The last day of March marked the 16th anniversary of my mother’s passing. Sadly, the most notable thing about her life was that it ended 36 years after it started. In just four years I will be older than she was when she died and something about that fact really unsettles me. I am now one of five siblings who remain as proof of her meandering existence.
She was brought up in an alcoholic home in Glasgow. Her childhood was very tough and by no means uncommon. Both her parents were drinkers and their family suffered greatly as a result.
I’ve set foot in a few alcoholic homes in my time. The memories do not fade with time. They often look and smell horrific – like death het up. You can taste the wet ash in the air as a blanket of smoke lingers in the middle of the room like a vulgar guest overstaying their welcome.
Blood in the pan. Spiders living in the litter tray. Dampness crawling up the walls an onto cold, rusted window frames as a steady stream of strangers join the cackle in a living room where the curtains are always drawn.
When you live with an addict it’s not unusual to come home and find your stuff has been sold to buy drugs or alcohol. On occasion, you may return home from school to find the furniture laying burnt to a crisp in the front garden after another house fire.
There is not even a pretence of dignity let alone privacy. Your life is always spilling out onto the street in one way or another.
There is nothing more surreal than walking into a pawn shop and seeing your possessions on display despite the fact you never put them there. Rare, timeless vinyl and cassette tapes, stereo systems, sold for pennies just to quiet someone’s morning shakes. Though admittedly, this was not quite as awkward as mistakenly answering the door to an agitated debt collector or a terrified paper-boy.
And don’t get me started on the drug dealers.
These homes are no homes at all. They are open-plan emotional torture chambers where deprivation, in the truest sense of the word, is often the absolute default positon.
These are homes where poverty does not only corrupt people, but leaves them grotesquely deformed.
Such households were not as rare as historical romanticists would have you believe. These communities were not the ‘leave your doors open’ working-class utopias regaled to us through rose-tinted glasses on easy Sunday afternoons.
These communities were hell for some. And worse for others. And they leave a hellish legacy.
In these homes there no boundaries, no trigger warnings and no safe spaces. In this homes fear may be your only friend.
My mother’s experience shaped her and many other people in our family. Some survived and some did not. It’s no wonder she didn’t possess the coping skills to deal with life’s challenges further down the line. My birth set in motion her own quick decent into full-blown alcoholism, which tore apart our family slowly and painfully over a span of 15 years.
My memories of her are painfully vivid. Whether pinned helpless to a wall as she drew the cold knife to my throat for refusing to go to bed during one of her sprees, or looking around the room inquisitively as she pushed the needle deep into her vein before a warm blanket of silence descended. Or watching in utter disbelief as she drunkenly attempted to exhume our dog’s carcass from the bottom of the garden with her bare hands as neighbours, well aware of her condition, stared on incapacitated by shock. I can say with certainty that our lives were chaotic and terrifying at times.
The nightmare extended to my dear siblings, who not only lived under the tyranny of addiction themselves, to be later abandoned by her too, but then had to watch in horror as I, overwhelmed by the past, sailed close to that same morbid wind that so hypnotised my mother. Alcohol and drugs consumed my sanity and rendered me absent during my brothers and sisters hardest years.
Gratefully, I am now active in their lives again though, admittedly, my sanity is yet to re-join us.
I remember begging my mum to stay on the line as someone from Alcoholics Anonymous returned one of her frantic distress calls. But she just ran out the door, leaving me alone, holding the phone. Last month I celebrated one year’s sobriety, followed soon after by the birth of my first child. Sadly, family dysfunction is not the only hapless cycle in Scotland doomed to repeat itself.
You may not be the first politician to get elected on a wave of desperation for change, Nicola, but you are the first one I ever believed in. I’m one of the things the Yes movement vomited up in 2014, who not only believed in independence as a means of national moral redemption, but also in paying more than lip service to tackling the deep social inequality that creates the conditions for deprivation to thrive.
Which is why I am disappointed in your recent policies which seem to be aimed at affluent communities who voted No in 2014. I was drawn to the SNP following the collapse of the left and I’ve been voting for you since 2006 because something radical needs to be done about poverty in this country.
I must confess that I now harbour a nagging fear of what an independent Scotland, under the stewardship of an ever-pragmatic SNP, might look like given how sections of our ‘critically engaged population’ are willing to contort themselves to accommodate your increasingly unconscionable political flexibility. This pragmatism for which you are being applauded, by rich and poor alike, is cultivating a tolerance for low taxation coupled with moderate incremental reform, peppered with comforting social justice rhetoric that barely tweaks the status quo never mind challenges it. I fear some have, understandably, become so emotionally invested in the dream of independence that they dare not allow even a kernel of doubt in your judgement to take hold in their hearts – let alone speak out against it.
Though I suspect the SNP’s new, aspirational, target audience will seek assurances that more of the same awaits them should they throw caution to the wind and decide to vote Yes at the next referendum.
So if this is the influence Middle Scotland is exerting now, where the most powerful First Minister ever is afraid to ask higher earners to pay more, then how exactly do we tilt the table in favour of the less privileged once we are independent? Won’t Scotland’s great and good just threaten to leave then too? Won’t this threat always hang over our heads?
That’s the contradiction at the heart of political pragmatism. And that is the moral dilemma Yes voters, with more than just a passing interest in social justice, must fearlessly confront head on. It’s not just about getting over the line, it’s about the quality of the journey and the clear choice we are presented with.
Even well intentioned pragmatism is always leading someone into a false sense of security.
My experience so far in life places upon me a burden of urgency where poverty is concerned. To most people in public life it is a technical, almost cliché term, so much so I fall into self-parody going on about it so much. But my life has only ever been about this one thing, Nicola. There is no pragmatism where inequality is concerned. There is only action and inaction. If you can’t make an argument for slightly higher taxes t
o a class of educated people who are fortunate enough to be doing well in a terminally unequal society then I already know what is required of me as a citizen.
If the personal is indeed political, I need only cast my mind back 16 years to the day I was told my mother’s organs had begun shutting down. The day the doctor’s advised her children not come to their mother’s deathbed, because she would be too delirious with pain to recognise them. She died because she happened to be born into poverty. And we grieved for her death while growing up poor.
Now her ghost follows all of us wherever we go.
This memory is far more tangible and real to me than an increasingly elastic notion of Scottish independence that seems hinged upon the whims of a privileged, politically rudderless, section of the electorate.
I respect your dilemma and admire those who support you in such a bold and unwavering fashion – even the ones who’ll hate me for writing these words. But I will not be passing you the conch anymore. Not this year at least, Nicola.
I come from another part of Scotland that clearly needs to learn to speak up for itself.
Darren ‘Loki’ McGarvey
Editor’s note: This is a revised version of an article which was first published on Monday, April 4. Following publication Darren contacted STV to ask if he could edit the text to respect the wishes of some members of his family. The foregoing piece is the new version and was published on Tuesday.