Orwell Prize-winner Darren McGarvey’s new series shows the impact of poverty

The writer, activist and rapper follows the success of ‘Poverty Safari’ with a BBC documentary series in which he travels around Scotland highlighting the causes and effects of poverty

Darren McGarvey is the Orwell-prize winning writer and activist known to many as rapper Loki. His book ‘Poverty Safari: Understanding The Anger of Britain’s Underclass’, published in 2017, showed the very real impact growing up poor can have on families.

Anthony Adonis, Labour peer and chair of the judging panel said of McGarvey’s Poverty Safari: “George Orwell would have loved this book. It echoes ‘Down and Out in London and Paris’ and ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’.

“It is heart-rending in its life story and its account of family breakdown and poverty. But by the end there is not a scintilla of self-pity and a huge amount of optimism. It made me see the country and its social condition in a new light.”

Now McGarvey has returned to the issues examined in Poverty Safari for a new six-part television series.

In Darren McGarvey’s Scotland, he travels across his homeland to highlight what he sees as the rampant rise of poverty. McGarvey meets people living in poverty, assesses the physical and mental health impacts of their situations, and confronts the problems associated with economic inequality and the futile prospect of social mobility.

Television, unfortunately, had been a large part of the problem

It is hard hitting stuff. But McGarvey is a host who knows these worlds and issues well. We asked McGarvey why this series felt like the next natural step in the wake of his Orwell Prize win, and what he wanted to achieve with his alternative travelogue around Scotland, which begins in Dundee – where he reflects on his own personal history of poverty and addiction.

“The opportunity to do the series came directly out of the success of the book,” he told us.

“It led to lots of opportunities and offers to do all kinds of things. I immediately sensed the possibility that was there to make the kind of programmes I had always wanted to see. Something that humanised people in poverty a little more and spent as much time showing the socioeconomic context of their behaviour as it did the behaviour itself.”

The series, according to McGarvey, will go some way towards rebalancing representations of the lives of people living in poverty on television.

“Television, unfortunately, had been a large part of the problem. Social mobility figures reveal regularly that media is dominated by those from middle and upper class backgrounds. This leads to lopsided programming that is filled with assumptions a lot of the time,” he says.

“Look at Jeremy Kyle. A guy who made millions for ITV and himself, holding the poor to account for their mistakes. But where was he when it was time to take some responsibility for the circumstances that led to one of the show’s contributors taking his own life? One rule for one, one rule for another.”

I’m beginning to get a sense of how affluence can insulate you from the plight of others

So how does he stay in touch with the realities of living in poverty, the further removed from this world he himself moves?

“Good question. My [Edinburgh] Fringe show and next book deal with this head-on,” he says. “I’m beginning to get a sense of how affluence can insulate you from the plight of others. It becomes easy to transition from the role of an activist, fighting for change, to one that advocates the status-quo.

“I try to observe these impulses in myself and then write about them. The paradox of social mobility is that the more people become middle class, the less politicians need to appeal to working and lower class interests to get elected. Affluence for some can create unforeseen consequences for those locked out of the prosperity.”

Darren McGarvey’s Scotland is available on BBC iPlayer from September 3

Image: Steven Reynolds