New books on the block: Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey

Published

Credit: Geograph / Paul McIlroy

Emily Hay
Columnist

The rawness of the experience McGarvey describes is one that should be especially shocking but important to students living in the West End of Glasgow”

So, I’ve already given you my opinion on The Great Gatsby and why I think it’s far too outdated to still be so highly regarded in our literary consciousness. I understand you might now need something to fill the void it’s left behind. If you’re looking for something to quench your thirst for class politics and both the highs and lows of modern capitalism look no further than Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey.

In places a memoir and in others a systematic study of the social inequalities in Britain today, Poverty Safari will satisfy those looking for personal narratives and social arguments alike. McGarvey gives an invaluable insight into the repressed voices of the underclasses in our society without appropriating those arguments for his own gain. He shows the issue of poverty, and all the mental, physical and emotional issues associated with that, as the complex ones that they are – despite what the activists and politicians will claim about having all the answers. He considers not only the system we live under, but the personal choices of himself and others in his position that exacerbated the problems that were already there. It is at once an overview of the failures of the right along with the failures of the progressive left in our political climate.

The rawness of the experience McGarvey describes is one that should be especially shocking but important to students living in the West End of Glasgow. Growing up between Pollock and the Gorbals – two of the most deprived areas of the city – he describes his first ventures into the West End as a teen as mythical ones: “so this is how people dress when they aren’t afraid of being stabbed” he muses to himself. It’s a tale of how the other half live flipped on its head – for those of us living here in the West End, we are the other half to the teenage McGarvey. It puts perspective on the poverty problem in this country which is so often described as at its worst in the very city that we call home. As students at the University of Glasgow many may not realise just how sheltered we are from that reality. Especially as students who so often believe we have all the answers to these social issues which, in regard to the vast majority of us, we don’t actually have first-hand experience of.

Bizarrely, what struck me most about this book was not always the content of the chapters, but the chapter headings themselves. Each chapter is wittily titled after a book including many famous classic works of literature such as Crime and Punishment, A Tale of Two Cities and The Metamorphosis as well as some of the biggest modern Scottish works of literature such as Welsh’s Trainspotting and Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing. The irony of this is not lost on the reader, as McGarvey himself declares that he has never been able to read a book cover to cover. Yet, it also, to me, serves to highlight the distinction between the popular notion of working-class people and “high art forms” such as classical literature – the two are almost always exclusive from one another. Yet, despite this distinction between our ideas of culture and poverty, every one of the novels used as a chapter heading describes poverty or its associated stigmas and stresses in some way: drug culture, alcoholism, depression, addiction – the list goes on and on. In this McGarvey challenges that preconceived stigma around the underclasses: if we can read about them and study their lives and problems in our literature why do we have such a hard time thinking that they too could write these kinds of books?

Rather than Gatsby, some affluent tycoon from somewhere far away discussing class politics, Poverty Safari brings the discussion to the here and now. In an age of poverty porn and growing social injustice this study of the intersection between personal choice and class circumstances is sorely needed.