John Bird: A new freedom, and a new opportunity for change

We have to fight for the right of people to be homed and be in work

At last! The end of a lockdown.

I knew the end of lockdown was coming. I was prepared for it. The day, the day, the very day that it would all be lifted from me! And I would rise like a flower that had been kept out of the sun, as if under a bucket!

I would be woken at 4.45am for the end of my lockdown. There’d be a ceremony. I would be marched to the front office. I would take off all of my prison blues and underwear and would stand naked before a screw. The screw would examine me, front and back. I would be given the clothes I’d arrived in some months before. Then given breakfast in a room by myself, unable to say goodbye to any of the trusted friends I had made while locked down.

On the morning the lockdown actually ended for me I was unfortunate in having Mr Atkinson, cook and screw, in charge of my release. He was a very tall Scotsman who hated Jews. Convinced I was one of them, he tortured me whenever he got the chance. Now, looking at my penis, he could see if I had the cut. He touched me, played with it. And then said “A bloody Jew without a cut.”

But he had been overheard. The screw that was actually going to take me to the station for the train to London was the screw who had signed me in for my ‘short, sharp shock’. For my detention centre, boot camp hell. Now he came upon the Scottish anti-Semite and blew up.

“What are you doing? Leave the boy alone.”

It was like putting salt on a slug. The tall Scot recoiled and stood frightened, probably before a senior officer.

“I was just playing with him.”

But the kinder officer wasn’t going to accept that.

“You’re a piece of shit, Atkinson. You shouldn’t be in the service.”

He took over and took me in in my new clothes to have breakfast. I was crying with fear. I had always hated Jews, as per instruction from my mother. But now I was suffering because I looked like one.

Freedom to choose again. Freedom to wander and roam. Freedom to move and be. But what a price we’d had to pay

Later I was placed in the back of his car and taken to Abingdon Station, not Oxford Station where I had arrived three months before. We picked up his daughter. She was lovely and smelt of toothpaste. We dropped her at work before he dropped me. He came up on the platform with me and waited for the train. When it came he said: “There are some arseholes in all parts of life, son. Don’t, don’t ignore them. Hurt them.”

The train was a dream. It was a diesel. I was 14 and on my first journey on a train alone. It was a wonderful release after a serious 24/7 lockdown. The three months felt like three years. Now I looked forward to smelling flowers, running down by the river at Wandsworth. And smashing up some geezers who had hurt me before I was made super fit and fast by Her Majesty’s Detention Centre at Kidlington, Oxfordshire.

Perhaps smash up some fences in the park? Maybe. Maybe stay home and watch telly with mum and dad and the five brothers in our council flat? Who knows, the world was my oyster.

Decades later I was reintroduced to the memory of the magistrate who sent me for the ‘short, sharp shock’. Only to her memory, because she had died 30 years before I entered the House of Lords.

Baroness Lady Wootton had been my constant companion throughout my pre-teen and teen years. She directed my fate as I appeared before her for juvenile delinquency. She seemed unapproachable with her half-glasses. And scary. But the scariest thing she did was put me in with a load of thugs in sleepy Oxfordshire. And then of course there were the inmates.

Last week we had another end to the lockdown in its fullest manifestation. I went for a long cycle and ended up queuing up for a cheese and onion toastie and two cups of tea. It had that feeling of escape that got me thinking about all those decades before. And as I sat in the shade of a tree with my son, who settled for a bottle of water, I praised freedom.

Freedom to choose again. Freedom to wander and roam. Freedom to move and be. But what a price we’d had to pay. The thousands of deaths. The confusion and the contradictory instructions. The destruction of a large part of the economy. The possibility of thousands more joining the homeless – unless we fight tooth and nail against those who would use austerity to make matters and poverty even worse.

I was blessed all those decades ago to survive and thrive and have a fuller life away from wrongdoing. Now we have to fight for the right of people to be homed and be in work. It is the biggest protection we can give to future generations.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue.