“I feel amazing. I feel like a movie star. I feel a million dollars! I have come a long way.” William Herbert, 57, is sitting on the roof of the Houses of Parliament, looking the bee’s knees in his new suit, reflecting on a most unusual day. “I never thought I’d be here. To be honest, this is a dream. How many people in the world get to see the Queen? It’s just fantastic. Me seeing the Queen is like a fairy story.”
With a little less of the usual pomp and ceremony, not to mention certainty and stability, the Queen’s Speech marked the state opening of parliament last week. Alongside the Queen, the Prince of Wales, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, two Houses packed with politicians and peers plus dignitaries galore, was The Big Issue vendor William. He took his place in the Royal Gallery, a guest of The Big Issue founder Lord John Bird, as The Queen delivered her rather brief speech.
“It was so good to be in the same room as The Queen. Bless her, she looked the picture I always knew her to be. She was smaller than I thought though. So was Prince Charles. I was about 10 feet away. Everyone was Lady Blah Blah and Lord Whatever. I felt like royalty. I felt like one of the Lords myself. Everyone was so nice and polite.
I feel amazing. I feel like a movie star. I feel a million dollars!
“And now look at me – I’m sitting here on the roof of the Houses of fucking Parliament! How fantastic is that? My pals won’t believe me.” William’s pals won’t be the only ones. After the ceremony, Lord Bird said: “When I told people a Big Issue vendor was here, they were astonished. I have known William for more than 20 years. He has used The Big Issue to rebuild his life and I am really, really happy that he is here. William has made today for me.
"I can honestly say this is one of the nicest days I've had in a long time."
— The Big Issue (@BigIssue) June 21, 2017
“Symbolically it is important that he is here. We brought a group of Big Issue vendors here last year and will be doing that more, having conferences, inviting homeless people. If it inspires people to come here and use the House, it is great. And it gives me the chance to make a load of noise about why we have a system that conspires to keep people poor. My mission is to get them to put poverty prevention at the very heart of government policy.”
William began selling The Big Issue soon after its launch in 1991. His life had fallen apart following a horrific racist attack, his face slashed in a pub – leaving physical and mental scars that remain to this day.
I just finished my cancer treatment last week. They cut out three quarters of my bowels with keyhole surgery
He has been with us, on and off, ever since, and for the past few years has been selling the magazine on Upper Street in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency of Islington North. William credits The Big Issue with helping him re-engage with society, overcome alcoholism, turn his life around and get a place of his own – he’s been in his flat in Newington Green for four years, longer than anywhere he’s lived for decades.
“It has taken a lot of years,” he says. “A lot of it is to do with a racist attack when I was in my 20s. See this scar across my face? That led to the drinking. I was 15 or 20 years on and off the street. Someone said later that I had been suffering from PTSD all that time. There has been a lot of deaths. My brother died, my son died, my mother died. They are all gone. Through all that, I had problems with the drink. And I’ve just had cancer. I finished my treatment last week. They found cancer in my bowel in 2016. They cut out three quarters of my bowels with keyhole surgery. They cut out the cancer but you still have to take pills and have chemotherapy. I had that from December until last week. Just last week! They said I’m clear. I have done the cancer. I don’t think there is another thing I can go through now.”
And what a way to celebrate the end of his treatment. A photo-shoot in front of the Palace of Westminster, a close-up view of the Queen from the Royal Gallery, lunch in the Houses of Parliament canteen with Lord Bird, and a chat in the House of Commons bar with the Bishop of Southwark.
“I’m proud to be from London, to be English. And here I am, representing the whole Big Issue crowd – I feel so proud,” he says. “‘Alright captain!’ That’s what they will say when I go by.”
“I was listening out for what they are going to do about the housing situation. Immigration is another serious point that needs tackling, and the NHS – that’s what I was listening out for. Especially having heard what John Bird is up to. His talk about preventing poverty – I’ve lived through poverty, I know what it’s like and I support him 100 per cent. Prevention is better than a cure. And it is cheaper. He puts it the right way – he helps people to better themselves. And you have to stop young people getting into that position. I can throw them some advice, I can point them in the right direction – I have been through it, I have been there, worn the T-shirt, inside and out.”