Understand the anger of the underclass

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​Alan McGinley reviews Poverty Safari - Darren McGarvey's soon-to-be published book on the underclass 

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20th October 2017 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

I first came across Darren McGarvey’s work in 2015 in an article about “language, soft power and the myth of social mobility”. As he had something to say about the third sector – “others being paid salaries to extract my poverty narratives” - I forwarded it to some colleagues in the sector suggesting that this was a voice that might be worth listening to.

At the time I was working on a report on the voluntary health sector’s contribution to tackling health inequalities and McGarvey’s prose seemed like a particularly vital framing of the increasingly current concept of ‘lived experience’. I never heard back from my colleagues on that article but I expect Poverty Safari to be a lot more difficult to overlook.

Alan McGinley

Alan McGinley

Emerging from that underclass and (warily) speaking on its behalf, he offers insights into criminal justice, adult education, fast food, addiction, family breakdown, mental health, political discourse, Scottish culture and being ginger. McGarvey’s craft makes all of this accessible and often funny (at one point he buries a cause célèbre of middle class parental rights under some nicely pointed sarcasm). However, at times he overplays his hand and his often jaundiced view of the third sector is a key example.

The third sector, as understood by McGarvey, is embedded in “self-interest” and is “in denial about it”. In a chapter titled, The Outsiders, he spends time with the leader of a youth project in the Gorbals, who is equally wary of professionals compromising community interests, describing him as being “unusually frank in a sector where there is a culture of sweeping certain issues under the rug”. 

The target here is the ‘regeneration industry’, which is “not just a benign and benevolent social programme designed to improve the lives of the poor, it’s also an industry with many pathways to career progression.” In other words, it’s living off the backs of the poor. In a book which hits most of its targets with precision and a sense of complexity, this feels reductive and an unhelpful rush to judgement.

Poverty Safari: understanding the anger of Britain’s underclass is by Darren McGarvey, published by Luath Press as is available 2 November priced £7.99. 

The third sector as understood by McGarvey is embedded in “self-interest” and is “in denial about it

What McGarvey is really talking about, of course, is the distrust between stressed and struggling working class communities and those who come in to help but who can leave at the end of the working day. However, while his conclusions, at least about the third sector, might be questionable, his narrative is compelling and, even at his most insistent, he always leaves room for dialogue.

Poverty Safari starts its journey at the Grenfell Tower fire where the voices of the local community had been “routinely ignored by decision-makers who think they know better”. McGarvey may have provided us with an indigenous guide to navigating our way through and beyond that ignorance. It is an autobiography rooted in the themes of class, community and activism. It could easily be subtitled, ‘the personal is political’ but class is the central concern and McGarvey’s ambition is to contribute to understanding the anger of Britain’s underclass. 

Alan McGinley is policy & engagement manager for Arthritis UK Scotland