Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey

Luarth Press, 2017

Poverty Safari starts with an account of something that’s becoming very familiar to me: going into a prison to run a group (I teach mindfulness). What McGarvey adds to my understanding of that situation is an insider’s knowledge of the dynamics at play for the prisoners: their wariness, search for nonverbal cues, alertness for threats, concern to salvage prides, and the ambient influence of stress.

McGarvey is an insider not because he has spent time in prison but because he is proudly Glasgow working class, can tell horror stories about his abusive mother and is an articulate commentator on poverty and its effects in rap and prose.

So far, so street-cred. What sets him apart is his awareness that all the above equip him for a particular role, but that this role is based on a cliches and lies; and his desire to be better and more honest than that.

One dimension of the role is as an ‘authentic voice of the underclass’. He describes how he was taken up by the media and politicians and asked to tell a particular story of suffering and abuse, but dropped when he left the script he had been given or questioned the motives of his hosts. A second is the narrative into which his testimony plays in leftwing circles, concerning the oppressions and injustices of class and political structures. He has stern words for the resentments and false self-justifications that drive many leftwing activists and despite some of the reviews, this book isn’t a coruscating account of deprivation and its effects in modern-day Britain.

The most interesting of these stories is the one he has told himself. In the concluding essay in the collection he writes: ‘I made every excuse, blamed every scapegoat and denied every truth. But as it happens, the great theme of my life was not poverty, as I had always imagined, but the false beliefs I had unconsciously adopted to survive it.; the myths I has internalised to conceal the true nature of many of my problems.’ Poverty Safari is a moving account of a journey, which is not so much away from poverty as towards self-awareness.

This is enough in itself, but it enables a fresh and valuable perspective on the people I meet in prison. The ambient stress that clouds their lives is a consequence of other things, but it’s also a cause of their problems. Ascribing their misery entirely to their circumstances denies them agency. If society is at fault, there is nothing they can do until society changes. McGarvey argues that people can also change themselves, whether that means quitting drink or drugs, or getting to grips with the anger and fear that lie beneath their behaviour.

I felt like cheering. This is why I go into rooms of angry people and teach them to meditate. Gaining that sort of agency is real power, and social changes follow that, rather than preceding it. Above all, I appreciated McGarvey’s courage in recognising publicly that this only happens when you start with yourself.