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 Hennigan, published in 2022 by Bluemoose Books. 208pp