Big Issue vendor: Olympics optimism is just 'jam tomorrow'
Rachel Johnson's upbeat piece in this week's Big Issue, echoing Julian Owen's article and Paul McNamee's editorial about the wonderful new sense of inclusivity the Games have apparently endowed us all with, and John Bird's Mattress Diaries were all miraculously connected for me by something that happened on my pitch.
Two exceptionally attractive young women adorned with the logos of a well-known shaving razor-maker (yes, products are still being sold with sex!), stopped a handsome, well-dressed young man not ten feet from where I was selling. They took his photograph, noted his e-mail address and telephone number carefully on a clipboard and, laughing and smiling, proceeded to pass me by.
Curious – and shamelessly enthused at the prospect of a prize or a freebee – I stopped them and asked what they were up to. Still all smiles, laughter and happiness on that sunny day, they told me that they were taking photos to go in a well-known men's magazine and there was, indeed, a prize to be gotten.
So I asked if they would take my photo (they had shown no inclination to). "Of course!" they chirped – and they did. Then, seamlessly, they explained again the prospect of a prize, and breezed away, still smiling and cheery – a cheeriness I echoed as I waved them off.
Now, of course, there is no way of knowing (and I suppose this is remotely possible) whether they simply genuinely forgot to take my details – without which there was no reason for the exercise – or whether they assumed there would be no point in trying to take a Big Issue vendor's details, or whether their brief expressly excluded our type.
But what I do know is that, at that very moment, their action caused me to cease to be a person, another human being, another member of society, in any meaningful sense – an Olympian act of inclusivity it was not. My immediate gut feeling was, ‘What kind of idiot do they think I am, and who the hell do they think they are?’
Sadly, my encounter was not unique: it continues to be the daily, weekly, perpetually soul-destroying experience of millions of people in post-Games enlightenedBritain. Where social status, colour, gender or sexuality renders them largely invisible to anybody other than the police, deliberate ‘downlookers’, or sexually predatory men.
Unsurprisingly, this generalised exclusion of ordinary people forments a degree of frustration and resentment – a feeling that the likes of us only get paid attention to when we run or jump preternaturally well, or sing, act or commit crimes or outrageous stunts.
Especially galling is the great being lumped together as a ‘them’ – somehow there is a generic immigrant or poor person who can be a good runner, a murderous religious or racist fanatic, a benefit scrounger, a stolid worker or stunning rags to riches success. But always, the ordinary person brought forth exceptionally into the world as an identifiable individual ‘character’ jumps out of or gets plucked from anonymity serving merely to back up or refute a stereotype that actually compounds the monolithic facelessness of the mass represented.
A handful of talented sporting black people and women have become momentarily famous and this is truly to be lauded, but it does not herald any mould-shattering breakthrough nor societal shift – it is, though, another potentially encouraging fragment of evidence of a gradual change.
It may be that in Rachel Johnson’s tearful, optimistic world – and the world of the press/media – everybody is uplifted, and I am glad for her: I genuinely feel that the Olympics is a wonderful idea and have no doubt whatsoever that in many quarters of the country – perhaps even for a majority – the mood is presently lifted.
But sorry, Julian – the Olympic spirit has, in fact, been hijacked, subverted and turned into a great jingoistic bout of bread and circuses: so much of it is ‘jam tomorrow’ – the legacy, the promised economic boom – and so little of it has spread even the hundred metres from the Olympic Park to my old mattress-strewn neighbourhood. Nor does it seem set to anytime soon.
By André Rostant, Big Issue vendor, Long Acre, Covent Garden