The Social Distance Between Us
The Social Distance Between Us is the new book by Darren McGarvey which looks at the myths of elite rule and meritocracy and asks simply: ‘If all the best people are in all the top jobs, why is Britain such a fucking bin fire?’ In an exclusive for Bella the author reflects on the contradictions and irony of his own recent success.
Author’s Note: The following article contains the original (since omitted) preface to my forthcoming book The Social Distance Between Us: How Remote Politics Wrecked Britain. This section was removed in the final stages for reasons of brevity; with an already lengthy introduction I felt frontloading the book may inhibit the sense of urgency I wish to rouse in all who read it.
It was at the height of a long, hot summer in 2018, in an overbearing corner of central London, that my life as a fully paid-up member of Britain’s lower classes ended abruptly. The morning after winning the Orwell Prize for my ‘brutal’, ‘harrowing’, ‘unflinchingly honest’ memoir about poverty, it occurred to me that I could, for the first time, afford to travel home to Glasgow in first class.
Upgrading to first class eliminates entirely so many of the discomforts, inconveniences and frustrations associated with a standard train journey and should have felt somewhat exciting. Instead, I was gripped by a sense of hypocrisy. After all, hadn’t I made a bit of name for myself calling out the pampered and comfortable middle classes, insulated, as they often are, from poverty’s unpleasant effects? Is first-class travel not simply one of the many mechanisms available to them by which they are able to hermetically seal themselves off from the experiences of those further down the food chain?
Having walked away from the Royal Society of Arts only the night before, safe in the knowledge that I had secured the medium-term prosperity of my young family, and exhausted from being ferried around London for three days, I reasoned that I had earned the right to celebrate my success. That I should treat myself. Travelling in economy for five hours is not the hardest thing in the world to do, but the minimal personal space and seating, which seem tailored to create restlessness and discomfort, become even more unbearable when you know those in the front three carriages of the train suffer no such indignity. Finally, I could experience public transport as they did, rather than resentfully squashed in the train’s lower, more congested, carriages.
Yet the undeniable thrill of feeling I was finally moving up in the world, was tinged with a sense of betrayal. I immediately attempted to quieten this nagging resistance by further rationalising my decision.
‘I deserve this, I’ve worked hard.’
‘It would give me time and space to get my work done.’
‘Train tickets are already pretty expensive so what’s the difference if I pay a bit more?’
‘It’ll be great research for the book. You can do a fashionably meta preface, conveying to readers the excruciation of knowing you are, on paper at least, becoming middle class.’
As I scrolled manically through the various upgrade options available, while checking over my shoulder worried someone in the café would see me – like anybody in London cared – I looked and felt guilty, sensing I would soon pass through a crucible from which I would emerge profoundly changed. That success, moderate as it was, had already begun corrupting me.
Perhaps I was being hard on myself? It is, after all, completely natural to want to travel in a quieter carriage where you can open a packet of Monster Munch without elbowing someone in the face. It’s also totally reasonable to do so if you can afford to. The conflict came not from possessing the means to travel in first class but from the awareness that most of the other passengers on the train did not. My conscience bothered me because I knew that by paying more to opt out of the unpleasant ‘standard’ experience, I would place another wedge between myself and the people I had for years tirelessly attempted to represent in my work – the working class, the poor and the vulnerable.
As I boarded the train, hoping desperately that I would not bump into anyone who knew me, and took my place in first class, it became immediately apparent that many of my fellow travellers were not burdened by this tedious internal conflict. They seemed accustomed to commuting in relative comfort. I took my seat, placing my headphones over my ears to block out the chat of my racing mind. ‘My life will never be the same,’ I thought to myself. Then, perhaps typically, around two hours into the journey, the train drew to a sudden halt.
After about ten minutes, when no information was given as to why we had stopped in the middle of nowhere, passengers became agitated. Staff were despatched to first class to reassure us. The train had become so over-crowded that people from standard class began to filter through. Complimentary water followed, but only for those with first-class tickets. It was odd to observe how quickly order on the train was compromised simply by coming to a standstill.
After 30 minutes, I was left with no choice but to make the perilous journey to the shop in coach C, feeling this was a situation only a bag of enamel-pulverising Haribo could remedy. The automatic doors closed behind me, leaving me in a no-man’s land between first class and economy. In front of me, passengers were sitting on the floor, outside the toilets. An unpleasant waft of sewage permeated the air. I had visions of being pelted with eggs and tomatoes as I regressed further down the train and entered the first of a succession of over-crowded carriages and what felt like a deleted scene from Children of Men.
