darren McGarvey's book Poverty Safari has been nominated for the Orwell Prize. Picture: John Devlin
Darren McGarvey's book Poverty Safari has been nominated for the Orwell Prize. Picture: John Devlin
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Something incredible happened to me last week. It was one of those rare moments in life when you experience the surreal feeling of genuinely believing you may be dreaming.

The sort of moment you dared to fantasise about, staring out of a filthy bus window on some dreary Tuesday. The kind of thing you quickly dismiss out of hand as highly unlikely because those things happen to other people – not you.

Darren McGarvey's book Poverty Safari seeks to give voice to people living in deprived areas (Picture: Robert Perry)

Darren McGarvey's book Poverty Safari seeks to give voice to people living in deprived areas (Picture: Robert Perry)

On Saturday night, I came into the house after cutting the front grass to find my first book Poverty Safari had been shortlisted for an Orwell Prize; a coveted award which – in line with Orwell’s stated ambitions as a writer – recognises work that elevates political writing to an art form.

My book, which I crowdfunded and published with Luath Press in November last year, now takes its place alongside five critically acclaimed titles – including fellow Scottish author Ali Smith for her novel Winter – on a shortlist that’s likely been whittled down from thousands of entries.

When you spend so much time day-dreaming about something like this happening to you, it is extremely bizarre when it actually does. This time last year, I was at my wits’ end with the book. It was a nightmarish process in which I only really began to find my voice and style after tens of thousands of words.

Much of the original book was culled or re-written as the shape and structure emerged out of what I can only describe as a hurricane of ideas and pre-existing material. My approach to the book was much the same as my approach to music. I went wherever my impulse took me, often setting whatever I was working on aside to ride a wave of incoming inspiration, before returning to the previous chapter and attempting to reconcile it with the new material.

READ MORE: Darren McGarvey: I avoided books – now I’ve written one

This process has served me well where my music is concerned. When writing an album, if I decide to re-sequence a song or a track-list, or re-write something completely, then it only takes an hour to listen to the rough edit to get a sense of whether it was the right decision or not. What I completely underestimated was the sheer volume of words I was dealing with and that by cutting, copying and pasting – with no prior structure or chapter plan in place – I would always keep losing a sense of the pace and tone of the book and would have to keep re-reading as a result. This consumed so much of my time and energy, while I was juggling family life, multiple part-time jobs and performing regularly, while trying desperately not to end up in a pub. It was made all the harder by the fact it’s surprisingly difficult to find somewhere quiet to do anything. Even libraries are now busy, often loud, public spaces that feel more like community centres than sanctums of contemplation and solitude.

All I kept thinking was: What if this doesn’t work? I hadn’t written enough to hand it into my publisher but was too far in to abandon it. I had gambled everything on being able to produce something entertaining, but also of value, to the rather circular discussion taking place in the UK around poverty. Some days, I’d feel confident, ready to meet the challenge and others I had terrible exhaustion-induced migraines where I’d find myself lost in a thick wood of self-doubt.

READ MORE: Darren McGarvey: Inequality starting to ‘tear’ Scotland apart

If it wasn’t for the support I got from family and friends, as well as people with experience in this field, making themselves available to me for a chat now and then, the struggle to finish the book and for it to be readable, would have been far greater. When times were rough, I kept focusing on the day the first proof copy would arrive by post and tried to imagine how satisfying it would feel to hold it in my hand.

Then that day came, and my life hasn’t been the same since. After years of struggling to find an audience, or being turned down by producers, editors and largely ignored – or blackballed – by much of the Scottish cultural commentariat, now it feels as if everyone and their granny is beating down my door with offers to do everything from the Fringe, to theatre, television and documentaries. After years of thinking I was going mad for believing the media has a way to go until it can truly understand something like poverty, and thus frame it in such a way that moves beyond the typical tropes which undermine its seriousness, now I face the possibility of getting to do things my own way, with a lot of creative control, but with access to resources and an audience I would never have dared to dream were possible.

I would like to sit here and say this all occurred because of my talent, or because of my determination. But this journey has been a massive team effort. From my family and friends, my publisher, right back to my school teachers, old support workers and mental health professionals. Counsellors and sponsors as well as allies and mentors who chose to see beyond an abrasive attitude to something more vulnerable.

For my book to be recognised by something as prestigious as the Orwell Prize is quite simply unbelievable and really speaks to the issue of social mobility at the core of Poverty Safari. It was a mix of personal growth, taking responsibility where I could, and various forms of overlapping support, kindness and patience from outside, that made any of this possible. People keep telling me to get used to this. That I ought to own these successes more and stop acting so surprised that I now find myself at the wheel of a career doing what I love and making a decent living out of it. I hope one day soon, I will learn to internalise these events. That they’ll become the cornerstones of some genuine self-belief that will quiet a raging ego. But the truth is: I haven’t had a spare moment to savour any of it – because there is still so much to do.