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Poverty Safari

May 15 2018
Darren McGarvey, aka Loki © Ilisa Stack Darren McGarvey, aka Loki © Ilisa Stack
Darren McGarvey, Glasgow rapper and writer, had a difficult childhood in Glasgow
By the time Darren McGarvey was a teenager he had learned that words have power. Now 33, he grew up with an alcoholic and abusive mum in a housing scheme in Pollok in the south of the city, where he was expected to screen out anything that didn't fit the mould. It turns out that's not something that comes naturally to McGarvey.

Last November his first book, Poverty Safari, which started as “a side project... and slowly consumed every waking moment,” was finally published. Interest in what he’s saying about poverty – and how he’s saying it – has exploded, and the book has now been long-listed for the Orwell Prize 2018.

Several of us grew up in very similar circumstances right here in Glasgow so we’ve got some insight into some of the themes of this book, from homelessness to addiction and bereavement. Here's just some of what we discussed.


1. On stress & class

Q. Everybody's stressed, aren't they? What difference do you think your background made?

Darren McGarvey: “Every family deals with a job loss, death, money going up or down – that’s the stuff of life. But families with a bit more stability, with money in the bank and a strong emotional centre, are able to better absorb that stress. When you look at the stats, it’s very clear that people from lower class backgrounds face different problems from people from affluent backgrounds. It’s not to say that people who are comfortable financially don’t have problems, [but] the stress is not as constant.”


2. On writing about abuse

Q. Was it hard to write about the personal stuff?

DM: “My mum came from a really abusive background, sexual violence from a young age, domestic violence. She was so traumatised from her own background, that [when] she died at 36, she hadn't had a chance to address some of the things [that happened as a result] or make amends.”

“It can be stressful sometimes going to talk to a journalist who’s not read the book, or who just wants to talk about the abuse. It is a legitimate thing for them to cover, but there are only so many times someone can ask you: ‘Did your mum really try to stab you?’ and you’re thinking, ‘What about all the other things I said?’”


3. On getting help

Q. Some of us have experienced therapy, and meditation really helped one of us. How important was the role of your child psychologist, Marilyn?

DM: “I trusted her, so I just went with [her suggestions]. She would get me to shut my eyes and almost like hypnosis she would talk very softly. She would say: 'You don’t need to worry about that' [while pushing on the pressure points of my hands]. It was like I was downloading a new app on how to deal with my life or at least have insight into it.”

“At every stage of evolution, you’re pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. It can feel awkward, but you have to have faith that you’re following your intuition and you’re there for a reason.”


4. On addiction

Q. Several of us know a fair bit about addiction. What part has recovery played in your life?

DM: “I’ve not had a drink for nearly [pause] three years? Still, I've had some wobbles. But the things I’ve learned from surrounding myself with people who stay sober have been quite profound and life changing for me. They’ve changed the way I see myself and the impact I have on those around me. I’ve not been a saint in recovery. I relapsed one Christmas, but I still came and I sat in my seat [in a meeting].”


5. On honesty

DM: “For a long time, when I was drinking I used to blame everything that was going on in my life on the Government, or the council, or my family. Those things to some extent are true, but it’s complicated. You won’t solve all your problems by just taking responsibility for them. When I started to look more honestly at the situation I was in, I could see that I had got myself into habits where I was creating quite a lot of the difficulty.”

“It caused me to think a lot about some of the generalisations that I walk around with; about people further up the food chain, thinking that they don’t care, that they are detached and that they haven’t experienced any difficulties themselves. Actually, that’s been healthy for me, because it’s helped bring my anger level down, which helps me to function better. When you’re walking around raging all the time, I find that can be quite toxic emotionally and bad for health.”


6. What's next?

Q. We are meeting you as a successful author. How do you want to continue to make positive changes?

DM: “For me the first thing is to try to create an environment for my son that’s not as stressful as the one I was raised in. If young people feel safe, they will be less likely to do things that give them security like get involved with gangs. As much as they want to look tough, it’s actually about fear. Carrying a blade is not a sign of confidence.”

“The main thing I see is that people from different backgrounds or political persuasions don’t talk to each other very much anymore. Over time you just start drawing conclusions about someone over the way, whether it’s someone who supports a different political party or football team, or from a different social background. You don’t see all the things you have in common and all the overlap.”

“The book has created a space where people can have a conversation. I’ve found that when I go out to events, whether it’s at a university or a community project, the common ground is breathtaking. I often wish that I could take all the people I’ve met and throw them in a room together because they’d be surprised how strongly they all feel about these issues – they just express it in different ways.”


Quick read

• Darren McGarvey had a difficult childhood in Glasgow.

• It was friends that introduced him to drink and drugs. He became an addict. He turned his life around.

• His first book, Poverty Safari, has glowing cover recommendations from Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh and Harry Potter creator JK Rowling.


Interview with Darren McGarvey, Glasgow rapper and writer, by our Glasgow group members, James Blakely, Jim Little and Alex MacKay with Karin Goodwin


In June, our 115 (July/August) cover star McGarvey (Loki) won the George Orwell Prize 2018 for political writing with his book Poverty SafariMcGarvey’s photo was taken by the Pavement’s regular photographer Ilisa Stack in Glasgow and we had an exclusive interview in issue 114 (May/ June). Keep speaking up, McGarvey. 


Have you got a book in you?

Luath Press, the Edinburgh-based publisher of Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari, takes submissions of manuscripts through the post.

You’d need to send a sample chapter (or even a full manuscript if you have it), and a clear synopsis of 250 words. More info at