The Big Issue at 25: The untold story of how a publishing revolution began

The early, early days of The Big Issue were forged in blood, sweat, and a battle for survival. There were also negative points...

“The Big Issue?” says John Bird. “It was turmoil, chaos, waste, rottenness of poverty, stupidity, foolishness… and inspiration.”

On the occasion of this magazine’s 25th anniversary, Bird – the founder and first editor – is reflecting on how it all began. Sitting beneath the trees in his Cambridgeshire garden, he seems to be enjoying himself, relishing the punk savour of that word “rottenness”, sucking on its marrow and spitting out the juice.

Bird is 70 and, since last October, has been a member of the House of Lords – “How the hell am I in there? I wouldn’t let me in” – but resists any attempt to portray him as a doer of good works or, worse, some kind of master media strategist. “I’m not the Mother Teresa of Fulham Broadway”; “I fucking hate the idea that I’m some kind of genius”; Vide Arthur Seaton and the Arctic Monkeys, whatever you say he is, that’s what he’s not. Bird can describe himself perfectly well, thanks, and does: “The only guiding principle I’ve ever had, the only controlling factor in my life, is that I’m incredibly unstable. Instability is often the breeding ground of change and development.”

It was this instability, this creative chaos, that brought The Big Issue to life in the early autumn of 1991. Today, the magazine is sold by up to 2,000 vendors across the UK. This year saw the 200 millionth sale in Britain. It has won several national journalism awards, and inspired a network of 120 similar street magazines and newspapers set up around the world. Yet the story of how the The Big Issue came into being is much more complicated, and far less pretty, than is often assumed.

It was Gordon Roddick’s brainchild; his money was the midwife. The Scottish multi-millionaire was co-founder of The Body Shop with his wife Anita. In 1990, on a trip to New York, Roddick encountered a homeless man outside Grand Central Station. He was selling the world’s first homeless paper, Street News. The businessman bought a copy and they chatted. “He told me it wasn’t so much the cash, which was great. It was the human contact,” Roddick explained to Tessa Swithinbank in her history of The Big Issue, Coming Up From the Streets. “He felt he was part of the throbbing race of life and not a bit of garbage sitting on a corner asking for someone’s indulgence.”

Roddick, who is now 74, decided to import the idea to Britain. He would start a magazine that homeless people could buy cheap and sell at a mark-up, pocketing the difference. They would be earning, not begging. It was ethical capitalism; red in tooth, green in claw. But who should he approach to make it happen? The obvious thing would have been to recruit an experienced magazine editor, but Roddick’s thoughts turned instead to a man he had first met in an Edinburgh pub in 1967. “John represented pure anarchy,” he says. “And if you can harness anarchy into something more positive, it will go somewhere… He was also pretty hard-nosed and tough, and you need that quality if you are dealing with a whole load of the homeless, who are sometimes incredibly aggressive. John was the man to handle that.” The two men came from very different backgrounds. Roddick had been a public schoolboy. Bird, who was 45 in 1991, had grown up in poverty, spent time in an orphanage, a detention centre for young offenders, and on the streets.

John Bird in 1991, as the first edition of The Big Issue went on sale

It was by no means certain that Bird would agree to become The Big Issue’s founder editor. For a start, he didn’t want the job. He had grafted his way to a kind of middle-class stability. He was married with two teenagers and had a printing business; he had no desire to revisit the world of the poor. But Roddick offered him a daily wage to run a feasibility study, and by the time that was done, Bird believed that The Big Issue would work. He also needed the magazine just as much as the homeless did – although his needs were more psychological rather than economic. It would, he felt, somehow give meaning to, and justify, the difficulties of his early life. “I was really desirous of something that would make sense of all the rough sleeping and the fights in the street and the drunkenness and the prisons and the orphanage and the homelessness. I was looking to turn that into a product.”

A date was set for the launch: September 11, 1991. This gave Bird just three months to build a team and put together the first issue. This lack of time suited his addiction to crises. “If we didn’t rush and sweat then it wouldn’t work for me. I needed to feel that I was at war with everything.”

His way of finding staff was unorthodox. The recruitment policy seemed modelled, in some cases, on Human League lyrics: “You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar when I met you.” The team was young, keen and deeply inexperienced; one section editor was, according to Bird, “a rent boy”. It was, he says, “a team of freaks and misfits”. They felt embattled, exhausted, alive.