I had only been travelling in first class for a matter of hours and it appeared that I had already forgotten how awful the rest of the train can be when something goes wrong. Everything seemed lower down. The seats were visibly smaller, the people crammed together looking stressed and uncomfortable. Bags and cases too big to fit in the designated storage areas were stacked up precariously in whatever space was left beneath tables or behind seats. Exhausted parents bribed young children with chocolate and mobile phones to calm them, while other passengers decided to begin the party early, breaking out beer cans and bottles of wine, much to the frustration of their sober fellows. One man blasted 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ from his mobile, wearing no headphones, mouthing every word. Another proclaimed to a distracted friend that he had ‘never seen the big deal about golf’, though clearly considered it a big enough deal to annoy everyone in the vicinity by talking loudly about it.
The comforts of first class are all well and good. Even more so when the train breaks down. But when you’ve travelled alongside those in the standard carriages and know something of the fuss they can kick up when legitimate frustrations stir and begin to boil over, the complimentary gin does little to calm the dread. I began to worry that, in the end, I might pay rather more than the price on the ticket for a superior seat at the table.
I no longer suffer financial insecurity. Not like I used to. If ever I worry about money, it’s only because I have become used to its consistent supply. Even when things feel tighter, opportunities and support are just a phone call or an email away. I’m healthier and happier. My horizons have broadened. My children enjoy a quality of life that I never had. I have turned down more opportunities in the last few years than most people are offered in a lifetime. And even when adversity strikes, I possess the material and emotional resources to absorb or mitigate it, not simply for myself, but also for people I love and care about.
The year preceding the pandemic was, perhaps, my first real glimpse into the parallel universe inhabited by those who travel in the first class carriage of British society. I have tasted that comfort, legitimacy and prosperity, and, to my surprise and occasional shame, have grown to rather enjoy it.
Still, the degree of separation from poverty and hardship remains slight. I can never truly be middle class because the vast majority of my social connections, family, friends and acquaintances, still inhabit that world from which I have been temporarily spared. That world where one misstep can turn your life upside down. People I know and love continue to suffer great difficulties. Family and friends have been laid off, returned to prison, fallen into the nightmarish torment of addiction and alcoholism, been struck with ill-health – both mental and physical – and become homeless. Some have even perished, by accident or by suicide.
Like many of you, I do my best to support people and causes I care about, but every act of compassion and generosity seems somehow undermined – not by the inability of those struggling to lift themselves up, but by a society comprised of systems, processes and institutional cultures which push them down and hold them there, in spite of their best efforts. A society which is so keen to cater to the needs, aspirations and assumptions of the well-to-do, that those at the bottom have begun to suffer even more acutely than usual.
Given my recent good fortune, I remain all too aware that I may no longer be capable, try as I might, of authentically channelling the struggles faced by increasing numbers of individuals, families, and communities. I am also very conscious that I lack any formal academic training and am not the most learned person. Then again, knowing very little appears no obstacle for politicians and commentators, who are either toxifying my newsfeeds with their puerile observations or being paraded on my television screen day-by-day, broadcasting their ignorance.
I feel that the three-year period throughout which I have been largely insulated from poverty has already blunted my senses and narrowed my field of vision. Though I remain hopeful that if a certain Eric Blair – who adopted the alias of George Orwell in an attempt to purge his Etonian heritage – was able to shed some much-needed light on the issue of inequality, poverty and class in Britain then I – someone who has lived it – may yet purge my survivor’s guilt by contributing something of value to the ongoing debate.
In my debut book, Poverty Safari, I attempted to animate much of the data around the impacts of social-deprivation by sharing my own experience of growing up in an alcoholic home in the eighties and nineties. In a desperate attempt to eschew the pitfalls of a standard misery-memoir, my lived-experience acted instead as a Trojan-horse, smuggling in social-commentary and political-analysis wherever I deemed it relevant, to lend some context to the behaviours, attitudes and adversities so often associated with working-class life. It was not written with the intention of becoming commercially or critically successful – it was aimed mainly at local left-wingers and charities – but it’s chaotic publication in 2017 quickly altered the course of my life. I effectively became middle-class overnight – on paper at least.
There are few things more ironic than becoming financially comfortable off the back of a book you wrote about poverty. Despite the perks, there looms an unspoken but palpable threat this prosperity is conditional. That the opportunities and security I enjoy depend upon my willingness to play the role I have been designated – the diamond in the rough who talks about poverty – and may be withdrawn should I fail to conform to the prevailing attitude that Britain, despite its imperfections, is a fundamentally just country – something I do not believe. Yet, the gravity of the centre ground bears down upon me. How easy it would be to chalk my radical beliefs up to immaturity and use my children as an air-tight justification for taking everything I can get, like so many have done before me. Maybe I will at some point. But not this year.
