My First Job: John Bird, founder of 'The Big Issue', recalls his days as a bean-canner

'We wanted to destroy capitalism'
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The Independent Online

John Bird, 59, champion of the homeless, remembers his stint working in the HJ Heinz factory in Harlesden, north-west London. "I was in the Bean Department, and I called myself a 'bean engineer'. I also did work in the Custard Department - this all sounds a bit like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - and the Diced Potato Department." It was a case of "today the bean factory, tomorrow the world" - certainly the ultimate can-do attitude.

How to Change Your Life in Seven Steps is the title of his next book (published by Vermillion in March) and things are certainly more rosy for him now compared to those times, starting at the age of five, when he was homeless. In his publishing career, Bird has launched not only The Big Issue magazine, but also the International Network of Street Papers and the creative writing website ABCtales.com.

A canning factory might seem an odd place to start if your ambition is to change the world - but in 1974, at the age of 27, that was Bird's aim. "I went there because I was a member of the Workers Revolutionary Party and we were trying to destroy capitalism by winning over the battalions to be found in factories."

Who exactly was this "we"? Well, his fellow undercover Marxists were his (then) brother-in-law, whose father was a baronet and had been to Winchester school, and three Irish girls looking for something to pass the time.

In the cannery, says Bird, he had to "climb up a ladder and watch the rows and rows of cans coming down the conveyor belt, stop the snarl-ups and sort out the damaged cans. Most of it was pretty mind-numbing."

He much preferred the spud-bashing. "My happiest time was lifting the bags of potatoes. A klaxon would go, and we would cut open the bags of potatoes and empty them into the mouth of a machine, which turned them into some sort of salad." He would have frequent, lengthy breaks to catch up on his reading of Trotsky and Lenin.

He never did manage to incite his fellow workers to take to the barricades, but he doesn't hold this against them. "I was in a factory with people who were largely decent, ordinary, respectable and very, very loyal to you as a member of the workforce."

He developed an unexpected admiration for the employers, and not just because they offered him a management trainee course. "The factory was very clean. Heinz had loads of social activities. They sold us food for a penny that would cost a shilling in the shops. It was paternalistic, but it worked."

Unlike the Russian Revolution, for example: "Revolutions have never been very good at bringing food to the masses."

Instead of a revolutionary undermining of capitalism, the capitalists undermined his revolutionary ideas. Bird went into printing, and his ex-brother-in-law works for a merchant bank in the City of London. They are both has-beans.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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