He was tired of talking about the revolution. Then he was invited to join one, and The Big Issue was born
Sunday 14 July 1996
As if a national circulation approaching 300,000 for its three UK editions and copycat initiatives springing up all over the globe (Melbourne last month, Cape Town before the end of the year) weren't cause enough for congratulation, the magazine can also count itself the subject of Noel Gallagher's lone brush with social comment: "She's sniffing in a tissue, selling The Big Issue."
Early on a Tube-strike Monday morning, its editor, A John Bird, is having his breakfast. A potent, stocky presence, Bird's reputation as a fearsome talker is not compromised by a bacon and egg muffin. "The Big Issue is probably the first place," he asserts, in forthright, tobacco-roughened tones, "where we've been able to challenge that terrible schizophrenia that exists in business, which is that businessmen will screw the arse off everybody in order to get money - because that's what capitalism's all about - and then they'll sentimentally give a little bit away. What we've said is that that is crap. It leads to destruction and dislocation, and if businesses weren't being short-term, they would see that it was in their interests to remove the social causes of homelessness, because people sleeping on the streets is not good for business."
This sounds like a mild form of enlightened capitalism. But for 10 years of his pre-Big Issue life, Bird was a member of the Trotskyite Workers Revolutionary Party, so how did that circle get squared? "I just got cheesed off with talking," he shrugs. "Sorry, I'm very good about Marxism sometimes, but not on Monday mornings. What I mean is, I don't think we have time to hang around waiting for some kind of abstract social revolution. We need the kind of revolution where the community takes control and doesn't keep blaming the government or other exterior forces for its own problems. I think one of the worst things about the welfare state," Bird digresses, "is that it created the idea that there were people - bureaucrats, social workers, whoever - who were there to represent your interests. What I'm interested in is people becoming representative of themselves, because it's you that has to make your way in the world. Everyone has the responsibility as well as the rights of living in the community." That wouldn't have been a very popular stance in hard-left circles 15 years ago. "No it wouldn't," Bird laughs, "and I probably wouldn't have taken it then either."
He backs up his current position with reference to an effective if rough- hewn illustrative concept dubbed "the dogshit scenario". "You come out of your house in the morning and there's a big bit of dogshit on your pavement. What you do then is ring up the council who send a pooper scooper down which costs pounds 50,000, then whenever you have a bit of dogshit you complain mightily to the council" - Bird pauses for a mouthful of muffin - "but the council doesn't have a machine for creating dogshit. What's actually happened is that one member of the community has decided they don't care about it."
The Big Issue's greatest achievement seems to have been to disprove the Thatcherite contention that there is no such thing as society. "I think its biggest effect has been on homeless, ex-homeless and vulnerably accommodated people ," Bird says. "If nothing else, we've helped hundreds, probably thousands of them gain self-esteem by making decisions about their own lives. But the second important contribution has been in terms of readers' power. People who read The Big Issue don't just buy the magazine, they talk to the vendors and help to resocialise homeless people without taking them through some kind of hand-holding self-awareness programme. There's a synergy in the triangle of the magazine, its vendors and its readers that has enabled people to feel more positive."
For all Bird's distinctively pugnacious brand of modesty - he describes himself variously as "an old git" (he just turned 50) and "the figurehead for a lot of other people's achievements" - there is no doubt that the success of The Big Issue has been built largely in his image. The intriguing thing is how little the previous four and a half decades of his life seemed to suit him for this task.
Bird is "often surprised" to find himself described as an East London boy, when he actually grew up in the "very Dickensian and slummy" West London environs of Portobello Road. The third of six children, he had no sisters. "We didn't want any," he chuckles ruefully. "I think my mum was a bloke as well - she used to punch harder than my dad." Bird is not sentimental about his origins: "There was never anything very heroic about the section of the working class I came from. I'm sure my old man would have been doing his milk round in the general strike if he'd been old enough."
Between the ages of seven and 10, Bird found himself in a Catholic orphanage when his family temporarily broke up. There he underwent what he caustically describes as "de-skilling and de-socialisation under the auspices of the holy Roman empire". "The orphanage was very character-building," Bird insists gamely, "because my two elder brothers immediately fitted in - they got in with the sisters and did all the little jobs and got all the back-handers - but I was awkward as arseholes. When I went in I could read but when I came out three years later I couldn't. My brothers used to come and beat me up because I pissed off the nuns, which is why I've never been a great one for my brothers."
This turns out, in one case at least, to be putting it mildly. "I had a particular brother..." Bird muses, "it's an extraordinary thing when you get a person who has absolutely no saving graces. He wasn't honourable, he wasn't loyal, he was just the most horrible person I've ever met. He was monumentally disgusting, heroically disgusting."
What form did this disgustingness take? "He worked while we were still at school. We'd come home of a lunchtime and he'd have a tin of peach halves with syrup and some of that, what do you call it? Working-class cream that you can also rub on your spots [any condensed milk advertiser wishing to copyright this slogan please contact A John Bird c/o The Big Issue]. We used to say 'Can we have some' he'd just tell us to f--- off."
Not surprisingly, with the benefit of such positive role-models, the fledgling Bird graduated from the orphanage into a life of petty crime. Between the ages of 10 and 25 he was on probation more often than he was off it. "It was various little misdemeanours: housebreaking, shoplifting, a bit of fraud. I was never a grand criminal." The first stage in his social rehabilitation (in which last year's MBE was the shiniest of landmarks) was swapping Catholicism for Karl Marx. "Being a Marxist shoplifter is quite possible," Bird smiles ruefully, "but it's very difficult being a Marxist housebreaker."
Does he think his raffish antecedents - other prior employments include poet, printer and playwright - have helped him keep The Big Issue on the right track? "I think so, definitely. Because I've never really been educated in the finer points of sociology and upholstery and all the rest of it, I've never tended to look for complex solutions. I've often asked Gordon Roddick why he chose me. [The husband of Anita Roddick, the lip-balm baroness, imported the Big Issue idea from a New York street journal and backed the magazine to the tune of half-a-million pounds in its first two years.] The reasons are not the kind of things you put in your CV. He said I was ruthless, pig-headed and probably not a very good team player, all of which has proved remarkably true. There was certainly none of that global visionary type stuff that people now accuse me of."
As Bird finishes his roll-up cigarette and prepares to move on to his next meeting, the photographer can contain himself no longer. What happened to the brother with the condensed milk? "It was quite funny really. Our mother died quite young, in her early fifties, we all agreed to chip in for the funeral, and at that point he disappeared off to Northampton and we've never heard from him since."
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