Given that I have been commended so frequently by the great book-buying public, over the last few years, for my ‘brutal’, ‘harrowing, ‘unflinchingly honest’ accounts of poverty and social inequality, a mischievous part of me wonders how middle-class readers might respond to becoming the subject of my analysis, as opposed to the poor and downtrodden. Would they, having subjected themselves to sustained criticism, still find me ‘fair-minded’, ‘even-handed’ and ‘magnanimous’, as they have my musings on the working classes? Or is their generosity contingent on my serving up a gritty but in-the-end feel-good, ‘lived-experience’ page-turner, which does not disturb their moderate sensibilities?
I’ve spent the last two years travelling the country, attending events, making documentary films and appearing on television panel shows. I’ve gone from living on a relatively modest, often low income, to being in the top 9 per cent of earners in the UK. The financial security of my family is now frighteningly dependant on appealing to what I regard as Britain’s prevailing ‘middle-class consensus’. It has therefore suddenly become counterintuitive to say or write anything that may offend, insult or antagonise this most lucrative demographic, though this concern has not yet been overpowered completely by my immutable sense that something is very wrong with our society.
I’ve spoken in packed venues across the country. Performed my own one man shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. Been paid a month’s wages for one hour’s work. And felt the seductive draw of fame. I’ve bathed in rooftop jacuzzies, stayed in plush hotels with complimentary umbrellas and endless mood-lighting configurations. My life has changed immeasurably, to the extent that merely speaking factually about it may sound to some like I am insensitively tooting my own horn. But even when I get temporarily drunk on an inevitable delusion of grandeur and overestimate both my importance and ability, I have still not strayed far from the world I left behind. Things have gone well for me, but my view into that other world remains largely unobstructed.
I’ve sat on cold pavements in the bitter winter with beggars, asking them why they would rather wander the streets than live in supported accommodation. I’ve pleaded with alcoholics with wet-brain to give sobriety one last shot before they end up dead – and read their obituaries in the paper weeks later. I’ve stood in a freezing flat with a single mother as she read me the GP letter confirming the dampness and the cold in a council-provided temporary accommodation was causing her one-year-old’s respiratory problems. I’ve walked a frosty cemetery with a recovering heroin addict as she laid flowers at the graves of her entire family who perished from drug overdoses, and who are mostly buried in paupers’ graves because she can’t afford the headstones.
I’ve wandered the backstreets of popular English seaside towns, in the richest county in the UK, and found living conditions unworthy of dogs, where poor governance – and not immigrants – represents the singular threat to local culture and social cohesion. I’ve sat with youth workers at their wits end as diversionary services are cut amid a surge in gang and knife violence, walked with prison wardens who know the criminal justice system is broken and spoken to officers in the probation service who could have told you five years ago that privatising it would only create more social and financial cost further down the line.
I’ve chased down councillors to get vulnerable women, pondering sex work as a means of survival, into safer accommodation, and even – perhaps unethically – threatened one local authority that if they did not locate suitable accommodation for a young man who was suicidal I would go after them the next day in the paper. And I’ve sat in utter heartbroken disbelief as a man with Tourette’s syndrome and serious mental health problems, grieving the loss of his friends to suicide, began convulsing on the floor after I asked him about what it’s like to go through the DWP’s personal independence payment assessment. Sadly, too many in my tax bracket only bear witness to this nightmarish social reality through the media they consume, if they even glimpse it at all. They remain so far from the action that even where they would earnestly wish to bring about change, they often don’t know where to start.
Post-industrial Britain is in the grip of a feverish malaise. A ravine cuts through us, partitioning winners from losers. The powerful from the powerless. The vocal from the voiceless. The deserving from the undeserving. I find myself caught in the middle between a simpler existence, where all I need to care about is my own family and securing their quality of life, and the world I have only just escaped, characterised by ill-health, social deprivation and a dangerous dearth of opportunity. The irony of making a few quid from writing a book about poverty is not yet lost on me. Nor is the fact that in that love letter to Britain’s underclass, I cautioned those on the sharp end of poverty against unrestrained and toxic anger, when the truth is, I have never been more furious than I am right now.
If ‘brutal’, ‘harrowing’, ‘unflinching honesty’ is what you want, that is exactly what you are going to get.
You can pre-order a copy of the book right here: The Social Distance Between Us – Darren McGarvey (smarturl.it)
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