Under pressure: Darren 'Loki' McGarvey on living with a legacy of poverty
A harrowing book about growing up in poverty in Glasgow's Pollok has become an unlikely bestseller
Loki - image credit: David Anderson
When Darren McGarvey was 16 or 17 – he’s quite hazy on actual dates for reasons which become obvious – and working as a kitchen porter at a private school on the southside of Glasgow, a six-year-old asked him why he didn’t have a proper job. In answer, he took off his apron and walked out.
In a life marked by all-pervasive poverty, violence and abuse, that one seemingly innocuous comment from a little girl at Hutchesons’ Grammar School reminded him of his place in society and he wasn’t prepared to accept it. It was a personal breaking point.
It’s hard to know where to begin in terms of choosing a moment from McGarvey’s narrative which best illustrates how his life was predetermined but a good start would be when he was five and his mother tried to kill him.
“I was upstairs in bed but finding it hard to sleep because of noise coming from the living room. My mum had people over and they were downstairs drinking, laughing and listening to music. My next memory is standing at the living room door, before a group of guests. I had my hopes pinned on my mum letting me stay up because she was drunk. I preferred her when she’d had a few drinks. She was much more relaxed, fun and affectionate. But tonight, she was having none of it and told me to go back to bed. There was a bit of back-and-forth between us. I suspect I was showing off in front of her guests, probably winding her up or trying to outwit her in some way. Then her tone and posture shifted as she gave me a final warning to go back upstairs. I defied her.
“She held my gaze for a moment, before leaping out of her seat and charging into the kitchen. She pulled the cutlery drawer open, reached in and pulled out a long, serrated bread knife. Then she turned around and began pursuing me. I already knew she could be unpredictable but this was like nothing I had witnessed before. I ran out of the room and naively, made for the stairs as she emerged from the living room into the hall, only seconds behind me. I scrambled up as fast as I could but she was closing the distance between us. With nowhere to hide, I ran into my room, slamming the door behind me, but it just seemed to bounce off her as she came charging through, clutching the knife, like a monster in a nightmare.
“Now I was trapped in my room, pinned against the wall, with a knife to my throat. I don’t remember what she said to me but I do remember the hate in her eyes. I remember thinking I was just about to be cut open and that I would probably die. Just as she lifted the knife to my face, she was pulled from behind and thrown to the other side of the room by my dad, who then restrained her while one of the guests picked me up and bundled me into the back of a car.”
It’s a shocking tale that offends almost every preconception you might have about what motherhood should be. It is also, almost unbelievably, a memory that McGarvey had “forgotten about” until he started counselling, which is perhaps indicative of the scale of malevolence that underpinned his childhood.
There was the time that his mother sent him out to get cigarettes for her during a howling gale and stood laughing from the window as he was blown to the ground, bloody and broken; or the nightmare when she tried to dig up their dead dog from the back garden with her bare hands; or the moment when she threw his bike into the river because he wouldn’t stop crying; or the time when she set fire to all their belongings; or the occasion she dangled him out of the window by his legs. The result was, nothing shocked him, not even the sight of his mother having sex, but it also left him vulnerable to the same cycle of emotional turmoil and addictions that had engulfed her.
His mother, Sandra, finally left the family home when McGarvey was about ten but he says that during that decade “she left a life-altering trail of carnage in her wake”. She was dead by the age of 36 from cirrhosis of the liver but her troubles live on through her five children. McGarvey, himself a now sobre “dysfunctional alcoholic”, lists them starkly in his book, revealing an emotional destruction on an industrial scale.
• Four have experienced alcohol or substance misuse
• Three have a criminal record
• Three were suspended or excluded from school
• Two have attempted suicide more than once
• One has served a prison sentence for drugs
• All began smoking at a young age
• All have received state benefits
• All have been in dysfunctional relationships and all have experienced mental health problems.
It’s a horror story but by way of explanation, McGarvey takes you back further and to his mother’s rape at a young age, her own mother’s rejection of her because of revealing it and her inevitable journey into addiction to drink, drugs and sex. This, coupled with a clear mental instability, meant her own children were brought up in a constant state of stress and “hypervigilance”, wondering what might happen next.
“Growing up, I never knew what was going to happen next, what her mood would be, when the next explosive outburst would come. Mostly she would threaten violence or even make me get into violent altercations with others.
“If I came home from school crying because I’d been fighting, she would see the tears as a sign of shame that I had been battered, as if it was some slight on our family’s reputation.
“She would drag me round to the house of the person I had been fighting and make me fight them again in the street to prove something. I would basically batter someone because I was more scared of a beating from my own mum if I didn’t.
