Ghost Signs: Poverty and the Pandemic
Stu Hennigan is a senior librarian in Leeds. During the Covid-19 pandemic, he volunteered to deliver food parcels and medicines on behalf of Leeds City Council to vulnerable people throughout the city. Ghost Signs, published by Bluemoose Books in 2022, is his harrowing account of an eventful six months. The book provides a unique inventory of the scale of poverty and deprivation in Leeds, but also explores how the pandemic, with its draconian lockdowns and social distancing measures, ravaged the mental health of those very same people, including Stu and his family. It’s a book that will inevitably draw comparisons with Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier.
It soon becomes clear that some of these people are wary of opening their front door to an unknown man, driving a council-owned van, which means they end up missing out on essential food deliveries. Forty years ago, I would have been part of the same demographic, surviving on only £28 a week in unemployment benefit and living in an attic flat in a shitty area of Birmingham. These are the “underclass”, a classificatory term every bit as dehumanising as the Nazi concept of the Jew as “untermensch”, i.e. lower than human, subhuman. In all such middle class concepts, that which is lower is inevitably inferior, and that which is higher, something to which one must aspire. Lakoff and Johnson have got all that off to a T in their book Metaphors We Live By.
Stu has an eye for detail and explores not only his environment but also the individuals he encounters. Close up, the body, whether male or female, young or old, wiry, muscled, or fat, is a palimpsest, inked, pierced, and sometimes scarred. It might incorporate evidence for years of manual labour, including industrial accidents, or be the site of casual street violence. The inhabitants of these bodies are almost always old before their time. Life expectancy for poor people in this part of the world must be way below the national average. And under the present regime, it can only get worse.
Fags, booze and weed are the drugs of choice, and evidence of their use is everywhere. Oh, and whippits, those nitrous oxide cartridges that can be found inside cans of whipped cream. But hasn’t drug use always been rife amongst the poor? It’s just that the drugs are different. In my day, it was a blob of yellow Evo-Stik at the bottom of a plastic bag. You wouldn’t have to look very hard to find the same state of affairs in gin-sozzled and opium-addicted Victorian London, or Paris with its cafes full of spaced-out absinthe drinkers. All of them searching for the means with which to create a tawdry paradis artificiel that might temporarily blot out the abject horror of their existence.
There’s really only one time where I’d actually disagree with something Stu has written, and it’s this passage from page 127: “The panic buying early on in the pandemic that left supermarkets looking like they’d been looted was a real sour point. To me, it exemplified the selfishness of certain sections of the middle class in this country…”
In my experience, selfishness is not the exclusive preserve of the middle class. Instead, it’s the genie that Thatcher released. After all, let’s not forget her undisguised contempt for “society” and her emphasis on the primacy of the individual. Speaking to a taxi driver in Darlington during the height of the pandemic, she candidly admitted how she’d bought 200 bog rolls. She was working class, and yet was one of the people whose selfish behaviour directly led to shortages in supermarkets for essential household items such as those very same bog rolls.
Ultimately, the problem with a book like Ghost Signs is that its typical readership comprises people like me. In reality, it should be compulsory reading for everyone who voted Conservative at the last general election, especially the Red Wallers, who gleefully ushered in the reign of King Boris.