Big Issue Vendor

After 30 years, The Big Issue’s job has only just begun

The work and the fight is immense
Putting a plan into action: John Bird and Gordon Roddick back where it all began in 1991. Image credit: David Rose/The Independent/Shutterstock

It is about this time 30 years ago that I was receiving annoying messages from Gordon Roddick of The Body Shop to meet and talk about a possible street paper.

Gordon the year before had bought a copy of a street paper call Street News in New York and was impressed with the homeless vendor’s story. About selling the paper to make money so that he didn’t get into trouble.

I was irritated because I much preferred the said Mr Roddick to help me establish a publishing house where I could publish my own books that I couldn’t get published otherwise. Yet he kept coming back to this passion for a street paper.

Which irritated me no end because it meant me having to return to thinking about homelessness and rough sleeping and poverty, something that I had hopefully put behind me. Didn’t Gordon realise that once a chap got out of the shit the logical thing was to move on, and screw the past?

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Well that seemed to be the norm. So why wasn’t this low-grade ex-offender and rough sleeper allowed to put his monsters behind him and screw social justice? Let those with the heart and tears for the poor get on with it! There seemed so many who were lachrymose about poverty – surely it was best left to them?

You could do degrees in poverty and its causes. Surely someone bearing such a degree was better placed than someone born into it. Wasn’t the world awash with students of social collapse? “For fuck’s sake Gordon,” ran my argument, “give a man a break to forget his nightmares!”

But Gordon was a tenacious bloke. And insistent that I should perhaps give advice. But what advice could I give? That most people’s attempts at help were doomed to failure? That poverty was a necessary part of the economic system?

Could he not grasp that I had used Marxism to get out of poverty, combining it with living off upper middle-class women, and my social aspirations didn’t extend to getting immersed in charity poverty. ‘Charipov’ as I liked to call it.

If I had any lingering social feelings they were that only through the complete overthrow of capitalism could poverty ever be addressed. And this vision was merely romantic pub talk because there was no way I was going to get off my arse to further this supposed noble cause. Talk the talk but not walk the walk.

So in the early days of 1991 I had to put up with this bloody knight on a white horse Roddick bloke trying to draw me back to the social justice watering hole while I protested my desire to be nothing more than a published author of largely unreadable poetry and novels.

I’ve always loved those stories of people who are reluctantly drawn to being useful when their true intentions were to be selfish. And here I was being pulled slowly but inexorably towards doing something with the next 30 years or so of my life that I had not intended. As I reached
the age of 45 I was most impressed with certain aspects of myself. That I could print, could write page after page at the drop of a hat. That I could serenade the hind legs off a donkey. That I was excellent at Trivial Pursuit and knew an enormous amount about art and culture and could talk endlessly about paintings.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. I seemed to struggle with drink and fights and could be a nasty piece of work if provoked. Anger seemed just below the surface of my life. Surely I was not that well-resolved nob-head I thought I was.

The trick worked of course. Gordon got me advising and I was drawn deeper and deeper in. I was offered a steady income. I was offered the chance to do my own thing. I was told no ‘do-gooders’ would direct my hand.

Under it all I realised that the best cure for your own need for curing was to help cure others.

I suppose I am announcing that this is the year of our 30th birthday. And this is my way of introducing the history of that year from my own angle. As the founder with Gordon of this social colossus that now needs once again to jump into the middle of an enormous crisis: that of mass homelessness hitting new people.

We have only just begun. The work and the fight is immense: to stop the pandemic condemning another generation to what I tried to avoid ever talking about 30 years ago: living without a home.

Poverty, cold, hunger and not having a hope because all hope is or was destroyed.

I’m glad a big-nosed Scotsman called Gordon Roddick woke me up from my silly dreams of being a millionaire novelist with a house in the south of France and lots of time to lounge around drinking Chianti from a raffia-wrapped bottle.

More truths to follow.

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief  of The Big Issue.