“The mental scars it left, the anxiety, the stress, are things you can’t just shake off easily.”
I ask him why, given everything he had already endured, that off-the-cuff comment made by the girl from Hutchies was enough to make him snap?
“It’s an interesting question,” he says and is silenced for just a nano-second in what is basically a non-stop and exhausting stream of consciousness that offers an insightful narrative into his life of enduring poverty mixed with a lecture on class, indifference and politics.
“It was because it was humiliating,” he says, fixing me with steely blue eyes. “And it was humiliating because I was working in a school where I was very visibly seeing a lot of privilege. These children were being bussed in and out of Govanhill, they didn’t ever have to interact with the local community, the school is really like a little Vatican City in the middle of a slum.
“You’re raised in these communities to feel like you’re being looked down on all the time, so what I did was a defensive reaction but obviously I was wise enough, even then, to understand what was meant by her words, even if she didn’t quite understand them.
“I was the only boy working with a lot of women, some of whom had worked in that school in the same position for 20 years and they came from a place of acceptance and there’s nothing wrong with that but that wee lassie reminded me, not only of a sort of underlying snobbishness that exists in society, but also, it gave me a bit of a wake-up call about ‘what are you going to do with your life, Darren’? Not that working in there was in any way shameful, it just wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to do other things because I had other talents. It was just a wee epiphany moment for me.”
He pauses and asks: “I wonder how that six-year-old got on in her life?”
It’s a rhetorical question. He knows, like I know, that given the odds and the benefit of a private school education, she will have done alright. It is that difference in life outcomes that is the central focus of McGarvey’s acclaimed first book, Poverty Safari, in which he explores his own upbringing and examines how poverty endures.
McGarvey is currently being touted as ‘the next big thing’, but for those in the know, his voice has been loud and clear for some time. As the renowned rapper Loki he has a loyal following and hit the headlines when he was appointed in 2015 as the ‘rapper in residence’ with Police Scotland’s acclaimed, Violence Reduction Unit, which works with gangs in Glasgow. He has also been a fixture on BBC Scotland, presenting a radio series called Neds, guested on Radio 4’s Start the Week, is a regular columnist in the Guardian, Scotsman and soon with Holyrood magazine. He was also very active during the independence referendum as a ‘Yes’ supporter and his first book, which may have been dubbed a ‘misery memoir’, is also being described as a seminal study on inequality.
Irvine Welsh has described it as “Nothing less than an intellectual and spiritual rehab manual for the progressive left” and JK Rowling has said, “it is hard to think of a more timely, powerful or necessary book.”
It’s a book that takes no prisoners in detailing the “inhibiting, impairing and deforming” effects of poverty which McGarvey says leaves you “excluded, apathetic and chronically ill”, swimming in the “soup of stress”.
He takes readers on a disturbing journey through his own childhood which expands into a wider social commentary, during which he stops simply blaming everyone else for his own predicament and starts taking back some control. It is a powerful read. He’s an impressive person. But there is also a vulnerability that his smokescreen of verbosity attempts to hide. For instance, despite his literary acclaim, he remains unsure about whether he can call himself a “professional writer”, worries now that he was asked to present the BBC’s Neds programme because they thought he was one rather than for his forensic commentary and is guarded about what success could mean.
“Underneath all of this, I’m still a hypervigilant wee boy,” he says. “I’m computing all of this noise, the success, popularity or the validation or whatever it is, that I’ve been chasing all my life and I know that if you’re not emotionally ready or not emotionally functioning properly then actually all this does is amplify all of the things that you didn’t like about life before and for me, that can be dangerous. I started smoking again a few weeks ago, I’ve lost a lot of weight and I’ve thought about drinking…wee red flags that I must pay attention to.
“It becomes easy to say, ‘I’ll go to a [recovery] meeting tomorrow or I’ll phone my sponsor [counsellor] tomorrow or to think that ‘oh, I don’t need to worry about recovery that much now because I’m going down to London to do a radio interview’, as if somehow that won’t just complicate the issue and that you are out of danger. It’s an ongoing battle but it’s in my hands.”
Whatever people think of McGarvey, good and bad, and he has some fierce critics, some who can’t see beyond an ego or his roots and want to box him into a single cause commentary, he is fascinating. His book is gripping and it has left me thinking. It’s made me reassess and focus on the impact that that relentless stress must have on a child’s very beginnings and how that accumulated pressure must affect its physical, mental, economic, social and cultural wellbeing and limit its life-chances. How can anyone succeed when always battling against a heavy and unpredictable burden of trauma? Children like the young Darren McGarvey are brought up suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and then we expect them to comply with ‘normal’ behaviours and conform to accepted social mores. It’s not rocket-science as to why it all goes wrong.