Phil Ryan was a musician whom Bird had met through a mutual actor friend. Ryan was well-spoken and mannered, and he owned a blazer, so was given the job of negotiating with the Metropolitan Police over the right of vendors to sell the magazine on London’s streets.

“My official title was deputy editor. In fact, I ran the magazine,” Ryan explains. The editorial team was based in a basement office between two pubs in Richmond. It was crowded, noisy, a mess. On the spectrum between chaos and creativity – where did the needle tend to hover? “Chaos.” He tells a story about the time the computers crashed on Sunday night, losing the entire magazine, and they had to rewrite the whole thing from scratch so it could be printed on Monday morning. “I could fill a book with things we did wrong and mistakes we made. But we learned very quickly.”

John is mercurial and angry and shouty and sweary. And some days I wanted to kill him

The newsreader Sophie Raworth is probably the best-known veteran of those early days. Studying for a postgrad in broadcast journalism, she would pop into The Big Issue on her way home from university, and work for free. “A tiny little office with no room to move,” she laughs. “I loved it. There was a real buzz and camaraderie, with John Bird – this charismatic leader – at the centre of it all. I’m sure there were a lot of people who doubted what he was doing and questioned whether it would work. I never thought it would be as big as it has become now.”

What about Bird? Wasn’t he difficult and aggressive? “He was impossible,” Phil Ryan recalls, fondly. “John is mercurial and angry and shouty and sweary. And some days I wanted to kill him. I wanted to hit him with a chair until he stopped moving. But I can’t remember a time in my life I laughed so much. I think what got us through was laughter. I’m not some apologist for John when he’s being a complete arse. He would have a million ideas, and sometimes that was annoying when you only wanted one, but once you learned to filter it, then it became completely tolerable.”

Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive but to be young was very heaven. Wordsworth’s recollections of the French Revolution are never far from mind when talking to Big Issue staffers from those early days. There is sometimes a whiff of hedonism: the distribution office in Victoria that became an impromptu warehouse rave; the “mad Latvian typesetter” laid out by vodka; the times John Bird would go out boozing and sleep the night in a park before coming into the office, as normal, the following day. But this shouldn’t be overstated. “It wasn’t rock ’n’ roll, it was just a bunch of young, determined people busting their bollocks to get out the best product we could for the vendors,” says Paul Minett, the designer of the magazine in its first six months. “I don’t mean to be pretentious but in a little way we made history, didn’t we?”

DID YOU KNOW…

There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

There was an urgency about The Big Issue, a sense of mission. In 1991, between 2,000 and 3,000 people were sleeping rough on London’s streets alone, and thousands more across the whole of Britain. Within the magazine there was a belief, fair or not, that the government didn’t care and that homeless charities – with their soup kitchens and hostels – were merely treating the symptoms but not helping people to turn their lives around. The difficulty came, however, when this idealism met the lived reality of the streets. Rough sleeping in London was a subculture, complete with traditions and hierarchies and a belief system in which suspicion of ‘do-gooders’ was an important tenet. To walk into one of the main homeless areas – Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Victoria Street, the pedestrian underpasses at Waterloo known as the Bullring – and try to recruit magazine vendors was to invite hostility and genuine physical threat. Peter Bird, John’s youngest brother, is now national distribution director. In those early days, he took to carrying a baseball bat around in his van.

“It was like Mad Max,” he says. “Horrible. There would be bonfires at night. A lot of aggression. We’d pull up at the church where we had a distribution point, and the people hanging around on the steps would kick and spit at the van. They didn’t want to know us. The people living there had their own ways of making money and dealing with things. It was a violent time. But to win people over you had to prove yourself. So we’d turn up every day and say, ‘Magazines?’. And they’d say, ‘No, fuck off’. But gradually they realised they could make money without having to beg and steal. It worked because we never gave up. I think we survived through stubbornness more than anything.”

They expanded through the city block by block, winning over homeless men and women to their cause, facing down the menaces of those who ran organised gangs of beggars. Liverpool Street, Oxford Street, Covent Garden, Victoria, Waterloo; Peter Bird makes it sound like a high-stakes game of Monopoly. His brother, however, in reflective mode, sounds more like an elderly gangster. John Bird loves to paint himself in a bad light whenever possible.

