Street wise

Sales of the Big Issue are booming on the streets of London. The founding editor has an MBE. Even the vendors have degrees. Text and photographs by Colin McKillop
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"I was in a show called The Circus of Horrors," says Virginie. She's 24, and she has her vendor's badge and her pitch outside Goodge Street tube station in London's Tottenham Court Road.

"It was a scary show," she continues, "and I did all kinds of things. I came out of a box and I was levitated - that was one. It was fun, but it's over now. I have to do this, which I'm really pissed off about. But I just have to do it."

Big Issue vendors are of every age and background, but what is striking about the sellers pictured on this page is their youth and cosmopolitanism. Virginie is from Dijon; Christina is from Madrid. They appear unscathed, quite unlike our usual image of the homeless: the dosser with his alcoholic breath and face of broken blood vessels.

When it was launched in September 1991, operating with a staff of three from a basement in Richmond, Surrey, the Big Issue mustered around 60 vendors. It has changed beyond recognition, from being just a self-help charity to a national institution and a business selling about 300,000 copies a week - more than Time Out or The Economist. Its founding editor, John Bird, now has an MBE.

The advertisers include banks and Benetton. And, five and a half years later, it has 3,000 vendors in London alone, the majority aged between 26 and 45, with some as young as 17 and the oldest 72.

The increase is, at first sight, alarming. The government's strictures on paying dole to unemployed school-leavers not living at home has certainly bumped up the numbers of young people forced to sell the Issue.

But in 1991, around 90 per cent of the vendors were homeless; now the majority are at least temporarily accommodated in hostels, bed and breakfasts or squats. Also, 15 per cent have degrees, and almost as many have worked in professional jobs such as nursing or teaching.

Still, the hardships are real enough, and so is the dependence on selling copies of the paper just to scrape by. "I buy them to sell them to live," says Christina of the magazines she purchases for 35 pence and sells for 80p. "Today, I only had money to buy three, so I have to sell them all."

"It is a bit of a struggle," agrees John, 21, who's parked outside Heal's department store in London's West End. "But I'm only doing it until I can get a qualification. I'm training to be a plasterer." Brian, 30, whose pitch is in Stratford, east London, says he smokes 70 a day and so he needs to sell as many as copies as he can: "I was a cook in the army, but it didn't last long. Now I'm always here. Never miss a day."

To Brian and John and to 28-year-old Andy, an ex-drug addict stationed outside Farringdon tube station, selling the Big Issue gives each day a focus. Maybe it's their youth, but they even declare something close to enjoyment. "You chat to your customers, you meet your regulars..." says Andy. "You get to see loads of women," chirps John. "Hundreds of them!"

"The women are the kindest," says Virginie, "and the very best are the women aged about 35 - I don't know why. They say, 'take care of yourself', like mothers, very protective. Not so the younger ones. They say, 'get a job'. And the old people, they're just grumbling."

Some customers, she says, can be "very wicked". For weeks after the Sun's notorious story about a vendor taking home pounds 1,000 a week, there were a lot of "get a job" remarks. Then it all settled down again. And now she's regained all her optimism. She'd like to get a job in the music business. That kind of thing.

None of them will do this forever, they swear. Brian, he's met a bloke, a customer, who wants to get him into the Territorial Army. He says that would be good - "a bit of action". And Andy is interested in counselling others like himself. Sometimes, John thinks about winning the Lottery. He knows exactly what he will do with the money: "I'll get myself a shop and do my plastering"