Tag Archives: Bluemoose

Ghost Signs by Stu Hennigan

It starts out being an account of delivering food parcels to people in Leeds during the first lockdown in the spring of 2020. But as this book goes on, it becomes about poverty in the UK. The reader must conclude that this poverty will have been made worse by the pandemic and today has become ‘a cost of living crisis’. I believe this phrase, so beloved of politicians and the press, is a synonym for ‘even more poverty’. 

I had already thought of this book as the equivalent today of Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell (published in 1937) which exposed the dreadful living conditions in the industrial northern towns just before the Second World War. I have since discovered that others have made the same connection. 

Like many readers, despite the warning of the subtitle – poverty and the pandemic – I was shocked by this account of Leeds in the pandemic. Shocked and moved, for Stu Hennigan is a very sympathetic writer. He has succeeded in putting human faces to some of the more general descriptions of Covid. 

Ghost Signs: poverty and the pandemic

In April 2020 Leeds Council recruited volunteer drivers to deliver food parcels from the Food Distribution Centre that had been set up to provide for people in difficulties in the lockdown. Unable to work at his usual job as a librarian because of the lockdown, and stuck at home, Stu Hennigan decided to volunteer. 

Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw during those months. I took on the driving role thinking it would simply be a useful way of spending lockdown – delivering parcels and having a chat with whoever I met along the way. Nothing could have been further from the truth. It was an emotionally draining experience, stressful and bruising at times, unutterably sad at other, always tiring, and with an intermittent threat of violence that took me completely by surprise. I saw some things that will stay with me forever, plenty of which I hope to never see again. (4) 

After a couple of weeks, the drivers were also required to collect and deliver prescriptions for people who could not get out. The book is the detailed account of his first 9 weeks as a delivery driver. This was the first day.

Friday 10th April
Leeds is like a scene from a sci-fi movie. Across the Eastgate roundabout I can see the bus station, empty and silent as the tomb of Christ on this Easter weekend. In the middle distance there’s the brand new John Lewis and Victoria Gate shopping centre with its multi-storey car park, built on the site of the old Millgarth nick, which was bulldozed to make way for it a few years ago as part of the plan to modernise the city centre. […]
It’s like aliens have come down in a spaceship and removed all the people; I’ve lived in this city for thirteen years and been a visitor here for most of my life, but I’ve never seen it like this before; it’s freaking me out already. The stillness, the silence, the complete lack of sound or motion from anything but my own car, the feeling that we’re in the midst of something completely unique and epochal, wondering where the fuck all this is going to end up – it’s a real head trip and I haven’t even started the job yet. (6-7)

Reading this passage, describing a scene from 30 months ago I realise how quickly we forget. Perhaps it’s because we don’t want to revisit the fears and strangeness of that first encounter with the Coronavirus and the mandatory social isolation. But it was strange, even in the middle of the countryside it was strange and frightening.

Driving and delivery food and medicines around Leeds, the author soon comes to see that there was a huge amount of poverty in Leeds even before the pandemic. Many people had nothing, no furniture, no food, no decent clothes, no decent roof over their head, no-one to help and instead a huge suspicion of authorities and officials. Very quickly he understood that people could not afford food, were starving in some cases, and everywhere the social and economic outcomes of poverty and drug abuse had pulled down lives.

He meets gratitude from people, especially when they understand that the service and the food is free. Also, indifference and resentment. And terrifying dogs or hostility when he searches for an address for a delivery. Many people are on the very edge, and some need much more assistance than is being supplied, like Leslie who has collapsed in pain, needing her morphine. Stu Hennigan brings her food parcels, but he is required to do so much more for her as she is quite unable to help herself. Help arrives from within the community, and eventually from paramedics too. It’s a shocking episode, poverty, ill-health, inappropriate housing dependence upon services that are not forthcoming in the pandemic and perhaps not even in normal times. It is with the episode when he helped Leslie that Stu Hennigan chooses to end his narrative.

We have met countless people in dressing gowns or ‘trackie’ bottoms, sick and gaunt from drug abuse, lonely, helpless, resentful, and apparently abandoned. He has cheery, grateful conversations with a few. Being thanked is rare and always affects him.

And what I asked as a reader is – will all of this improve at the end of lockdowns? Of course it has not. Poverty was widespread before Covid-19, and the infrastructure to provide for the needy was already failing. 

By placing individual people, including his own family, in his account of lockdown he brings home the immediate effects, but raises questions about the long-term effects of lockdown, especially on young people.

Ghost Signs: poverty and the pandemic by Stu Henniganpublished in 2022 by Bluemoose Books. 208pp

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Let’s have more older women writers

In 2016 I had been looking at discrimination against female writers for three years on this blog and trying to make older women in particular more visible in fiction. At the time it also made sense to look at the barriers, if there were any, to older women authors. And anyway, Martin Amis, in his provocative way, made the following comment about older female writers: 

You can see them disintegrate before your eyes as they move past 70.

So back then I enlisted the support of another female writer, Anne Goodwin, and asked her to think about possible discrimination against older women writers. Her answers provided the material for a post which I posted on my blog. The comments that followed it are also interesting. You can see all that here: Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers?

