One of the problems of the modern media sector is its need to constantly find new ways to attract viewers/listeners/readers. As a result, the mainstream media partakes in a relentless drive towards new stories and disasters. The negative impact of this is that stories, even major global events, become lost, are rapidly wiped from the collective memory. In some cases politicians even act to rewrite events to suit their own narratives and lust for power, often aided and abetted by their journalistic outriders. Consequently, it becomes vital that some individuals take time to create testaments to capture authentic experiences and impacts to be captured for posterity, if only to remind us that there are alternative, and often much more honest recollections of those events. This book by Stu Hennigan is such a testament, based on his experiences as a volunteer, delivering food parcels and medicines to those in need across Leeds during the first UK pandemic lockdown.
The book is mainly an ethnography of his experiences delivering food to those in need across Leeds and is written in a loose diary format. The thick descriptions give a vivid idea of the areas he visits, the dilapidated nature of much of the housing in parts of the city, and the incredibly difficult lives of those he interacts with. The fact that he recorded his experiences on a daily basis whilst volunteering and helping maintain some semblance of normality within his family life is astounding. He shows a huge commitment to capture the stories of poverty in what is meant to be a modern, wealthy nation. The book follows his experiences chronologically, which he intersperses with a reminder of the wider national picture at the beginning of each chapter. This helps to create a rich recollection of a major event, locating the narrative in both place and national context.
What comes across to me is the vast disparity of wealth across a single city, often between two adjacent areas. It feels as if whole groups of people have been left to fend for themselves, apparently unworthy of help as a result of the commentary the Conservative government spun after the financial crash of 2008 – it was right to dole out billions to the individuals who had crashed the system, but those in need were to be punished for someone else’s catastrophic mistakes because they are unfairly characterised as feckless, lazy, unwilling to work.
A book comes along every once in a while, which reflects the awfulness of a society back on itself, making it uneasy, but necessary reading. I remember reading Rezak Hukanovic’s The Tenth Circle of Hell: A memoir of life in the death camps of Bosnia, and being stunned by the inhumanity, the shear willingness to perpetrate violence against innocent people just because of their religion. Here, Stu Hennigan gives a critical and sickening insight into how a country whose wealth should ensure that all its population have a basic dignity in life has failed completely to do so. This is a hugely important testament not only to capturing the impact of the COVID pandemic, but also to laying bare the abject failure of politicians to fulfil their basic role – the safety and dignity of their population. This seems to me to be a clear throated call for change.
Some reflections on things I'm reading