Stu Hennigan has the air of an indie rock star who looks as though he has a solo album up his sleeve but hasn’t got around to telling the rest of the band. His book, Ghost Signs: Poverty and the Pandemic (Bluemoose Books, 2022), a journal about social conditions in different areas of his home city of Leeds observed during his time as a food parcel delivery volunteer in 2020, has spent the three months since its release being widely praised for highlighting the plight of Britain’s left-behind communities.
I sat down with Stu to talk about the effect the book has had and whether he thinks it will have any sort of legacy. When I mention it’s been three months since publication, he smiles. “Feels longer than that”, he says. As well it might. The book was written in real time, cataloguing his visits to hundreds of households across the city and its suburbs and, following the inevitable lengthy editing process and the book’s release, Stu has embarked on a tough schedule of talks and promotions, both in Yorkshire and beyond. “It takes its toll”, he says. “Each Q and A means I get to read from the book again, relive some of those experiences. Sometimes it gets a bit too much.”
Poverty in Leeds: “I knew it was bad, but not that bad”
The tone of these promotional events is often one of astonishment. People who have come to hear Stu’s tales of the social frontline before buying a copy of the book are amazed to hear the depths of the poverty he encountered. “I’ve found that quite a lot”, he says, when I ask if he’s surprised by some reactions. “It’s like ‘I knew it was bad, but not that bad’. But then why should they? If you’ve not had to confront these conditions, if you’ve never known anyone living in areas like these, why should you know?”
Stu himself did know, albeit at arm’s length. “I didn’t grow up like that”, he says. “But I’ve got friends and family who did.” And now? What’s next for some of the people he met during his volunteering stint? “Homelessness, I guess”, he says. “For families with bills to pay, who couldn’t afford them before the cost of living crisis; the working poor, and let’s face it, 70 percent of children living below the poverty line have at least one working parent. And then there are those with literally nothing, with nothing left to give. Private landlords won’t subsidise them, there’ll be nowhere for them. Social housing doesn’t exist anymore.”
False binaries and polarised stances impede solutions
With such a bleak outlook, what difference can a book make to positive change? “The book doesn’t seek to offer solutions in itself”, Stu says. “It’s like, this is where we’re at, this is how we got here, now what?”
Now what indeed; it’s a vital question, and the more people who are made aware of the situation, perhaps the more demand there will be for fundamental change. As a writer with a social conscience, Stu is aware of the need to affect hearts and minds. “Part of the problem is that everything is binary”, he says. “I think social media has a lot to do with it, and the importation of Trump ideals. The lack of meaningful discussion makes it difficult to affect change. Everywhere is full of false binaries.”
And yet the effects of the book are being felt. One of the first to react was Alan Rusbridger, formerly editor-in-chief at the Guardian and now editor of Prospect magazine, who commissioned a piece about Ghost Signs and tweeted how the book was “an important act of witness.” Since then, Stu’s book has been compared favourably to Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. I ask him about his favourite reactions to it.
“What Alan Rusbridger said was important in that it opened up the discussion”, Stu says. “What I like now is that I’m being approached by academics, by sociologists, by the Department for Public Health and members of the Council. These people have heard about the book and want to talk about it.” So decision makers and people on the inside as opposed to either the outraged or those in denial? “Yeah, that’s it. The book’s being looked at as a social document. It’s on some university courses already.”
An important ‘act of witness’
I suggest that maybe here is the book’s legacy. So many books are like fireworks, blazing high only to fizzle out and be replaced by the next thing. Whereas Ghost Signs, as a record of what really went on during the pandemic and what had led up to the situations that those Stu encountered found themselves in, would continue to talk to people who were interested in, and perhaps able to inform, future policy. “I hope so”, he says. “The book’s narrative does swim against the media tide. There’s a disconnect between what’s happening and what we’re told is happening.”
Quietly getting on with informing the right people as a contribution to social change. It’s not very rock and roll but maybe as a legacy for this ‘important act of witness’ it’s the right one. Like The Road to Wigan Pier, Stu Hennigan’s Ghost Signs: Poverty and the Pandemic will become more important, more relevant, and more widely read as time goes on. And that is one heck of a legacy for any book to have.