Older woman writing: Literacy in Oaxaca by Pilarportela in 2005 via WikiCommons

Since then …

Some evidence would suggest that some older women are being supported more to get their writing published. Here is some of the evidence together with some questions and answers that I put to Anne:

Anne Goodwin herself has published and self-published more books. She now has four to her name.

  • Sugar and Snails
  • Underneath
  • Becoming Someone
  • Somebody’s Daughter 

Do you think the major publishing groups are still looking mostly for youth in the writers they support? What about the independents?

They’re looking for what will sell, which might be about the book or it might be about the person who wrote it. Naïvely, until I was published I didn’t appreciate just how commercial the whole enterprise is! Independent publishers, more motivated by the love of books than the money, are able to be more flexible, but they still need to put food on the table.

I think if the publisher can build an interesting story about the author it doesn’t matter how old she is: extreme age can be as fascinating as youth, especially if there’s a rags to riches element.

Another factor is that, if they’re thinking long term and investing in the author’s entire career, a younger author might have more years – and perhaps more books – ahead of her. On the other hand, since very few can earn their living through writing, an older author, especially if she has a pension, might be able to commit more time to publicity – and writing the next book.

2019 saw the inauguration of the Paul Torday Prize for writers of fiction who publish their first novel over the age of 60. It was won by Anne Youngson for Meet Me at the Museum. All the semi-finalists in the first year were women. I wrote about the prize and the winner here. Do you have any reactions to this prize? 

I think it’s great, although 60 is starting to feel rather youthful!

Gransnet commissioned some research into older women readers and their preferences in reading. You can find a summary here. https://www.gransnet.com/online-surveys-product-tests/ageism-in-fiction The readers wanted to see characters of all ages and less stereotyping of older women. They were furious that so many older women were portrayed as fumbling with new technology and digital devices. Any thoughts about the evidence that readers want to see characters of all ages? And less stereotyping. 

I had seen this and wondered what to make of a survey that lumps together all women over 40! And Gransnet as an umbrella term feeds into another stereotype. Otherwise, all I can say is “of course”.

The so-called grey pound might be a factor here too. More women have reached 60+, many of them have income to spend on their leisure, including on their reading. They expect to see more older women characters and writers. Do you think this will have an impact on publishing older women writers?

I hope so, although I meet a lot of older women in bookshops who don’t like the sound of my fiction. They either want something cosier or much darker – I can never get my head around the popularity of violent crime. On the other hand, U3A groups have been very supportive.

Here’s what Joanne Harris said recently (reported in Bookseller) about publishers promoting debuts:

Regardless of what it is that they write, as men get older they become veteran writers. As women get older, they get invisible and I think part of this is to do with the fact that women’s writing has always been seen as lesser in one way or another. If a man writes about relationships, he is writing about the universal condition and needs to be praised. If women write about relationships they are writing chick lit and everything they do is slightly diminished because of that. The idea is that women are there to please women, whereas men are there to enlighten posterity.

1 Sadly, because it’s ubiquitous in our culture, women can be as dismissive of other women’s contributions as men

2. I was shocked to learn last year that publishers push debuts because an author without a track record can be more attractive – at whatever age – to the book world because they haven’t yet failed to produce a bestseller. It means new authors have to hit the ground running and there’s little interest in learning on the job. Mid-list writers – who might also be older women – get pushed out.

3. Rubbish books do get published; some by men, some by women.

Bluemoose publishers are dedicating their efforts in 2020 to publishing women authors over 45. Is this kind of action useful?

I think so. Publishers can get so swamped with submissions it’s helpful to have some way of narrowing down their options, especially if that means supporting marginalised groups. Others are trying to prioritise submissions from people of colour.

Vanessa Gebbie ran a retreat to encourage writers, Never too late to do it, in February 2019. Are these kinds of courses likely to help? 

Anything that challenges the notion that we stop growing, learning and developing as we get older seems good to me.

So the answer is …

Any thoughts about any of this? 

Overall, I think how the individual writer feels about this is a function of internal and external factors. Since we exist in a patriarchal culture, where women’s power is feared and denigrated, there’s bound to be some prejudice in some quarters against female writers. And, as we don’t like reminders that we’ll all die eventually, youth is going to be celebrated and age ignored as much as possible. So, although I don’t think I’ve experienced age and gender discrimination, if an older woman writer tells me she has, I’m likely to believe her.

But how we feel about this personally must also depend on our own psychology and circumstances. When ageing is accompanied by multiple losses – bereavement, poverty, physical health – as it often is for women, discrimination is going to be harder to fight and/or to bear. I’m lucky that isn’t my situation – yet – and, although I have my share of grumbles like anyone else, I’m loving this stage of my life.

A final point: my writing depends on voice recognition software, which continually thwarts me with multiple errors. But I know it’s on my side as it persists in writing the word women as winning!

I must thank Anne Goodwin, the winning woman writer, for taking the time to think about my questions. You can find more about her books at her website Annethology: here

Silly old Martin Amis.

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, words