A review by unisonlibrarian
Ghost Signs by Stu Hennigan


The Covid-19 pandemic condensed into the performance the UK government will be written about by historians of the future as one of the most chaotic and mismanaged operations this country has ever seen. We had the worst possible prime minister for the occasion; a lying narcissist who ignored the science, broke the rules his own government set and lacked the courage to do what was necessary to keep the public safe – surely the overriding burden of any government. Future books will judge the national leadership and this book does not do that, it will however be illustrative to those future scholars about the social fabric of the country and what happened to it in the lead up to the pandemic which made us so ill-equipped, socially, to deal with the impact of a pandemic.

Hennigan’s book is essentially a diary of his time working as a distributor of food parcels and medicines to the people of Leeds who were isolating in the early days of lockdown. In his usual job he is a library worker and has worked at several of the branch libraries around the city over the years meaning he has a good knowledge of the city and it seemed logical to him to offer his services as a driver to the service which would send out food parcels. What follows are his experiences of a city he thought he knew; but the levels of poverty and destitution he witnessed shocked someone who has worked with vulnerable people before and recalls images witnessed by Engels in his seminal Condition of the Working Class in England.

The first drop off we read about is in an area of Seacroft, which is my own birthplace and was once one of the largest council estates in Europe. It was rough when I grew up there in the 80s and I was last a regular visitor in the early to mid-2000s; it seemed to be getting better but reading the account of Hennigan’s several visits to the area it has more than dropped backwards as so many other areas of Leeds have. We read of people utterly forgotten by the state, left to rot and cast aside by a government that either wants to pretend such people don’t exist or that they are how and who they are through their own bad choices.

The book is a cartography of human misery; gossamer thin wraiths shuffling to their eventual end with no hope in sight. Visions of people literally starving, addicted to drink and worse, naturally sceptical of public services and authorities from whom they have only known accusation and disenfranchisement. To offset the general feeling there are some heart-warming stories but these are set against the context of people happy to receive food who would otherwise not eat; from primary school aged children to the long-retired. A general theme of the book is that the older people were the more they couldn’t understand the service being free – experience of years of accepting “you don’t get sommert for nowt” from the council / government. These are very much Thatcher’s children. Stories of young children literally jumping for joy at receiving a bag of dried pasta / rice etc is truly heartbreaking.

What is apparent is that a service designed for people unable to get to the shops was used en masse by people who were just too poor to eat. The book shows how entire communities have been left behind by governments of multiples hues over the past 40 years and we’re now left with broken and jagged shards of society for whom there is no way out of the poverty trap. I am reviewing this as someone who hates; quite literally hates the Conservative Party but the author is remarkably able to stick to the facts and not bring their own emotions into it outside of what they felt at the encounters they describe. If a Conservative voter reads this book they won’t feel like it is a j’accuse against them, but hopefully it would make them question what is happening in the country outside of leafy suburbs and shires and interrogate what has happened over the past 40 years to lead us to this point.

It would speak to anyone who wants to know more about how the pandemic was felt at the sharp end of society. Leeds isn’t unique and these vignettes portray a truth utterly typical to working class communities over the past two years. The pain and suffering contained within must be 10, 20 or a hundred times more vivid across the entire country. The people carrying out the service performed wonderfully and the local council is credited by the author for their undoubted miracle working in terms of the logistics involved to set up such a service. To recoup that money the government have once again demanded huge cuts to local budgets and public services; knowing no other language than that of punishment the Tories will continue to slice up safety nets and pull apart the infrastructure that made even this meagre service possible. One day there will be a reckoning for all this and one day it will change but by God it needs to be soon, or next time it will be even worse than what Stu Hennigan describes here.