John Bird: Our challenge? To prevent a wave of post-Covid poverty

Is there a better symbol than a surfer to show what we want to show: which is that we ride out the chances of defeat towards victory?

The front cover of this week’s magazine, with its brave surfer almost overwhelmed by waves, yet being clever enough to use the threat to their advantage, is one of the most poignant images of the post-war world. A symbol of ease and wonder, perhaps even indulgence. But also a symbol of how far away from want and need one is.

Alas that want and need is threatening us again, and therefore we need to get surfing over its threats.

Possibly around 1964-5 we encountered The Beach Boys in the charts and on the radio airwaves. They took the music of The Beatles and, instead of sitting around the dance hall sipping Coke, or dancing illogically – no one seemed to be able to dance in those days – they took you out into the fresh air. And out on to the waves.

Beaches, waves and water are what many people seem to have missed most under lockdown. Now there seems a determination to get to those sandy places of significance. When Bournemouth’s beaches on the south coast opened up, the police were astonished at the truculence of beach users, so passionate were they for the sand and sea. Social distancing went by the way.

Even the well-behaved Germans have annoyed Majorca residents, health ministers and police with their hedonistic celebration of water and beach. They are ignoring social distancing and throwing caution to the winds; and perhaps stirring up the virus again.

But our front page symbol is not so much about sea, sand, sex and surf, as about riding above the crashing waters. Of not being defeated by the waves of unemployment and homelessness.

How can you create images of hope and opportunity, of positive spins on new developments? Is there a better symbol than a surfer to show what we want to show: which is that we ride out the chances of defeat towards victory?

Towards giving people the chance of not being washed away by the poverty created by Covid-19. A strong metaphor for putting your mind to your survival.

Imagine inventing the Ride Out Recession Alliance in the 1930s when your grandparents, or my parents, battled with a shrinking world of work. A world of poor housing, poor jobs, poor health, poor sanitation and poor social support.

RORA
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We certainly would have been accused of being aliens if we’d taken a young surfing person and placed them in the middle of a threatening wave as a symbol of surviving recession. That world had yet to surface. Consumerism, summer holidays on distant sandy beaches, were of the future. You had to have another war to produce the prosperity – what an ugly thought – that allowed large amounts of people to dream of beaches.

It is our challenge, your challenge; and the challenge of every last one of us who can combine to ensure government carries out its promise to not see anyone destroyed by Covid-19 poverty

Now our efforts gather speed. The Ride Out Recession Alliance campaign – RORA – is getting people and groups, businesses and local authorities combining to ensure that government and decision-makers maximise the chances of creating security of work and home. As we keep saying, slipping into homelessness will devastate lives.

Is there a bigger issue that we are facing as we leave lockdown? Possibly the other big and pressing issue is to avoid a second ‘wave’ of Covid-19. That would add to the grief of job losses and therefore the chances of eviction. Our campaign is first and foremost about stopping people being evicted. Eviction will lead to homelessness. Homelessness is not a place to hold yourself together in.

If we can stay healthy then the chances of pushing back the threats of even more poverty arise. Health and work must go hand in hand.

I have never been a beach bum. I could never lie on a beach in the sun. I could ride across it, run across it, but never sit on it. Likewise I could never surf. My feeble attempts have come to nothing. But so glad am I that there are people out there on the seas with their boards.

In the late 1970s I was particularly blessed by a surfer, a rather obsessive sort of chap. My wife at the time and I were on the beach in Cornwall when she decided to go swimming. She was heavily pregnant yet was a good swimmer. She didn’t go out too far but the currents under the sea pulled her further out. She was frightened and feeling that this might be the end. Fortunately a young man came by on his surfing board and she called for help. Irritated at her stupidity, he took her in and dumped her on the beach.

What a tragedy that would have been, two people lost at one and the same time. I doubt I would have recovered easily enough to contemplate starting something as useful as The Big Issue a decade later.

But we survived to tell the tale. Now The Big Issue faces its biggest challenge: to help keep hundreds of thousands of people at home, and in work. It is our challenge, your challenge; and the challenge of every last one of us who can combine to ensure government carries out its promise to not see anyone destroyed by Covid-19 poverty.

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