Ghost Signs, Stu Hennigan’s debut publication, is a non-fiction book set in Leeds during the first UK lockdown of 2020, following the arrival of COVID-19.
Ordinarily a librarian, Hennigan volunteered to be a delivery driver for the local council, providing fresh food for families shielding or economically impacted by the lockdown. This took him to some of the most impoverished places in the entire country.
A desperately sad read, Ghost Signs is an eye-opening account of poverty in the 5th biggest economy in the world, whilst highlighting the crippling human cost of an absence of sensible domestic social policies.
It’s also a shocking indictment of the lack of vision from 12 years of successive Conservative governments.
It’s March 2020. And with much of the UK in lockdown due to rising COVID-19 infections, a Leeds City Council van trundles through the darkened streets of the pandemic-hit city.
One of the poorest places in the UK, 24% of Leeds’ neighbourhoods are in poverty. Furthermore, 29% of the city’s children under the age of 16 are living in absolute poverty*.
In response to the pandemic, the council has mobilised the Food Distribution Centre to ensure that the extremely vulnerable and their families have access to food, drink, and sanitary products. Over the course of the first three to four months of the initial lockdown, Hennigan chronicles his experiences within the local community, revealing the harsh impact of both the pandemic and years of austerity-led economic policies.
If social conditions were bad prior to COVID-19, it’s far worse now. On the doorstep, Hennigan witnesses emaciated 30-year-olds who haven’t eaten in days, socially anxious individuals fearful of answering the door, and victims of crippling drug addictions.
Days and weeks blur into one another, the same issues cropping up on the doorstep. Sallow-faced parents delighted to see a food package, their children celebrating the arrival of the delivery drivers. The volume of people unable to support themselves is stark, and tremendously upsetting.
One particular exchange with an eight-year-old girl stands out:
And this is just one man’s story in one city.
Multiply this narrative to the numerous volunteers at Leeds’ Food Distribution Centre – then scale it up further to encompass the entirety of the UK – and it paints a truly desolate picture.
*Absolute poverty is defined by the United Nations as “a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information.”
The Road to Armley Gaol
Ghost Signs has drawn favourable comparisons with George Orwell’s excellent The Road to Wigan Pier. This isn’t a surprise – both texts are investigations into poverty in the North of England, and very effective at what they do.
However, there is one key difference. Whereas Orwell’s text feels more journalistic and theoretical, Ghost Signs is more a memoir of a frontline worker’s direct experiences. Orwell is an outsider looking in whilst Hennigan is a local person stepping up to serve his community in a time of need.
Starving children, elderly people in tears due to loneliness, and individuals with crippling depression fearful to leave their own homes… these are tangible stories about real people.
The authenticity of Hennigan’s writing style, and of course the dreadful conditions that people live in, are what makes this book so difficult to read in parts. But they’re also the reason that Ghost Signs needs to be a widely read book.
The Human Casualties of the Pandemic
Plenty of ink has been spilled over the UK Government’s handling of the pandemic.
Times journalists Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott published the seminal work, Failures of State. An excoriation of the inaction of government policy, the text examines policy-making during the pandemic, as well as the PR and Comms that came out of Number 10, Downing Street. It’s well worth a read.
But if Failures of State was the post-mortem of the Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ghost Signs is the funeral pyre. The former details policy failures, whilst the latter chronicles the human consequences of Whitehall’s prevarication and harmful years of austerity.
Still, there are moments of affirming humanity. Smalltalk on the doorstep and brief moments of brilliantly droll Northern humour in the face of adversity punctuate the misery. And the fact that a volunteer service like the one Hennigan took part in can be set up and actioned so quickly, speaks volumes about the ethical character of the nation.
Ghost Signs is less a book about the pandemic, and more a commentary on successive governments’ inability (or unwillingness) to tackle absolute poverty in one of the richest countries in the world.
It’s a glimpse into the palimpsest that is the UK’s socio-economic landscape. One where working people bear the brunt of adversity, whether it’s a pandemic or a bruising cost of living crisis, whilst the millstone of economic inequality weighs ever more heavy as the months and years go by.
Though a highly uncomfortable read, Ghost Signs is a very well written book. It’s an honest, hard-hitting contribution to public discourse and a stark wake-up call for the electorate.
Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.