The subtitle to this book is ‘understanding the anger of Britain’s underclass’, which gives you some sense of what its pages contain. It is a journey (a safari, perhaps) through lives in poor communities, and particularly McGarvey’s own in Glasgow – in that sense it is part-memoir, part-polemic and part-political essay. He writes brilliantly: the ferocity and fury is there, and it lands with extra power because he has a sharp way with words that can knock you for six.
His own upbringing is undeniably traumatic, with his mother bouncing between alcoholism, depression, neglect and arson. The effect on him and his siblings is understandably significant and profound. What struck me most about his writing about how this affected him was the stress it induced, which did not leave him in later life. An anxiety, scarcity-caused stress that seeped into every part of his life, and the way he lived that life (even his personality).
He is also acutely clear on how large impersonal top-down decisions (usually from people outside the communities they are deciding about) can have a deleterious effect: the section detailing the road being built straight through the woodland and dividing a community is enough to make the blood boil over; particularly as its effects last for several lifetimes – in education, in health, in community cohesion and more.
Interestingly, McGarvey’s ‘answer’ (such as he offers one) is actually more about personal responsibility than I probably expected when I started reading. He’s very very far from being a Conservative, but he does have as much criticism for the left and what he sees as its inability to really be in touch with real problems in communities (and its inability to tackle head on racism and immigration, which leaves space and energy for populism and the growth of the far-right). He doesn’t say that we should stop trying to tackle, campaign against or change unfair systems – just that until he understood himself fully, and had grappled with his own demons, he wasn’t in a position to usefully part of that wider challenge. And that we need to scrutinise our own behaviours, and be open to having our thinking challenged, before we can usefully do the same to others.
Of course, reading this book itself is in part a poverty safari – but how else to try and understand the problems we face and fail to change over generations? Of course, his is only one voice – albeit a compelling and erudite one (as an aside, I’d forgotten but I did have a track by Loki from a few years back, his rapping alter ego) – but there’s plenty here to inform and influence anyone working in a small way to try and make a difference.