Left Politics Reviews

Reflections on Poverty Safari

Two of our Ungagged team, David McClemont and Victoria Pearson, review Poverty Safari; Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass by Darren “Loki” McGarvey.


I really enjoyed reading Poverty Safari. I found I related to a lot of what Loki said both in a personal, professional and political capacity.

On a personal level I found I related to Loki’s book aversion growing up.  This would puzzle many people who know me as I was always a child that liked to learn facts (The 10 year old me definitely knew Ankara was the capital of Turkey) and I was known to read “serious” books about politics and history.  But the fact I read “serious” books was because reading always felt like a rewarding chore than a fun activity so I was going to trudge through 300 pages I wanted to come out having learned more than a story. 

Being from a working class background I could also relate to the quiet undercurrent of potential violence working class boys face particularly in their teenage years and how inhibiting it is.  I remember it just wasn’t the done thing in class to voluntarily answer a question unless you were directly asked by the teacher and even then the answer shouldn’t be good enough to raise eyebrows.  I remember being sat next to another boy for two years in a Science Class.  I didn’t know much about him except he had a reputation for being able to handle himself, was from one of the rougher corners of the catchment area and rumoured to be head of a gang.  Over the course of the two years we got to know each other and got friendly although I wouldn’t have dreamed of approaching him outside of the science class setting.  One day I was walking along a corridor and saw a group of boys lined up either side leaving not much room to get passed.  I knew they had already clocked me so if I turned back they’d have saw I was intimidated, and that would’ve invited future trouble.  So I tried to walk past as briskly as possible without making eye contact.  As I did they started barging me and tripping me up.  While I was doing a quick calculation as to the safest course of action, run (they’d have caught me), ignore it (would’ve been the same as turning back upon first seeing them) or square up to one of them and get a doing.  All three options seemed risky and none particularly palatable then at the last minute I felt a pair of arms wrap around my shoulders and a voice say “fuck off, he’s awright”.  I realised it was the boy from my Science Class! I muttered something to him and continued down the corridor.  I realised he was the undisputed top dog of that group, if he hadn’t been he would not have helped as it would’ve left him exposed and a possible target but he was in charge and was able to dictate the internal culture of that group.  A couple of years after school I heard he’d have been stabbed to death.  I never heard the specific circumstances but I remember feeling that there was a tragic inevitability to it.

In a professional capacity I could relate to a lot in Poverty Safari.  I used to work with people who had a history of homelessness and alcohol abuse many of whom had been in and out of prison.  Loki’s stories about working with offenders was very familiar.  When discussing group facilitation I often espoused the importance of “using silence” in order to encourage people to open up.  The theory being that a group of people can’t abide a shared silence and if you as the facilitator can fight your own instinct to speak then someone else will fill the void with their own words.  It’s a solid tactic and it works but it’s also true that most of the time I deployed it because I didn’t know what to say.  I can also say that my anecdotal experiences of working with homeless alcoholics absolutely corresponds with Loki’s view that most offending stems from a history of experiencing/witnessing violence as I never met a single Service User who had not experienced extreme trauma of one form or another.  People talk about the “Demon Drink” but from my experience the demons proceed the drink and they used alcohol as a form of temporary exorcism.

Loki’s thoughts around responsibility and poverty reminded me a lot of things I though about while studying addiction.  In John Booth Davies “The Myth of Addiction” he talks about the fact that progressives created the concept of addiction because the prevalent view at that time was that addicts were just weak willed deviants.  This attitude did nothing to foster change and so the idea of addiction as a “disease” was born to allow a more sympathetic view of addicts that would give them the space and motivation to change their lives.  However today, in the world of huge paternalistic third sector organisations this has lead to a narrative that often disempowers people and tells them that they have no control over their lives.  This isn’t true, of course there are bigger sociological factors at play but that doesn’t mean individuals are powerless to improve their lives.  I always found it a difficult balancing act, trying to get people to realise they were in control of their drinking and had the power to stop while trying to keep them from being crushed under the guilt they felt for everything that had happened as a result of their drinking.  I do worry about how we do that balancing act in a political context.  If those of us on the Left open that discussion  around taking responsibility we’ll face a stampede of reactionary forces eager to blame addicts for their addiction and poor people for their poverty and use that as an excuse to cut and starve valuable services of funds and resources.

 I would recommend Poverty Safari to anyone and I get the feeling my friends and family will soon be sick of hearing me talk about it. I think Loki has a valuable perspective and I hope he writes more books as he definitely has important things to say.


I’ll preface this review by saying I expected Poverty Safari to make me angry. All I knew about the book was the title, and I wasn’t familiar with the author, so I was expecting yet another poverty porn-esque, poorly disguised gawp-fest at the working classes, in the same vein as TV shows like Benefits Street. I couldn’t have been more wrong. By the time i reached chapter 3, I had started texting friends to tell them to read it.

