The Leeds librarian whose book documents heartbreaking deprivation he witnessed in city during Covid lockdown

Leeds librarian Stu Hennigan has written about the poverty he witnessed in the city whilst delivering food parcels to vulnerable people during the first lockdown. Laura Reid reports.

“It’s one thing driving through an area and being cognizant of the fact poverty is there,” Stu Hennigan says.

“But when you’re standing on someone’s doorstep and you can see into their house and there’s no carpet, there’s mould on the walls, the living room ceiling is falling down, there’s not an in-tact pane of glass in the building and there’s a woman with a six-month-old baby on her arm asking if you have any baby formula, that’s a completely different experience.”

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Stu spent nearly six months working as a volunteer delivery driver in Leeds during the first Covid-19 lockdown. Whilst taking food parcels to those in need, he was confronted by levels of deprivation on a scale he describes as “unbelievable in the twenty-first century”.

Leeds librarian and author Stu Hennigan picture in the terraced streets in Harehills, Leeds.Leeds librarian and author Stu Hennigan picture in the terraced streets in Harehills, Leeds.
Leeds librarian and author Stu Hennigan picture in the terraced streets in Harehills, Leeds.

“I visited people living in slum houses that should have been demolished decades ago,” writes the libraries worker in a recently published book he has written about what he witnessed.

“I saw communities torn apart by drugs and crime, generations of families living on benefits because they were born in places where aspiration is low and social mobility is practically non-existent.

“I met adults who were literally starving; I saw parents struggling to provide basic necessities for young families; I encountered children who looked at everyday food items like they were extravagant birthday gifts.”

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Stu wasn’t naive to their hardships; as a communities librarian for 12 years until 2021, he’d engaged with people living in poverty, whilst at community venues across the city.

But coming face-to-face with deprivation and desperation on people’s doorsteps was “about as up close and personal as you’re going to get,” he says.

“I think the scale of it was what really took me by surprise. I was one of a team of drivers…and every single one of those drivers could have written the same book but with stories of their own.

“And this is just one city - if it’s happening in Leeds, it’s happening all over, in the smaller towns as well, not just cities. Poverty is endemic in this country - wages are low and prices are high.”

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Stu’s book Ghost Signs - Poverty and the Pandemic is an eyewitness account of the impact of the early days of the pandemic on those living in poverty in Leeds. It offers a snapshot of life for those individuals during a nine-week period in spring of 2020.

With libraries closed, Stu responded to an email from Leeds City Council about needing volunteers to help with a Food Distribution Centre that had been set up to deliver food parcels to the homes of people who were self-isolating.

He signed up, wanting to do something “useful” to help others. Like many other writers, Stu felt an urge to document the unprecedented lockdown situation and set about keeping diary notes of what he was experiencing, alongside any national Covid updates.

It began with his first delivery shifts over Easter weekend in a deserted Leeds. “I thought this is like having front seats to the end of the world here, I’ve got to really start writing something about it,” he says.

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When word got out about the food distribution service, people struggling on low incomes also began to contact the team for help.

Stu explains how by the middle of May, the centre had distributed almost 20,000 food parcels and his delivery work had taken him into the heart of some of the most disadvantaged communities in Leeds, onto the doorsteps of some of the city’s most vulnerable people.

He soon realised he was writing not just about Covid-19 but about poverty too. After a conversation with Hebden Bridge-based independent publisher Bluemoose Books, the idea for Ghost Signs was born and Stu set about crafting his notes into a narrative.

“The deprivation the book portrays was two years ago and in the interim things have got worse,” Stu reflects.

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“In terms of discussions around the cost of living crisis, it goes without saying that the communities in the book are ones that are going to be hit the hardest.

“Going out and witnessing first hand how hard these communities have it, it’s almost unimaginable to think things could get worse for them but it’s going to.

“Even two years ago, we were delivering food to people who would say ‘this is wonderful but I don’t have enough money to put money in the electricity meter to cook the pasta you’ve brought’.

“Two years down the line, that’s worse and it will get worse from here as well. It’s not a very optimistic outlook but that’s the reality of the situation at the moment.”

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Ghost Signs is the first published book for Skipton-born Stu, who now lives in Meanwood and works as a librarian overseeing stock at Leeds City Council libraries.

It was his first foray into non-fiction too - he typically writes poetry and fiction - and sees him weave together what he witnessed as a delivery driver with harrowing statistics around poverty as well as news about the Covid death toll as it unfolded.

The stats on poverty are easy enough to come by, he says, but what you don’t get from them is an insight into the individuals struggling to make ends meet, many of whom are in work, and a true sense of how people are affected.

“I wanted to try to give these people a voice in as far as I was able and to show that as facile as it sounds they’re real people with real feelings,” he says.

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Looking back on 2020, he adds: “It was a really difficult and stressful summer for everybody, that goes without saying.

“It was challenging for me and the other drivers in terms of the relentlessness of being confronted with the same things day after day.

“It wasn’t one or two isolated incidents, it was groundhog day. The book covers nine weeks, I did it for six months.

“It’s upsetting when you’re seeing children that are starving. A little girl jumped and clapped her hands because we took some pasta and a box of Shreddies. That’s upsetting to me.”

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He’s been asked by some whether he found the experience traumatic. It’s a strange question, he muses.

“The focus is on the people in the book. It’s nice of people to be concerned about me and whether I found it upsetting...but the real trauma is being experienced day on day, week on week, year on year by people forced to live in the way depicted in the book.”

“If you could go to those communities and see what we saw, you couldn’t not be upset by it,” he adds. “It’s a strange thing to want from an audience from a writer’s perspective but I think anyone who reads the book who isn’t upset and angry by the end is probably part of the problem.”

Ghost Signs - Poverty and the Pandemic, published by Bluemoose Books is out now.