Book Review – Poverty Safari

Darren McGarvey Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass, Luath, 2018, 9781912147038, £7.99

Reviewed by Seán Duffy

Something of a surprise winner of the Orwell Prize, Darren McGarvey’s journey through the travails of growing up on the sharp end of the economic spectrum is a worthy recipient of praise and pondering. The avenue of attack experienced in this book is not, perhaps, one you would immediately predict. McGarvey is at his best when tackling what he refers to as the ‘poverty industry’, a term used here not in the sense of payday lenders and bookies shops, as has become the standard usage in much sociology, but in the sense of those third sector and state funded organisms that operate and flourish in a manner that is distinctly separate from the actual impoverished communities they claim to advocate for.

In short, it’s no wonder the left has lost so much ground as we engage with the working class from on high, and take a moralistic tour through those communities in order to fulfil some sense of progress. It is easy to see parallels with the Brexit vote in 2016 and, perhaps, the larger than anticipated vote for Scottish independence in 2014.

McGarvey’s tendency to question class assumptions is refreshing, particularly in regards of the emotional effect of poverty as opposed to the more discussed material consequences. In particular, the author shines a light on the ingrained aspects of working class reality that few celebrate on the socialist podiums of the left, the desperate reality of many young men in particular who sustain themselves on an existence of alcohol, unhealthy food, drugs, and more quietly – depression.

For anyone who has grown up in and around Britain’s council estates, there is a great deal to be nostalgic and equal parts morose about in this memoir. Yet McGarvey navigates these themes with a more critical and self-reflective eye than most. There is little of the contemporary trend for pity here and much more that is reminiscent of those social commentators of old who saw pride in the solidarity evident in these communities and an eminent desire for action stemming from the sense they have been forgotten.

Where McGarvey excels is in his take down of the onward march of gentrification, a force that many on the organised (student heavy) left passively enact. The blueprint of Marxist dialectic means little to someone living on the dole that has just seen their local community centre knocked down to be replaced by a trendy café, and the author (a rapper as well as author) has experienced first-hand that patronising experience in the cultural sphere.

McGarvey, like many of us who grew up in smallish post-industrial towns and either through education, talent, graft or luck found ourselves mixing with those from an entirely different background, adeptly depicts the sense of being forever wedded to a past that we sense we are leaving behind, whilst also never feeling completely comfortable with the more middle class world we have entered.

Unlike many other tales of life on the lower rungs of the ladder, this book does engage in overt political points that are not missed by anyone who has spent even a brief amount of time looking at the effects of austerity and underfunding through successive governments.

Where the book strays from this path is in its overreliance on the belief that pointing out individual autonomy plays a part in deprivation is in some way remarkable. Whether McGarvey thinks this, I do not know, but it certainly bubbles up from the broth whenever the root cause of poverty is discussed. The consistent referral to this as an inspired point becomes rapidly uninteresting.

This is not an academic text, and is all the better for it. If you have experienced poverty you will find great kinship in McGarvey’s ability to reflect that it is an experience only those who have encountered it can ever fully understand, yet it is not a tale heavy on prescription for a new political path. The lesson here is that politics not embedded in the day-to-day lives of those you are looking to represent will inevitably fall by the wayside. It is a lesson the left continues to struggle with.  

Seán Duffy is Secretary of  The Campaign for Socialism.