Poverty Safari, Darren McGarvey

Every so often, you read a book and recognise its importance, though it’s not always easy to understand exactly why. With Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari, almost every page makes you think, rethink, question and reflect.


Glasgow-born McGarvey, also known by his rapper name of Loki, has for more than a decade worked with people in the city on the issue of poverty. He’s made programmes for the BBC, been a commentator and speaker as an expert on the issue and he’s told his own story of being raised with a sometimes violent, alcoholic mother, and his own subsequent addictions to alcohol, fast food and drugs.

Poverty Safari draws readers in with McGarvey’s personal story and why he became a socialist, a left-wing activist and campaigner. Its brilliance, however, is its uncanny ability to engender a semi-comfortable feeling at the same time as jolting readers out of their liberal-left comfort zone as he questions his – and their – beliefs and motives. It’s uncomfortable and it’s challenging.

While never propounding right-wing fantasies of tiny government, he wants working class communities to take responsibility and control of their lives, not to fall back onto simply blaming the government, neoliberalism or the middle-class. Far from letting those with power off the hook, or reducing government’s responsibility for tackling poverty and inequality, in effect McGarvey is saying: ‘We can no longer afford to wait for those in power to make a difference; we need to organise, take responsibility and transform our society.’

If Poverty Safari is a call to arms, it is one of recognising that neither poverty will be overcome any time soon nor a more equitable state created if we wait for capitalism to fail or governments of any stripe to make the necessary decisions to transform working-class lives. In fact, it’s about recognising that self-interest means that the powerful (governments to corporations to anti-poverty campaigners) will not do enough. He says:

A pathological belief that only the state can resolve this issue is both disempowering and self-defeating in the short and medium term. This is not submission; this is to acknowledge the complexity of the matter.

Once you accept that the government isn’t going to fix this issue any time soon, it whittles down the options. It removes some of the onus from governments and places it directly on us.

The final part of the book includes a fascinating story about artist and academic Ellie Harrison, who was pilloried for a project she announced she was undertaking in Glasgow, with McGarvey one of her loudest critics. He later questioned his motives in attacking her and her project, and while arguing ‘her approach was misguided, clumsy and poorly conceived’, he was scathing about his presumptions, concluding:

 I was so consumed by my own anger and moral certainty, it had blinded me to the fact that Ellie Harrison, in all her middle-class glory, was not an enemy, but an ally in the war I’d been fighting all my life.

Happier inside his own skin, it was a reflection of McGarvey’s ongoing attempt to come to terms with his own difficult past, his anger and at the same time as reasserting his fight against poverty and injustice would continue.

 Krishnan Guru-Murthy of the UK’s superb Channel 4 News did an interview with McGarvey, which is well worth watching.

Glaswegian rapper Loki is this year's Orwell Prize winner for his book 'Poverty Safari'. He talks to Krishnan about how he negotiated a difficult childhood and an alcohol problem, how he thinks poverty can be tackled and why the left need to reclaim the idea of personal responsibility.

As an aside: when reading Poverty Safari on an S-Bahn in Munich in late December, a young woman recognised the book and asked me about it. She was actually from France and explained that one of her friends works for a German publishing house, which was considering translating and publishing it. Though focused on Glasgow, McGarvey’s observations and experiences would certainly add a great deal to the debate on poverty in Germany, too.