A fortnight into the UK’s first Covid-19 lockdown, the writer and librarian Stu Hennigan set out in his car through the deserted streets of Leeds. ‘It’s like aliens have come down in a spaceship and removed all the people,’ he describes in Ghost Signs, the account of his stint as a volunteer delivery driver for the council’s Food Distribution Centre (FDC)—a service that provided food and medicine parcels to isolating households. ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before.’
More than two years later, with most restrictions lifted, and the government keen for us to ‘move on’, it is surreal to think back to the early days of the pandemic, when the roads were (almost) clear and the intensive care wards full, and few of us could grasp was unfolding. It seems like another world. Nevertheless, the cracks in society that the pandemic highlighted—poor pay for essential workers, systemic racism, child hunger, corruption, public services outsourced and stripped to the bone—have only grown wider. The virus hit the UK hard because inequality and poverty are also endemic here.
Hennigan began writing notes in between his shifts as a way to record the strangeness of his situation, and his notes developed into his first non-fiction book. He was one of the only people outdoors during the lockdown—or so it seemed. Early on in his book, he narrates the illusion of ‘the absolute emptiness of the world’ being shattered by the sight of the new Amazon warehouse, ‘so big it can be seen from half a mile away’—a kind of monstrous capitalist opposite to the FDC warehouse. Outside is an enormous queue of vans waiting to pass through security (the pandemic helped drive an $86 billion increase in Jeff Bezos’ fortune).
The original aim of the Food Distribution Project was to get supplies to those trapped at home, but it quickly adapted into being an unofficial means of allocating food to people who could not afford it. Soon, Hennigan’s diary-keeping exercise became a way to bear witness to the conditions he found these people living in. In some cases, they were too ill, mentally unwell, elderly, disabled, or afraid to leave the house. Some were in the grip of addiction. Some were out of work because of the pandemic, others long-term unemployed. Many had jobs but were unable to make ends meet regardless. ‘I shouldn’t need it at my age,’ one woman utters. ‘Thirty-five years I’ve been working and I still can’t pay all me bills.’ Most people he encountered were plainly struggling long before the arrival of Covid-19—more than a decade of austerity had already pushed them to the brink.
Food bank use has skyrocketed since the Tories came to power. The Trussell Trust reported giving out 61,468 food parcels in 2010/11 and a staggering 2.54 million in 2020/21. The footballer and campaigner Marcus Rashford has called child food poverty in England ‘a pandemic that could span generations.’ In Hennigan’s first diary entry, he recounts delivering food to a man in his thirties, ‘leaning on a thin cane, gaunt-faced and eyes half-vacant.’ When he hands over the parcel, the man tells him, ‘I’m absolutely fuckin’ starvin’. I can’t remember when I last ate.’ In another instance, a family desperately needs baby products as well as food. In their yard, ‘a makeshift washing line made of red household twine has been strung up, with some toddler clothes and some tiny baby clothes hanging from it too.’
Markers of the housing crisis are everywhere. Black mould spreads up walls; floors are bare; lifts broken; windows smashed. At one drop off: ‘The house is wrecked, judging by what I can see from here. There’s no carpet on the floor… just a load of splintered floorboards caked in a thick layer of dirt… bare plaster showing through thin layers of paint.’ Hennigan’s rare perspective as someone visiting hundreds of people at a time when movement and social contact were so restricted has its limitations. He cannot take the time to hear the full stories of the people he meets or cross the thresholds of their front doors (with the exception of one extraordinary occasion where he has no choice but to break this rule). Indeed, some people prefer to take in their deliveries through their windows. Instead, we only have snapshots of people’s environments (for example, front gardens ‘absolutely trashed’) and physical appearances, as well as snippets of reported speech.
Most readers will likely be horrified about the dire situations the people described in this book are in—real faces behind the statistics—and feel rage, too. Here it seems only right for me to declare my own perspective, as someone who was born and spent the first eighteen years of her life in Leeds, but had not fully appreciated the levels of poverty within it. Who else, we might ask, will this book be targeted towards?
Hennigan has admitted that it is unlikely that most of the people described (anonymously) within Ghost Signs will end up reading it. Successive governments and much of the media have been working to dismantle and demonise working class communities for generations (long before the latest austerity project accelerated the process). Portrayals of working class people smoking and drinking, eating ‘badly’ or flouting social distancing rules might appear to be playing into right-wing stereotypes about the ‘undeserving poor’; Hennigan does not pass judgement, nor strive to make his subjects seem more ‘respectable’.
Comparisons have been made between Ghost Signs and George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, in which Orwell notes: ‘when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food.’ The former is an unpremeditated eyewitness account of a time and place, while the latter is part social reportage, part socialist polemic. Unlike the Eton-educated Orwell, Hennigan grew up in a working-class family in Yorkshire—apparently, as a teenager he gave Orwell’s book to his grandparents, as he could see their lives reflected in it.
Yet he was still, like Orwell, entering many of the communities he delivered to as an outsider. He started off using his own car for deliveries, but eventually switched to using one of the FDC’s vans—which marked him out immediately. ‘Some of the people in the estates see the council livery and automatically think I’m there to chase unpaid rent, evict them, or any number of other unpleasant things. To them, I’m driving the van and wearing the badge of The Enemy; that’s all they see.’
Having driven all around the city, from the ‘affluent enclave’ of Weetwood to the deprived Seacroft estate, Hennigan has drawn up a kind of map of inequality in Leeds. As he cites in his introduction, approximately 157,839 people in the city live in absolute poverty. However, the deprivation described in the book is not exclusive to Leeds, nor northern post-industrial cities in general, but is a nationwide problem.
Hennigan writes that as he drove, he was ‘able to see past the surface of the modern city’. The title of Ghost Signs refers to those fading remains of hand-painted advertising you sometimes find at the end of terraces, and the cover features a black and white photo of a terraced street. In fact, the last back-to-back house in Leeds was built in 1937, the same year The Road to Wigan Pier was published. There is much talk of us ‘going back’ to worse times, and there is truth to that. But maybe it is harder to face what lies ahead. As we stare down the barrel of the cost-of-living crisis, it is alarming to consider what will happen to the people who appear in this book, and the millions of others in similar circumstances.