This is obviously written from the perspective of someone who has lived what he is talking about – a perspective that is desperately needed in any kind of political or solution seeking debate around poverty, a perspective that, as Darren points out, is sadly lacking. It’s raw, unflinchingly and unapologetically honest, and at times darkly funny.

My overriding sense when reading this book was one of recognition and kinship. Darren shares anecdotes that might seem shocking to many, but that to me seem familiar, authentic and almost self evident. This is refreshingly so clearly not another intellectualisation of working class behaviour from someone outside of the community, this is obviously an account from someone who has lived these experiences, who understands the nuances of the community he is talking about, and I think it is one of the best texts I have read about the culture of violence and vigilance in the forgotten class.

“This is the other deficit we rarely talk about or acknowledge…It’s the belief that the system is rigged against you and that all attempts to resist or challenge it are futile…A belief that you are excluded from taking part in the conversation about your own life. This belief is deeply held by people in many communities and there is a very good reason For it: it’s true.”

Poverty Safari

Although it is set in Glasgow, Scotland where he grew up, and most of the reminiscences he shares focus on that area, many of the anecdotes and experiences he shared reminded me of my own childhood in Luton, England. My overwhelming sense when I finished this book was that it doesn’t matter where we are from, there are certain experiences the forgotten class share, that the more privileged among us would struggle to understand. I found a lot to relate to in it.

“At the age of ten I was well adjusted to the threat of violence. In some ways, violence itself was preferable to the threat of violence…you become detached from the violent act as it is being perpetrated against you…Acts of violence are terrifying, but a sustained threat of violence is sometimes much worse”

Poverty Safari

Adjusting and adapting to living in a climate of violence is something I think a lot of working class people can relate to. We all know someone from school who passed on far too young, through violence or drugs, or general rough living, and we weren’t surprised when they did. That’s something I think people with a different kind of upbringing would struggle to understand.. This book attempts to bridge that understanding gap and explain working class anger, but I like that it doesn’t apologise for it. It delves into the roots and causes of that anger, the psychological effects of the environment working class people live in, and pulls no punches when it comes to discussing the inadequacies of support services in place, who, after all, are only trying to contain symptoms of what are perfectly reasonable human responses to trauma and deprivation.

“People end up homeless for all sorts of reasons. However must like those who end up in prison, one recurring factor in the lives of those who become residually challenged is family breakdown and dysfunction. Issues like child abuse, addiction and homelessness are often discussed in isolation but as anyone working with homeless people, addicts or victims of abuse will tell you, the problems are often interconnected”

Poverty Safari 

My own anecdotal experiences working with (and being close friends with) people struggling with addiction match the sentiments in the above quote. Every addict I ever knew had a backstory of abuse, deprivation, or trauma, and they all related it in such a deadpan way. To a whole class of people, having to be constantly hypervigilent, constantly expecting violence, constantly worrying about survival in some form or another, is perfectly normal. It’s easy to judge people from a position of comfort, particularly if you’ve no experience of those issues within your family or friendship group. Darren manages to foster understanding, and provoke empathy for the people effected by these sorts of problems, but without making excuses for people, which I think is a fine line to walk, and one he does well.

Poverty Safari is well written and thought provoking, and it left me thinking about the issues raised – and more importantly the people who are effected by those issues – for a long time after I’d finished it. If you’ve an interest in sociology, politics, changing the world for the better, or you simply want to gain a deeper understanding and empathy for people struggling with anger, mental health problems, or addiction of any kind, throw your textbooks out and have a read of this instead.

You can read more Ungagged Writing here or hear a range of left views on our podcast

3 thoughts on “Reflections on Poverty Safari

  1. Superb reviews. Like V. Pearson, I too was wary of another patronising outsider view of the ‘underclass’ – but you guys have convinced me. Am gonna read.
    Excellent job.
    Thank you.

  2. David,
    Thank you for the demon drink analysis. It struck a chord with me and I used it today of BBC Radio Scotland by texting it in to a piece about health poverty linked to alcohol abuse. I hope you don’t mind. I didn’t quote my name on the text as it wasn’t mine. It was yours. Thank you for your writing. It’s at 33 mins on this programme. Andrew

  3. The only people that really (really know) about addiction are addicts who are in recovery. And everyone I know who has reached and quality of recovery including me and I’m I’m not definite but I suspect Loki will tell you acknowledging powerlessness over addiction is the first step to recovery. That doesn’t mean not taking responsibility. But I’m afraid you wouldn’t understand fully because you aren’t in recovery from an addiction or you would know that.

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