When Gordon came in, I thought he was a troublesome git. He had been to the rugby and was with a load of friends. I was tanked up and got the impression that they were looking for a ruck. Either Gordon said something to me, or I said something to him along the lines of: "Who do you think you're looking at, mate?" We took the piss out of each other - in an aggressive way to start with - but after we realised that we shared a sense of humour, we began talking and I found that we both wrote poetry.
Gordon had just come back from bumming around the world. He was living outside Edinburgh, recharging his batteries and looking for the next step. He came to Edinburgh a couple of times a week and we'd meet, have a drink and swap poetry. Gordon had some of his poems published, but I didn't. I never got anywhere with my poetry, though it is some of the best poetry produced in Britain over the last 100 years.
As well as talking about poetry, Gordon and I used to have arguments about politics. Gordon was very practical and I, having just read Che Guevara's Memoirs of the Cuban Revolutionary War, was a visionary Marxist. Gordon used to send me letters saying, "All politics are a load of bollocks, particularly trendy lefty politics." At the time it pissed me off, but I tend to agree with him now.
All the women seemed to like Gordon: he looks like he should be on a horse galloping round the Australian bush. I was never sure that he wasn't chasing my girlfriends; there was a bit of rivalry between us.
Gordon was a public schoolboy, but he didn't come across as stuck-up. He's got one of those light Scottish Border accents and isn't like a poncey Knights-bridge type. It's interesting, because he went to Merchiston Castle in Edinburgh, and left in 1961, and in 1965 I was working as a gardening boy at his old school.
In 1969, I moved back to London and Gordon moved to Littlehampton. Not long after, he met Anita. I used to go down to see him, but lost contact a few years before he started The Body Shop with Anita. Then in about 1986, I saw Gordon on television. There he was at a conference, standing beside Anita Roddick. People were going on about Anita Roddick at the time, but until then it never occurred to me that it was the Anita that I knew - I'd never put the names together. I rang Gordon up.
I realised that once you become very successful, all sorts of people crawl out of the woodwork. But Gordon never ex-pressed suspicion towards me. He laughed and asked me if I was John Bird, the poet from Edinburgh. We met, had a drink and were soon swapping insults as though we'd never lost contact.
In 1991, Gordon asked me to have a go at getting the Big Issue off the ground. It doesn't matter how many times I say that the Big Issue was Gordon's idea and not mine, the press don't want to know. Gordon doesn't give a toss. He's dedicated to his company and to resolving the problems of the world and he just gets on with it.
For a three-year period, my friendship with Gordon revolved around the Big Issue. I had a free hand, but Gordon offered business expertise. He has a unique ability to get to the essence of things quickly. He also believes in walking before you can run. Gordon was good at reminding me not to get carried away - but he never pulled rank on me because he's the chairman of an international company.
I attribute the success of The Body Shop to Gordon's qualities. Anita has tremendous creativity, but Gordon brings things back to whether or not they are achievable. They are very mature, very selfless with each other. I have never had that kind of relationship with anybody, because I tend to be a loner.
Now the Big Issue is self-sustaining and Gordon is no longer involved in its day-to-day running. We have time to discuss life, the arts, politics and whatever men talk about when they get together. We go to pubs in London, or I stay with him at his houses in Scotland and Sussex. Gordon is a very good polo player and sometimes I watch him play. It isn't the world that I expected: Gordon knocks about with ex-boxers, plumbers and self- made men on the polo field, not members of the old Raj. Gordon may buy better shirts than he did 30 years ago, but wealth hasn't changed him - he's still one of the most genuine people I know.
GORDON RODDICK: I met John in 1967, after I'd been travelling for five years in Australia, South America and Africa. When I came home, I flitted round the literary scene in Edinburgh with pretensions to being the world's greatest writer and poet. All the literary people used to end up in Paddy's Bar in Rose Street, where we used to have a tipple or two and talk about poetry.
John was extremely noisy and spouting Trotskyite stuff. I was reasonably right-wing, and we began drinking and arguing. Although we were arguing from opposite points of view, we struck up a friendship. He wasn't intimidated by anything or anybody.
Like me, John was writing poetry and prose, and called himself Jacob Break-fast. I thought he wrote a lot better than I did. When he talks, his opinions come out like machine-gun fire, and he writes in the same way. I think he is one of our best unpublished writers.
John came from the East End of London, where his father was a hod-carrier. The family were working-class and there was a quantity of drinking and violence. My father was a Scottish grain-broker who married a working- class girl from Liverpool. I went to a public school, but being from Scotland - where class is less pertinent - I have always had a cross-class inclination.
For two years, John and I were friends. I had a flat outside Edinburgh, and John was sleeping rough - in between living with girlfriends. We were admirers of Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski, and used to go to hear poets like Brian Patten and Roger McGough. We were a couple of larrikins, always chasing after one another's girls.
In 1969 I went to live in Littlehampton and John and I began to lose contact. John went off to London and worked as a printer, and I met Anita. John came to see us once after we had our first child. Then he was embroiled in the Workers' Revolutionary Party. I became involved in building up The Body Shop, and didn't have much time either.
After about 15 years, I had a phone call from him. When I heard it was John Bird, I laughed because our name had been in the newspapers and a lot of old "friends" were coming out of the woodwork. But I was really pleased to hear from John. He came down to our house, and it was as if we'd never been apart.
We cooked up various publishing ideas and then, after seeing Street News being sold in New York, I had the idea for the Big Issue. I knew John was the person to make it work. He'd been homeless, and he could take care of himself in a physical sense. His instincts were not charitable but practical, and he knew the printing industry and how to write.
Over two years, the Big Issue received half a million pounds in funding from The Body Shop. Now it is financially independent. What I dreamed would happen, John turned into a reality. John is a workaholic, making no differentiation between work and play. If a marriage is strong enough it will survive that, but John and his wife Tessa have gone their separate ways. Like lots of couples whose children are grown up, they questioned what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives - and John has thrown himself into the Big Issue.
John and I talk a couple of times a week on the phone; I go to London to see him and he comes to our house for weekends. John looks ill at ease in the country, and I am uncomfortable in the Groucho Club, where John is at home. We don't have as many arguments over politics as we used to, because over the years I've moved more left and John's moved more right. We both hated Margaret Thatcher, and are suspicious that Tony Blair won't go far enough.
Life as John's friend is a series of startling incidents. He is an anarchist who enjoys a drink - evenings out with him are always slightly dangerous. You're sure to end up embroiled in arguments or heavy scenes in restaurants. John is part of life's rich entertainment: he makes me laugh and I love the guy. !Reuse content