However, McGarvey did have one saving grace, his dad, Andy, and who, given the impact of his mother’s behaviour, we, perhaps inevitably, hear so little of in the book.
“Any success I am having is because of the stability he was able to cobble together for us, even though his nerves were shattered with the experience of being with my mother,” says McGarvey. “If it wasn’t for him, the chaos that was described in the book would have been so much worse. I would have ended up on harder drugs and around more dangerous people. It is because of the continuity of that one aspect of my life that I have been given enough to hold it together.”
And while their relationship has not always been solid, McGarvey describes it as “now good” and that his father is “very proud”. I suspect that that male relationship may provide the kernel of any subsequent book.
By any measure, McGarvey is extraordinary. The fact he is still alive at 33 is an achievement, although he reminds me that given where he was born, he is probably already half-way through his life expectancy. But, almost contrarily, one of the major issues for me with McGarvey being painted as extraordinary is that that is the nub of the problem. It’s why we should all be angry. It shouldn’t be a surprise or an accident that, despite the upbringing, people like McGarvey emerge with an incredible ability to articulate their own lives. But he is an exception and that points to the deep-seated wrongs that persist in Scotland. There is no level playing field and the irony is that while McGarvey is now being feted by the middle classes – how more middle class could you get than being on Radio 4’s Start the Week – he is becoming more distanced from the community he comes from.
He too recognises the paradox. “Sometimes I worry that I’m not changing for the better,” he says. “That I’ve grown too distant from my roots or that I am being absorbed by the very system I’ve spent my life railing against. Other times, I feel I had no choice but to change and that the problem, if there is one, lies with those who’ve insisted on remaining the same despite all that has transpired. I guess I’ll never really know if this change I’m going through is because I have forsaken my principles or because I’ve gained a deeper insight into life and moved forward as a result.”
It is this recognition from an avowed socialist, that personal responsibility has a role to play in social change, that is more difficult for those on the left to accept but surely has more resonance coming from someone that has walked the walk?
McGarvey is gobby, he can be angry and he can make you feel uncomfortable but to be fair, he holds the same mirror to himself as he does to others. He says that if he has one regret in writing the book – and he has faced a lot of criticism from within his own family – it is that he could have been clearer about where his story starts.
“What’s important, and perhaps what I haven’t done enough of or what hasn’t been picked up enough by the media, is the fact that this all begins with my mother being a victim of sexual violence, domestic abuse and her being unable to cope and survive the trauma of it. And as is often the case, and I’ve experienced this myself, you carry those monsters into your own future. You begin to project that stuff onto the other people in your life and that’s the beginning of the story, really – what happened to my mother to make her the way she was.
“It took me a long time to realise why a lot of my relationships, and I mean this across the whole spectrum of family, friends, lovers, why a lot of them were failing and why a lot of them were toxic or unhappy and it was because I had a built-in instinct that I was going to be abandoned, or betrayed, or hurt. The same probably applied to my mother. It’s a cycle.
“I remember my first instance of experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder when I tasted alcohol on a girlfriend’s breath and it was as if I made the connection between her being on a night out drinking and me being betrayed or abandoned in some way. I just remember violently shaking and being completely paralysed by the fear of her leaving me.
“There was a specific issue around being let down. I mean, often as a child, I would be sitting at schools and nurseries waiting to get picked up, my dad would be at work and my mum was supposed to come and get me and she never would because she’d be drinking. When you experience that, you’re being educated about the world you live in and if that’s your education then that’s the world you expect so you carry that into all your relationships.
“I’m happy to say that I’m a lot more secure in an intimate relationship but in those early days, I misinterpreted love as a feeling of constant vigilance. I thought if you fight all the time and if you’re afraid and jealous and all those other toxic emotions, then that means you really love someone. That was a big misunderstanding of the whole concept of love.”
McGarvey looks at my expressions and laughs, “I know, I’m intense.”
He then adds: “I’m glad that in the relationship that I’m in now, I’m in love, I am very much in love and that’s the environment that I’m raising my child in.”
McGarvey’s partner Becci, who he got engaged to at Christmas, is expecting their second child – a daughter – in April who will be a sister for Daniel who will soon be two. For a man who once vowed to never have children because he believed he might be genetically programmed to fail as a parent, a cycle is truly being broken.
“Perhaps,” he intones, “changing yourself, and not just waiting for someone else to do it for you, is the most radical thing a person can do.”
Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass by Darren McGarvey is published by Luath Press.
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