The United Nations defines absolute poverty as:
“a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services.“
In the afterword to his book Henningan notes the following, (figures taken from government papers 2019/20): 18% of the UK population (11.7m people) are living in absolute poverty, once the costs of housing are taken into account…this is projected to increase.
Sometimes book reviews do that adjective thing: bleak, brutal, vital, unflinching, heartbreaking – all of which apply here; sometimes they offer a list of comparable books so that the reader can orientate themselves: The Road to Wigan Pier, The Grapes of Wrath (which also brings to mind Dorothea Lange’s photographs as well as some Woody Guthrie songs), The Corner (by Burns and Simon which eventually became the TV show The Wire), and The People of the Abyss are a few that spring to mind, even if Steinbeck’s masterpiece is a fact-derived work of fiction, whereas Stu Henningan’s book is all about facts – well, one overarching fact which is that in the 21st century, the UK has vast swathes of its population that live in absolute poverty, absolute degradation, without even the luxury of hope that things might get better, and the people running the place seem absolutely OK with that.
Hennigan works for Leeds City Council and was one of many staff furloughed in the early days of the first national lockdown, as the country braced itself, belatedly, to try and deal with the encroaching Coronavirus pandemic. Rather than sitting at home, he volunteered to be a driver making drops of food and other essential supplies (prescriptions etc) to members of the public who for one reason or another were unable or unwilling to leave their homes in the face of the virus. As Hennigan explains, this free food service very quickly expanded to a delivery service for people facing utter destitution, people who were literally starving. During this time he kept a diary.
People were literally starving, in Leeds – a city widely acknowledged to be second only to London as a modern centre for finance in this country – in 2020. What Hennigan found alongside the gratitude, some quiet resignation, and older people who simply didn’t understand that this service was free, was utter misery, malnutrition / starvation, symptoms of a glaring mental health crisis, pervasive drug use, violence – often wanton undirected violence – a sense of desperation and threat in places less than mile from the homes of the comfortable, the well-off. He frequently notes the tucked away enclaves, kept out of sight and presumably out of mind. Children are waifs, urchins – deliberately using Victorian / Dickensian language – the morbidly sick are “wraith-like”, or their flesh is rotting on their bones, or their bones are brutally, blankly visible, or there is dreadful obesity and incapacity.
Doing the work and then writing the book clearly took a toll on Hennigan – he discusses his mental health, insomnia and so on, as well as noting family pressures, two young children kept out of school for long periods, his wife bearing the brunt of their frustrated incomprehension at being kept apart from friends for months on end, while he volunteered – and I came away from the book with a sense that he had almost moved past anger – although it would be a justified position – into a place of utter fatigue, of being so tired with it all.
The brute fact of this poverty, in this country, is that it is unnecessary; it is the result of decisions taken. We are one of the richest countries in the world and almost 1 in 5 of us are not being given the opportunity to have a remotely decent life, with any dignity: we allow them to fall by the wayside. The press, the establishment, whoever it is, distract us with celebrity, with sport (that substitute for war), occasionally with war, with misdirection of blame, and most gallingly with pageantry – is there anything more obscene than using parades of absolute unearned wealth to distract a population – many of whom will be well-meaning, many of who would care if they understood – from the absolute misery that such privilege is reliant upon to survive and prosper?
There is a fortuitous juxtaposition in the book: the depot in south Leeds from which Hennigan and his colleagues set out each day with their worksheets and bags of provisions, is directly across the road from a massive new warehouse complex for those industrial scale non-payers of tax, Amazon. The fleets of trucks moving to and from there often block the only service road to the depot, meaning the food parcel delivery drivers have to wait to take their desperately underfunded assistance out to the people in need, as Amazon literally obstructs the delivery of welfare.
This book does not spill over into political diatribe, it is cleverer than that: it is vital, it is urgent, it is heartbreaking and it should be sent to every constituency MP and every council, because the same thing is happening in your town and in your city. You just don’t know about it.
I grew up near Leeds, I’ve lived most of my life in or near Leeds, I work there and I support the football team. I am also a trade unionist at a large employer in the city and have in recent years started to hear tales from members who are struggling. This book came as a shock to me: I think it is the sheer scale of what is shown here.