Opinion

A visit to The Big Issue mural was like stepping into my former life

John Bird was blown away by The Big Issue's east end mural and found it reminded him of times long gone

The Big Issue mural

The Big Issue mural in Shoreditch celebrates vendors in a brilliantly eye-catching way. Image: Global Street Art

To me, the mural in Shoreditch is an extraordinary statement. It is one of the finest pieces of outdoor art I have ever seen. It is big and bold and red and takes over a side of a biggish building. And what it celebrates is The Big Issue and our vendors who are like small shops, selling their product, but out in the street.

I was not involved in its creation and was astonished to find it so big and bold when last week I went to look at it. Around the corner was the Jealous Gallery where we had an event. The artist My Dog Sighs was doing a show of prints for The Big Issue. It was a brilliant, jazzy, (am I allowed to say sexy?) evening where the buzz was all about art. And around the corner was the gorgeous red-soaked blaze of a mural. 

A group got together to make this celebration of our vendors’ labours and our work, just short of our 32nd birthday. I do recommend, if you are in London, that you jump on a bus or get the tube to Old Street and go up east to Shoreditch to see both Jealous Gallery and The Big Issue mural.

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Shoreditch is not on my bucket list for visiting. As a Notting Hill boy the East End was not within my purview. Occasionally as a boy I would jump on a bus or the Underground on a Thursday lunchtime to go and collect my dad’s wages from some building site job – often in such places as Dalston or Leyton – in order to get them back to my mother because there had been days of a foodless diet and she was gasping for cigarettes. 

Cigarettes almost drove her crazy and were to prove, along with poor diet and night office cleaning, the death of her.

Old Street, not far from the mural, was famous to us in the ’50s and ’60s from what you might call the smoking classes. A famous brand of cigarette called Kensitas had a showroom at Old Street. In each packet of Kensitas were coupons which you could exchange for pots and pans and other kitchen goods at the showroom.

It was like a Mecca and my mother would dispatch me to convert the coupons for a frying pan or saucepan or set of knives and forks. Later, in return for being allowed to sofa surf on my sister-in-law’s sofa, I would have to traipse over to Old Street to exchange her coupons. 

Much, much later I had to go to Old Street for a meeting at the powerful homeless charity Shelter’s HQ to beg their indulgence. The indulgence I was begging for was that they would not speak ill of my intention of starting The Big Issue. I received the indulgence, and the then-director Sheila McKechnie even turned up at the launch a few weeks later – and kept her opinions of me to herself. 

My reluctance to go east now – yes, I remain a geographic xenophobe – is because I got to know it well when I met mates inside who came from East London. De Beauvoir Town and Haggerston and Hoxton became familiar names in my teenage years because of this expansion of friends from among fellow wrongdoers. 

And then in the last 30 years, the grim reaper of gentrification took over and what had happened to Notting Hill after I left it happened to the east. Socially hollowed out, indigenous folk scattered even further from their roots, as their place of residence became commercially hot.

So me making a simple trip to view a magnificent mural that celebrates The Big Issue involved layers of lived history. Recently I watched a YouTube of the late comedian and author Spike Milligan. And he said that he was always living a kind of compressed concoction of history in his everyday life. I know exactly what he means; that he was always surrounded by what he has been through. 

For me, walking around the East End is in some ways a kind of personal history of regret. A regret for the East End I got to know in the 1960s, when I got to know it well.

Of course Big Issue itself is a symbol, in many ways, of those changes and social decays that broke up our cities and industries and left many more people drifting and vulnerable. The French have a wonderful word for it, a word that explains the process: ‘Deracination’, meaning broken from your roots. Now the world seems much more a place of deracination as gentrification bites into communities. And for reasons of economy and strife people are moving northward. 

Fifty years ago next week, the weakening of my mother by cigarettes, poor diet and hard work caught up with her. She passed away surrounded by an intensely caring mob of NHS workers unable to dig out of her the poverty that had been ingrained into her body.

It seems to me we all have a job to do in the world. Involve ourselves in slowing down the often cretinous behaviour of our political leaders, who lead us with our often questionable appetites towards more dislocation. We do have the need now to break out of our role as observers and commentators and to become doers. 

The world in the end will, after all, only be saved by us. Not them.

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here 

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