Many happy returns, Big Issue

As the title sold by homeless people celebrates its 15th birthday, Maxine Frith meets its founder
Click to follow
The Independent Online

John Bird still has the look of someone who can't quite believe that his life has become so good when it started out so badly. First made homeless at 10, he endured a childhood of neglect and abuse, an early adulthood marred by rough sleeping, crime and prison, before, in his forties, becoming the founding editor of The Big Issue. Now in his 60th year, and the magazine's 15th, Bird married for the third time two years ago, and has a toddler.

"When I look back, we've achieved amazing things and really changed attitudes towards homelessness," he says. "We put the issue at the top of the agenda for the Government and the public by putting them face to face with people who were sleeping rough, possibly for the first time."

Sitting in a coffee shop near his west London home, he is a whirling dervish of political theory, literary references and anecdotes, accidentally spilling cappuccino over a Chinese reporter in his enthusiasm to express his views on the state of journalism (generally bad), the charity sector (generally bad) and any other issue that springs to mind.

The Big Issue started when Bird's friend Gordon Roddick (husband of the Body Shop founder Anita) was impressed by a paper being sold on the streets of New York by rough sleepers. Bird began by going to St Martin-in-the-Fields, an area of central London that filled with rough sleepers every night, and tried to sell the idea to the people who would be selling the newspaper. Initially, it was a disaster. "We laid on sandwiches and tea in a local church and so, at the beginning, we had loads of people turn up because there was food. But when we started explaining that this wasn't about free handouts, that they would have to buy the magazine off us at a certain price and then sell it on, some of them got really pissed off. At the next meeting, we only had about five people turn up. They were expecting to just be given something; that's what had happened because of the benefits-culture policy."

At the start, the magazine was run by a tiny team of around five, with Bird as editor. "I hadn't edited anything before, so I hired this young bloke who said he had worked on the International Herald Tribune," he says. "It turned out he had worked in the admin department, but somehow we got a magazine out."

Starting in London, The Big Issue began to hit the radar of both the reading public and politicians. Its "can do" attitude appealed to both the left and right wing, and its PR profile began to be boosted by its ability to attract star interviewees keen to be associated with the issue. New editions were published in Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, and the idea was exported around the world. It was attracting more than 200,000 readers a week.

But the magazine hit problems five years ago. "The idea was to get people back on their feet," Bird says. "But that meant that the people who were selling it were moving on."

A period of retrenchment ensued. Bird says that The Big Issue is now in healthy shape, selling between 150,000 and 200,000 copies a week and breaking even.

To celebrate the 15th anniversary, the magazine will have two bumper editions and is undergoing a redesign. Bird is also taking a massive gamble on the loyalty of his readers - and the sellers - with a fundamental overhaul of the central premise of The Big Issue.

Instead of individual sellers hawking it on the street, companies and offices will be encouraged to sign up to a deal where hundreds of copies will be delivered direct to people's desks, with readers paying by subscription. The homeless will instead be involved in the distribution of the magazine to offices.