In Scotland, apparently, I’ve become a “big deal”. In London, that means I don’t exist. I’m like Warrington, in human form. A lot of people in Scotland say I’m arrogant, but they’re idiots. Others claim I’m egotistical, but when you consider how talented I am, it’s obvious my false humility is perfectly pitched. In fact, I don’t think I get enough credit for how humble I am.
My name is Darren, and I just experienced the most satisfying “get it right up you” moment of my life so far, by winning the coveted Orwell Prize for my debut book Poverty Safari. I’m also a veteran hip-hop artist, professional performer, community activist, columnist, broadcaster and father of two, but you may know me as “the recovering alcoholic whose drunk mother once chased him with a kitchen knife”. You may have seen me pictured next to dog shit, some God-awful amateur graffiti, or sat menacingly in a dank stairwell, being directed by a photographer to “look angrier”.
This rather sarcastic and resentful tone you’re likely detecting has nothing to do with my basking in glory. This slow descent into the sort of edgeless vitriol you’d expect to read on Spiked Online has been hastened by the immense personal and professional pressures I now find myself under due to the unforeseeable success of my book. I keep telling people I am not managing. That I am not coping. And they keep asking me to talk about “success” or, if I’m lucky, to recount every incident of neglect or abuse I experienced as a child. These are the same people who encourage those in the grip of a mental health crisis to “open up” – after someone has thrown themselves off a bridge. For the past few months, I’ve been cowering in the tear duct of a raging storm. A tornado that carries me around the country, vomiting me up on random places, such as Wales, before subsuming me once more, then hurtling violently to the next destination.
Oh sorry, I forgot, I’m supposed to be writing about winning that Orwell Prize.
I guess you’ll need a “diamond in the rough” trope, or a misery memoir extract, to explain why someone from a housing estate is wandering collarless around the UK media and literary circuit in a baseball cap, with a 40-yard stare that would make an impression on steel. You’ll want to know where I learned all the “big words”.
The largely white, middle-class, polite and pleasant, though occasionally trite and insincere, literary and media circuit does not intimidate me. Not in the way many people seem to think it might. I’m self-aware enough to know how I’m being perceived by many; arriving at book festivals and being stared down, sceptically, because I wear Nike Air Max and refuse to pronounce the “t” in “latte”. Some people seem to think life is just one big TED talk.
Ironically, I’m more socially mobile than many of the wealthy, successful people I frequently encounter; I’m as comfortable conversing with a politician, an epigeneticist, a composer or a billionaire as I am with a rough-sleeper, a survivor of child abuse or a drug addict. But this ability to adapt intuitively to a broad diversity of social settings is not regarded as being “learned” or “cultured”, because it’s a skill that cannot be commodified, posted on LinkedIn and humble-bragged about at a shit dinner party. So, people just keep asking me about my dead Mum because, ostensibly, this is all I am qualified to talk about as a working-class person. I guess, when you speak in a northern dialect, it matters not how verbosely you bloviate, you’ll always be regarded, by some, as “scruff”. If this “scruff” has one purpose in life, it’s making those people eat every last syllable of their own gratuitously convoluted verbiage.
Anyway, back to the Orwell thing. Two moments will remain with me from that evening. The first was when fellow Scottish nominee Ali Smith – shortlisted for her post-Brexit novel Winter – congratulated me with a sincerity that brought tears to my tired eyes, before giving me the warmest hug I’ve received for quite some time.
As she wrapped her wee arms around my rattled frame, gifting me eloquent and unpatronising pearls of womanly wisdom, I was briefly transported home. Not home to Scotland, but to reality; a distant place from which I have become dangerously untethered since this roller coaster began in November last year.
The other striking moment of the evening was being presented the award by Richard Blair, George Orwell’s son. As he reached out to shake my hand, it occurred to me that I was about to interact with someone who had physically touched and spoken to Eric Blair himself. I was peering through a rare window in time. You could say, the moment was genuinely Orwellian.
He shared some stories about time spent with his father in Scotland. What I really wanted to ask was whether he ever gets a bit frustrated at being constantly referred to as someone else’s son. For who casts a longer shadow over British culture than his famous father? I didn’t have enough time with Richard to gauge how I should pursue such a personal enquiry, so we warmly parted ways, leaving me to ponder late into the night what he might have said. Given the seismic shift taking place in my own life, perhaps that’s a conversation I’ll need to have with my own boy at some point.
For now, it’s back into the hurricane, which will be vomiting me up at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. I’ve been told by many artists and performers that the Fringe is an intense experience, pushing even the most seasoned professional to the very edge of their sanity. To me, that sounds like a much-needed holiday.
Darren McGarvey, aka Loki, is the author of “Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass” (out now)
This article appears in the 18 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact