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Book Review: "The Social Distance Between Us" by Darren McGarvey

5/5 - one of the greatest books of the last 10 years...

By Annie KapurPublished about a month ago 9 min read
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From: Amazon

Another review, another great work of nonfiction that I am reading to meet my nonfiction goals this year. 2024 has undoubtedly been a great year for nonfiction books and has featured many that I have actually enjoyed reading (some a little bit more than fiction as well). This particular book focuses on how inequality in Britain is becoming worse in terms of class divides. The name might suggest it is mainly about the pandemic, but this is not the case.

Instead, it features all of the cogs in the machine that led to things becoming even more unequal during the pandemic, how the government is mechnically keeping it that way and how the poor are always left the worse off because of it. The author has an incredible voice in order to tell this story of Britain's downfall and even though there is no named blaming going on, he makes a seriously compelling argument to point the finger at government policies on everything from housing to education.

Let's go through the advantages of this book as there are many. I would first like to say that the introduction is written amazingly, covering every major issue that the book entails it clearly does not assign blame to one singular thing but a whole host of them. This makes these part of a system that keeps poor people in poverty for longer amounts of time and often, with horrific consequences. The main issue that the author speaks about is the one of proximity. People who are not in proximity of those in poverty who are suffering from these problems don't tend to fully grasp their situation and therefore, create conjectures from half-truths.

Another part of the book I enjoyed is where the author talks about whether appearance draws law enforcement. Do particular methods of dressing and appearance make law enforcement seek out particular people more? The quotation: “Law enforcement have two faces: one for the people they serve and one for the people they pursue” is easily one of the best of the whole book, giving rise to the 'class profiling' theory. The author takes time to look through statistics and anecdotes of people this has happened to and honestly, this is really quite shocking stuff.

I also enjoyed learning about the perception about how well the economy is doing. It is only really perceived to be doing well if you are already at the good end of things whereas, just by asking those who are lesser off, we can see that the economy is really struggling to stay afloat. This is probably why the Tory Government keeps commenting on how well the economy is doing, since many of them are already very well off, whereas for the average working person - it is an unfolding nightmare. Perception and proximity again are therefore, everything.

Accepting that there are increasing class barriers is not a radical idea, it is simply an observant one. The one route that the author takes to show us this is the appeals scandal. In 2019, it was well documented that half a million people who were entitled to disability benefits did not receive them and were yet, told to take up a decision to appeal if they had any qualms. But, most of these people were never given advice on how to actually go about appealing and for some with extreme conditions, appealing was pretty impossible. Honestly, this made me feel ill. A country that simply chooses to ignore its most vulnerable members of the public cannot be called something that starts with 'great' at all.

The author does a very good job at delving into this issue and looking into the systems that made it so impossible for these people to speak out for themselves. In the book, this is one of many things that the author refers to as a 'structural class barrier'. It is a structure or system that stops people of a certain class performing a task that they are told they can perform due to the systems around them such as: education, housing, literacy poverty etc.

From: Amazon

This then leads on to the exploitation of the poor through means of absolute compliance due to the lack of other options. Poverty of aspiration is a new piece of terminology I have learnt from this book and as a teacher, the meaning of the term sickens me. Poverty of aspiration is where children who live in poverty recognise that there are not many options available in their positions and lower their aspirations or give up on them accordingly. Does this sound like a 1st world country to you? Well, it doesn't sound like it to me at all. Poverty of aspiration is inevitable when you are not given the same quality of care or the same oportunities as your middle class counterparts and therefore, as the child gets older this can lead to exploitation through a lack of options. The author uses call centre work to explain this. Often very low paid work for many hours, call centre work exploits the young, poor and vulnerable when they have no other options of education or work. They quite literally have no other ways to make money and the call centre people know this and take advantage.

When it comes to education, this book makes a lot of points - many of which I have actually seen first hand. If you know me, you would know that I am a thoroughly middle class, privately educated woman and yet, I am also someone who has worked in state schools that are considered to be questionable at best. If I have said it once, I have said it a million times: whatever you think the difference between private education and state education is I will tell you that you are not even close. Not even remotely close. We get our social positions from our parents - those of who either put us in certain educational institutions or those who could not choose where to put us because of a number of reasons. When looking at the attainment gap, it is only obvious that students attending either grammar or private education will be destined to perform better than those in state education.

From: Blackwell's

Let me give you a working example of lived experience. I walked into a music class in a state school to get some spare pens during my training course as a Secondary English teacher. It was a class of 30 or so students, most of whom were not paying any attention. I thought it was nice to have such a class in a school where funds were obviously tight. Many students I know from state schools in the surrounding area said that music was no longer an option as a class. Then I thought back to my own days as a music student. Do you know how many kids were in my music class when I was at school? Four. Including me. We each had our own practice and composition rooms.

This is one of the things impacting the attainment gap - overcrowded classrooms vs classrooms where there's literally only four people. From this we can definitely see that not all children are created equal. Whilst I saw children in the state school I worked in walking home on Thursday at 3pm, knowing they had to pick up a younger sibling on the way, 14-year-old me would have been in a warm classroom preparing for an hour of orchestral work, polishing my flute. Some state school students were clearly struggling to write, whilst I could remember 14-year-old me prasied for my calligraphic handwriting on my way to poetry appreciation class. Yes, you read that correctly, poetry appreciation class. The attainment gap is something I am very passionate about when it comes to schooling because we are worlds apart and it's horrifying.

It is true that independent education is for families who wish to keep wealth circling within the family. This is why it is a government's top priority to keep these people happy. They will continue to serve, they are professional and more than often, they are tax-paying people with an especially big mouth and loud opinion if something doesn't work out for them. But, when it comes to the masses, poorer schools are left to fall into disrepair and often hold fund raisers to get more resources.

Honestly, it is quite shocking to read. There are things I had not even thought about in the attainment gap and how it is designed to create a labour class. It really did make my stomach turn. I felt a strange sense of shame as if I did not deserve the push up the educational ladder I had got in my teens. But then again, as the author explains, these are the decisions of parents. Very rarely does a child get to choose the school they are sent to.

From: Hoxton Books

I also enjoyed where the author starts talking about how for young offenders, rap is often their greatest literary experience. I have always thought that though I do not like rap music, it is important as a part of literary culture especially for those who cannot access literature due to a number of factors that can make reading a difficult and frustrating experience. Especially rap artists like Eminem, a rapper with an incredible vocabulary, rap music is something I may not enjoy but I can understand. The poetry presented by some of the offenders in the book that is reported by the author really did make me feel something else entirely. It was touching and amazing.

Another part of the book I enjoyed is when the author investigates the inequality of housing through the eyes of the Grenfell Disaster. For those across the water who may not know this, Grenfell Tower was a block of flats that went up in flames and claimed lots of people's lives. It is a poor housing flat situated in the middle of quite a rich part of London and was often called into question due to the fact the rich people did not enjoy living side by side with the poor.

What happened was that reports to the council about the poor cladding in the flats was ignored with some people citing that any day now, it could be catastrophic. It was ignored for so long that eventually, it killed over 70 people. Most of the people who died were poor, ethnic minorities and living in destitution and reports began to come out about how there were warnings to the council that something was going to happen way before anything ever did. The council ignored them because they were not tax-paying professional citizens and thus, were forgotten about. The author tells the story in the most heartbreaking way since the time the fire actually broke out.

From: The London Review of Books

There was a whole section on addiction as well which I found fascinating. The medicalisation and misunderstanding of addiction is actually fuelling the rising death toll amongst the most vulnerable. The author takes the time to explain the story of a man from Glasgow named John who eventually, after homelessness and addiction, gained access to a housing facility and got almost clean. And then he died. It seems almost unbelievable that someone who was doing so well would just vanish because of something the medical professionals perceived to be gone. But it just goes to show how many people actually misunderstand addictions because of the lack of proximity they have to them.

More than often untrained nurses who have never experienced or known anyone with an addiction are the ones treating these people therapuetically. Medical professionals who have no idea what it is actually like to be addicted focus on making it less critical on the organs rather than fixing the mental state. Fixing the mental state of those that are poor and destitute is very difficult and therefore, it is not deemed worthy of time and effort. The author goes through many statistics and stories of this being the case and it is horrific every single time.

Multi-morbidity, aesthetic stress and interacting with the DWP, housing, education, disability, long-term illness, lower life expectancy, addictions, prison, homelessness, landlords, drugs, harm reduction and even down to anti-homeless architecture - these are only some of the conditions that fuel poverty in the UK and more than often they are done by the effort of design rather than anything else. One problem is lodged on top of another and before we know it, there is something much worse building than simply 'getting a job' or 'getting some money' could fix. In this eye-opening book that I would call recommended reading for anyone living in Post-Truth Britain, this is an under the radar crisis that is shoved right in your face - a fantastic and harrowing look into a world that you scarcely see exist.

literature
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About the Creator

Annie Kapur

200K+ Reads on Vocal.

English Lecturer

🎓Literature & Writing (B.A)

🎓Film & Writing (M.A)

🎓Secondary English Education (PgDipEd) (QTS)

📍Birmingham, UK

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