Seventeen years after co-founding The Big Issue, John Bird's appearance as he sits in the afternoon sunshine of a garden near Cambridge could give the impression that he left a personal history of family violence, poverty and working with the homeless behind long ago. Until he speaks that is. As soon as he opens his mouth, fiery no-nonsense passion erupts, his deceptive middle-class exterior evaporates, and his hand begins punctuating his words on the picnic table. "It's a nightmare working with the homeless. Period. We built a social business on the most unreliable workforce on the face of God's earth."
But the magazine hasn't let problems such as this hold it back. In this country, The Big Issue seller has almost become an institution. In 2007 the average weekly sale of the magazine rose 21 per cent on the previous year to 174,770. Meanwhile, sister editions are widespread across Europe, with other versions launched in Japan, Australia, Namibia, South Africa and Kenya. With India next in line for spring, there is little sign of Bird's energies for the publication slowing down. International status is important "because we've got so much to learn from people that have different kinds of poverty to what we have," he says.
The original formula remains much the same as when it was founded, with homeless vendors buying the magazine for 70p and selling it on for £1.50, so what's the secret to its growth? "I suppose the self-help model that The Big Issue came up with in 1991 has never really been bettered or equalled," says Bird, "because that says to the people in poverty, 'Look, you've got to help.'"
But he is first to admit that this is not the time for the magazine to rest on its laurels. "We're no longer the new kids on the block, so we have to reinvent ourselves. And we can't just do what other publications do, which is spend a lot of money, because we don't have it to spend, and if we did, we'd spend it on something else."
While it's true they can't afford to fork out huge amounts for enhanced production or advertising campaigns, a re-launch in April saw pop band The Kooks on the front cover and a new design. Columnists have included Sam Roddick, Iain Duncan Smith and Rod Liddle. The magazine's current editor, Charles Howgego, is "rather interesting", says Bird, "because he wants to reinvent The Big Issue outside of his own experience, drawing on the past 17 years."
Bird was The Big Issue's first editor, but says he enjoys his separation from the day-to-day running of the magazine as editor-in-chief. "I think if you really want to have a magazine and not an in-house journal, you really have to go with your staff and your editor." He admits that's not an easy balance, a problem that came under scrutiny when former deputy editor Adam Macqueen made his views public in a newspaper article in 2002. "I've always had a semi-vexatious relationship with people in editorial" says Bird, "because I've never really understood them."
As editor-in-chief, he is able to focus on what he calls the "bigger issues". Although Ian McArthur, The Big Issue Company's managing director is officially overseeing the launch of The Big Issue India, as it's likely to be called, it was Bird's idea. With 170 million homeless people in India, this operation is likely to be one of the foundation's biggest challenges yet.
Anyone expecting a carbon copy of the British version of the magazine in India would be mistaken. Bird's plans are ambitious. He hopes to train "a different kind of journalist", which involves finding people from the slums, teaching them English and, eventually, a much less wordy style of writing than the Indian norm. Despite being in awe of the Indian use of English, mentioning that he had learnt a new word when he visited the country, he wants The Big Issue to avoid verbosity. "There is a kind of vastness to the language that they use," he claims, "and I want to simplify that."
Home to 17 per cent of the world's slum dwellers, the India launch has the potential to be a disaster, but Bird seems unfazed. The plan is not to take on the whole of India in one swoop, but to start in Mumbai, working with partners and aiming for strong design and quality printing. Bird has teamed up with the universities of Mumbai and Poona and also The Times of India. "There's so much excitement in India and a lot of focus on the country," according to his wife, who is Indian. "And for Indians living in Britain, it's really exciting as well."
Bird thinks there's a real appetite for The Big Issue in India, saying that during a visit earlier this year he noticed a lot of people in the streets selling old copies of glossies like Grazia and Cosmopolitan. The Indian version will reflect the attraction of western titles such as these, he says. "We want to get a reputation for producing a light but punchy publication that combines social interest with culture and the Bollywood stuff."
He indicates that they will probably call in the help of the Japanese version, which is a lot more fashion orientated, saying: "We might have to learn some lessons from them because our Indian readers may not necessarily want to be bored to death by earnest stories."
However, Bird's ambitions for India do not stop at the magazine; he wants it to encompass a bigger social purpose in the world's second most-populated country by taking the lead in social entrepreneurship. "Charity is not very good at creating social mobility," he says. "If there are not enough healthy examples like The Big Issue, then I think India will probably make the same mistakes that we make when we give people things instead of opportunities, an Anglo-Saxon-Germanic disease which exists on both sides of the Atlantic."
While his attentions have taken an international focus, Bird is not finished with his own country, where he says The Big Issue's role should be asking the "awkward questions". As for his plans for its future, some might say his aims go beyond the power of journalism. "I'd like it to help re-invent social thinking. I'd like it to be the place where we ask all the big questions and get the answers."
At 62, Bird's passion for social justice makes any form of retirement unlikely. "My obsession is a very personal one," he says. "I have never met anybody that came from the vicious nasty poverty with no honour that I did, who lived to tell the tale and were useful. I've got a unique pedigree and it would be a crying shame to throw it away."
Mean streets: 'The Big Issue' story
11 SEPTEMBER 1991
*John Bird and Gordon Roddick establish 'The Big Issue', a monthly magazine to create a legitimate form of income for the homeless in Britain inspired by 'Street News' in New York.
n 'The Big Issue' is published weekly and starts regional editions in Britain.
*The Big Issue Foundation is started to offer homeless vendors support in additional ways to the magazine.
*Adam Macqueen, deputy editor, leaves, publicly criticising the operation, and Bird in particular, after finances and editorial staff are cut. It emerges that an attempt to launch in Los Angeles in 1998 might be to blame. Rumours of a financial crisis circulate.
*Bird announces that he is to stand for Mayor of London as an independent candidate, unveiling a manifesto to deliver Asbos to careless businesses and hold a referendum on the congestion charge.
*The magazine is relaunched and announces a rise in sales.Reuse content