14 March 2023

‘These are my words, too’: an extract from Darren McGarvey’s ‘The Social Distance Between Us’

Posted by Darren McGarvey

Darren McGarvey’s The Social Distance Between Us, shortlisted for this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize, is a radical exposé of the stark inequalities of contemporary Britain, using first-hand accounts from those at the sharp end of our entrenched class system. The Rathbones Folio Prize judges called it a ‘dynamic, powerful and galvanising book about the state of the nations [that] tells it as it is, then tells it like it could be.’ In this extract from the book, McGarvey explores how language reflects – and entrenches – social and class divides.

To me, words are like music. When arranged in a particular way, and written or spoken with a certain conviction, an alluring harmony is produced which I find immediately arresting. What is being said, it’s meaning or, indeed, whether I agree or not comes entirely secondary to this initial capture of my fleeting attention. I am often propelled by a sudden, ferocious interest into a particular field of thought or study – not necessarily by a desire to educate myself on a specific topic, but because I am drawn to how someone writes or talks about it. Much like a great tune, which can be enjoyed without any real understanding or foreknowledge of its genre or era, well-arranged words, expressing fluent, coherent ideas, are simply music to my ears. And, to stick with the music analogy, it shouldn’t matter if the material originated in the mind of an Oxbridge graduate or a guitarist who learned their trade on the dole: if they can play, they can play.

My lifelong fascination with language and the subsequent capacity I have developed for speaking is not something I consider remarkable. Yet, as I’ve moved out of hardship and into cultural and social spheres which are dominated by the middle classes, I am increasingly aware of how surprised people are when they hear someone from a working-class background express themselves with a degree of articulacy. As a ‘diamond in the rough’, currently ascending the social scale, I encounter people from higher social classes more frequently.

I recall one Scottish book festival where I arrived and was looked at like I was there to collect the bins. Often, touring the country, I feel like a living art installation that middle-class people pay money to interact with. As I attend more events and engage in more media, I get asked more questions. Some are thoughtful. Others are personal. And some of them are downright rude. Irrespective of the quality of the question, or my enthusiasm to address it, a great deal of my time is now devoted to furnishing my various inquisitors, on social media, television, radio and even in the street, with polite and satisfactory responses. The question I least enjoy answering is also the one I am asked most frequently: ‘Where did you learn to speak so well, Darren?’ The people who ask me this question always think they are the first person to ask it. Countless journalists, public officials and book festival enthusiasts quite simply cannot restrain themselves. They don’t even realise how insulting it is to be asked such a question. Their aloof enquiry is made so earnestly that rather than take offence – which would be well within my rights – I have learned to contort myself to grudgingly accommodate it. What these people are really broadcasting is that they are somewhat surprised by my ability, as a working-class person, to string a coherent sentence together without soiling myself.

I have since developed a standard response to this question: a paraphrased, conversational version of the ‘words are like music’ passage you just read. I have adopted that as my go-to reply because it’s a lot easier for everyone involved if I don’t say something like: ‘Why shouldn’t I be able to express myself clearly? These are my words, too – middle-class cunt.’

My more palatable response meets all the necessary criteria for successfully engaging with a middle-class person, thus hopefully evading any potential power-play in which they may engage if I were to upset them. Firstly, it does not challenge them. Secondly, it is not confrontational. And lastly, it educates them in a way that does not make them feel like they do not already know everything.

When dealing with many middle-class people, these are skills you come to depend on if you come from my kind of background. But it is exhausting. In my career as a musician, writer and public speaker, I have performed countless hours of emotional labour in an effort to make it easier for people who regard themselves as informed, cultured and sophisticated to advertise their ignorance by insulting me. Being polite is important, of course. But even the virtue of good manners is part of the dance. Moving up the food chain, and out of poverty, often requires more than just talent, competence, determination and good fortune – you need to be willing to shut up at precisely the right moment.

Your social mobility depends as much on your communication style as it does on your grades. Indeed, in some cases, how you come across may be of greater import than what you are actually capable of. I recall a visit to a community space in Glasgow when lockdown restrictions were eased for the first time. I had been invited to give an ‘inspirational’ talk to young men who were at risk of being drawn into the criminal justice system. Prior to arrival, I decided to devise a short workshop instead. My aim was to test a theory I had been pondering about self-limiting language and the attitudes, values and behaviours that may arise from it.

Most people take their ability to express themselves for granted. Even those who regard themselves as introverted possess a baseline ability to communicate effectively when they must. But those who grow up in hostile environments, deprived of support and encouragement, tend to have only a few hundred words at their disposal by the age of 16 – not because they are stupid but because these words cocoon them from vulnerability. I explained to the boys that when I was growing up, I felt a lot of social pressure to speak a certain way. To present a certain demeanour. That my failure or inability to do so would result in derision and sometimes even violence. I then presented them with a list of words, with varying emotional resonance, and asked them simply to raise their hands to those that they would be prepared to say in a regular conversation.

Eccies (ecstasy)
Bucky (Buckfast tonic wine)

The list was specifically designed to draw out why some words were deemed more appropriate than others. Naturally, those words which conveyed aggression rolled easier off the tongue. Some words provoked laughter while others created an uneasy silence. I explained to them that by limiting the range of words at their disposal, they were effectively imprisoning themselves. They were, out of a desire to portray a particular tough image, inadvertently impairing their ability to develop as men.

Extracted from The Social Distance Between Us by Darren McGarvey (Ebury Press), which is shortlisted for the 2023 Rathbones Folio Prize. The winner is announced on Monday 27 March.

Join Darren McGarvey, alongside the Rathbones Folio Prize judges Ali Smith, Jackie Kay and Guy Gunaratne and a stellar line-up of other shortlistees, at an event at the British Library on Sunday 26 March. Find out more and book tickets here.

Books mentioned in this blog post