We’d pull up at the church where we had a distribution point, and the people hanging around on the steps would kick and spit at the van

“I had a kind of criminal attitude,” he says. “I believed that if somebody threatened you, and you couldn’t do anything about it because they were bigger and stronger, you’d either use a blunt instrument to equalise it, or you’d pay somebody bigger than them. I’d seen that work very well in the prison system. It was part of my life that you didn’t allow people to intimidate you. And if they did, you would get somebody to intimidate them.” He used Gordon Roddick’s money to bribe some of the real hardmen – Scots, mainly, some of them ex-soldiers – to stick up for The Big Issue against the thuggish element who were causing trouble. “So we built a kind of police force… The brown envelope was very important.”

Fifty quid here and there was nothing, though, when set against the significant losses the magazine began to make. By June 1992 it was losing £25,000 a month, despite selling 150,000 copies. Roddick kept the faith and did not pull the plug: “But in the end I had to bring John in and give him a deadline: if he didn’t break even within three months, I would simply close up shop. Incredibly, he managed it.”

The Body Shop invested £500,000 in the first three years. Roddick is proud that The Big Issue has become an established part of British-ness. Orwell, if he were writing now, might list it with his red pillar-boxes and old maids biking to Holy Communion through autumn morning mists. Henry Mayhew would certainly rank the vendors alongside his costermongers and mud-larks in London Labour and the London Poor. But the success of the magazine has not come easily. There has been some personal cost.

“Our marriage went up the spout, that was the first thing,” says Tessa Swithinbank, who separated from John Bird in 1992 after almost 20 years. “The Big Issue was all-consuming. There wasn’t really any discussion about what would happen if this took off. Eventually it was 24 hours a day. He was sleeping in the office. It wasn’t a good time.”

Bird’s take: “She wanted a quiet life and I wanted to change the world.”

There are no regrets. But it must have been tough in that moment. It is a small human story, a rarely turned page within the history of the magazine itself. But that’s what makes The Big Issue different from a regular magazine – the stories of those who make or, more often, sell it are often as compelling as any of the articles within. Take William Herbert, one of the very first vendors (pictured below). When asked how he came to start selling The Big Issue, Herbert points to the scar looped like a watch-chain between his left ear and the corner of his mouth. “I got that from racist Millwall supporters,” he says. “It was like a nightmare.” He had stopped into a pub for a quick half, and a football fan, seeing his dreadlocks, walked over and, leaning in as if to speak in his ear, opened his face with a Stanley blade.

William Herbert, one of The Big Issues first vendors

He required 24 stitches, almost as many as he’d had birthdays. For a young man, this was a disaster. He became paranoid, isolated, lost all his confidence. His face and demeanour made him unemployable. Loving relationships with women seemed no longer a possibility. Tennent’s Super brought a necessary numbness. “I had to have a beer just to walk out the house, and in the end I couldn’t even live in the house, I was in such a state.” He was out on the streets: sleeping rough, begging, shoplifting, drinking heavily; booze, and the vents outside the Empire, Leicester Square, brought the only warmth in his life. Looking back, he understands what was going on: “I was committing suicide slowly.”

In the midst of this darkness, Herbert began to sell The Big Issue. A young woman in his little group of rough sleepers had told him about it. If you were homeless you could buy it for 10 pence, sell it for 50, and keep the profit. “That was my drink money and I knew I wasn’t going to get nicked for it.” He found that it felt better to earn money this way. His pitch was in Covent Garden. Having to talk to the public, making eye contact, started to give him his confidence back. And it was honest work. You could take a pride in it. “A life-changer,” he says.

I was committing suicide slowly

His path through life since 1991 has not been straight. There have been stumbles and reverses. He has tried other jobs but they haven’t worked out. Some prison time. One might regard a man who has sold The Big Issue off and on for a quarter of a century as a failure, and a demonstrable failure of the whole concept of helping the homeless help themselves.

“No, that would be a misunderstanding,” he explains. The magazine has given him stability, routine and dignity. He has a flat now. Pays his bills. Rarely drinks. He is back in touch with his family.

A quick flash of a knife in a pub and a life was laid waste; that sort of wound can take years to heal. The Big Issue was, in its way, a 25th stitch, one that has helped hold his life together. “I don’t make a lot of money selling the papers,” he says. “I’m never going to be no millionaire. But it has helped me move on.”

His pitch, these days, is on Upper Street in Islington. Outside Budgens supermarket. If you’re passing, why not say hello and buy one? Wish him – and The Big Issue – a very happy anniversary.

Words: Peter Ross / @PeterAlanRoss

Images: Getty Images/Carl Court; UPPA; Photoshot Photo UIW; archive pictures courtesy of Phil Ryan