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'

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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