18 March 2023

‘You have to be more afraid of quitting than you are of stumbling on’: Darren McGarvey on writing ‘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 blogpost, McGarvey discusses trying to write a book during lockdown, chronic impostor syndrome and lessons in perseverence from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.

Whoever said ‘Hell is other people’ clearly hadn’t tried write a book about the British class-system in lockdown with two young children during a global pandemic. Indeed, I recall vividly the many occasions in which I sought refuge in the company of some of the most hellish people that the southwest of Scotland has so far produced, in a desperate and futile attempt to place some distance between myself and the unwieldy manuscript.

With a background in music, I began the process of writing the book much like I do when penning an album, operating mainly from instinct and emotion. Casting the net wide, I set out to explore the wider UK, keen to remove myself from the comfort-zone of my home turf. With a little more money than usual in my pocket – thanks to the surprising success of my 2017 debut – a new freedom beckoned.

If I wanted to visit a specific area of the country, all I had to do was book a train, or a flight. No more counting pennies. No more Megabuses. I had no solid idea of what the book would be about. I just tried to trust that if I followed my instincts and stayed close-to-the-ground for long enough, that some unifying theme would emerge.

How shocked I was that it would be the braiding of this personal experience of enjoying a sudden and optimistic sense of my own social mobility, with the contrasting stagnation, anger, and despair I witnessed as I travelled the length and breadth of Britain on a whim, that would inform the book’s central theme: proximity.   

While it is always tempting to retrofit the chaotic process of completing a literary work with self-aggrandising tales of one’s intrepidness, The Social Distance Between Us is not the manifestation of some grand, methodical plan: like many people from working class backgrounds, I took the job before I really knew whether or not I could do it.

This chronic case of imposter syndrome plagued me throughout. In truth, I was so sure I wasn’t up to the task of creating a serious piece of work that I eschewed all offers of help and support from the publisher for about two years, postponing what I saw as the inevitable moment when everybody realised I didn’t have what it took.

What amazes me is that – despite the complete collapse of self-confidence, the sleep-exhaustion of raising young children, the grinding tedium of life in lockdown, and the subsequent financial death-spiral that occurs when your earnings are all dependant on being able to go outside – somehow, I kept going.

At every juncture, there was the easy, well-lit road and the darker, less-trodden path. For some reason, I always took the harder route – to the absolute delight of everyone at Ebury!

I’d say my main source of inspiration on the hundreds of occasions when I hit the wall was the hundreds of hours of Thom Yorke interviews on YouTube in which the Radiohead frontman confesses to having enjoyed not one second of his success following the release of OK Computer. I took great comfort in his lack of perspective at his lifelong dream finally manifesting. His agitation at everything and everyone around him. His anxiety inducing self-absorption. And the paralysing creative block that followed the album’s nightmarish world tour.

What I saw in his hellish experience was how he had no idea just how well things would go later on. He was so overwhelmed by the work, and so disillusioned by the poisoned-chalice of success, that he’d lost the capacity to be grateful – the driver of many of a deep depression. But that particular storm cloud would pass and soon after lead to the creation of Kid A – arguably music’s greatest ever left-turn.

For me, there was a universal lesson in that. One that applies during any prolonged period of perceived adversity. You have to be more afraid of quitting than you are of stumbling on. You have to believe the terror of operating at the very furthest edge of your abilities every day, certain you will fail, but persisting nonetheless, is what it truly means to be alive.

There were so many times I held the towel, preparing to throw it in. So many reasons to give up on the pipedream and return to the comfort-zone. What transpired, was an understanding that due to my modest beginnings, and the difficulties I faced as a child and adolescent, I was made of pretty tough stuff. My scariest experiences were already far behind me. All I was doing was writing a book!

It wasn’t really that bad. I kept thinking about advice Denise Mina once dispensed to an aspiring author who wanted to know if there was some secret to completing a book: ‘Just write your fucking book,’ she said.

So that’s what I did.

The mild insanity induced by undertaking such a task in lockdown with young children, while mildly unpleasant, granted me unrestricted access to a rare strain of creativity. A wild, reckless, furious kind of abandon, where some mornings resembled deleted scenes from The Shining.   

And so, it was with little more than good faith, that I cracked on, sometimes only getting a few sentences down at a time, until one day, to my astonishment, it was done.



The Social Distance Between Us by Darren McGarvey (Ebury Press) 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