My Greatest Mistake: John Bird, Editor-in-Chief of 'The Big Issue'

'I've made plenty. But they don't come back to haunt me'
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The Independent Online

One of my greatest mistakes was failing to train homeless writers, but instead ending up with career journalists working for The Big Issue. I started The Big Issue with the intention of training up homeless writers, and I've never been able to train up more than one or two. I am trying to change that now.

One of my greatest mistakes was failing to train homeless writers, but instead ending up with career journalists working for The Big Issue. I started The Big Issue with the intention of training up homeless writers, and I've never been able to train up more than one or two. I am trying to change that now.

I made a life-changing mistake when I was 15 years old. I met a school friend who gave me his grandmother's savings book, and asked me to cash it. He had stolen it. I got caught and was sent to a boys' reformatory school in the countryside for a few years. I wish I hadn't done it, but with hindsight the school helped me with my education. I started to read and write there.

But throwing my mother's letters away is my biggest regret. The only time she ever wrote to me was when I was sent to thereformatory school. She wrote about four times a week – there must have been 250 letters – all about the family, what I ought to be doing with my life, giving me advice. When I left the school and moved into a flat, I was clearing out stuff one day and threw all the letters away. I put them in a bag and that was it. Gone. I didn't think about it until four years later, just before my mother died. I was telling a friend about my mother writing to me. I just threw the letters away, I said. "You're either heartless, or an idiot," he said. I suddenly realised what I'd done.

Mistakes, I've made plenty. But they don't come back to haunt me. Not like my lack of understanding of what a mother is, and that my mum would not live for ever. I hadn't respected her memory. I guess when you're a kid, you don't always respect parenthood.

John Bird will be appearing at the Clerkenwell Literary Festival (16-21 July, www.pilchardteeth.com)

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