Opinion

A lifetime of playing the imitation game has reaped rewards

Taking inspiration from others you admire is the best way to improve things. The Big Issue is a case in point

Compton cricket team (Ted Hayes wearing sunglasses), in Los Angeles, California, on 1 May, 2000. Image: Evan Hurd / Alamy Stock Photo

The Big Issue created its own children. First it created itself and then it created imitations of itself.  

Or, more accurately, you could say that Street News of New York created itself in 1989 as the world’s first street paper. And then, inspired by its example, we created the Big Issue, which came into being in 1991.

The Big Issue soon became a London example of what could be done for homeless people if you narrowed the field of effort. If you said such things as “helping the homeless to help themselves”. Or “coming up from the streets”. Or “a crime prevention programme” (street living and poverty providing a fecund backdrop for surviving by wrongdoing).  

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Or if you narrowed the field of vision, so to speak, to giving people an exit from the intolerable burden of how to survive when there are thousands of people like you filling the streets of London. Give homeless people the chance of becoming stable so that change in their lives becomes possible.  

I was reminded of the Big Issue inventing its own children when I heard about The Beautiful Game, launched on Netflix last week. An inspiring story of homeless people reaching out and away from street life through football. Towards something more loaded with chances to turn skills nurtured in poverty into something that could lift you out of poverty.  

Not long after the Big Issue was founded we were helping people from Europe and America imitate us as once we imitated Street News. The Big Issue corralled its children at various points and out of this grew the International Network of Street Papers, led by Big Issue’s Tessa Swithinbank, former wife of yours truly.  

Hearing about The Beautiful Game reminded me of those early days when we were helping to produce so many imitators of ourselves, including the two who met at a Network of Street Papers conference who, instead of going to bed, sat up drinking all night and came up with that beautiful invention The Homeless World Cup.  

I like to use the rather obscure word ‘fecund’, meaning fruitful, in describing the enormous ‘fecundity’ – fruitfulness – of The Big Issue and its founding model Street News. And to speak of how Gordon Roddick, co-founder of The Body Shop, inspired and funded the creation of the Big Issue.  

And how out of this came hundreds of projects and inventions that owe their existence to that early Street News, an example which rallied a new way of working with homeless people.  
Imitation is an honourable game. Fecundity grows out of it. Originality then grows out of imitation. Picasso dutifully copies and apes his father the academic painter; and makes much of 20th Century art his own. Aren’t The Beatles just another example of what the Big Issue did with the already created?  

I have yet to devote time to watching The Beautiful Game. But I shall do so one night with a few bottles of imitation (non-alcoholic) beer, so popular now that I see Waitrose has a shelf of 0% beers all to itself. Now there’s something I wish someone had invented so I could have imitated them back then. The Big Issue 0% Beer. Not a bad idea. Imagine all the fights we could have prevented.   

Interestingly, when in Los Angeles in the late 1990s, I met the reverend Ted Hayes, who was known as Mr Homeless. One of his great projects was to create a cricket team in Compton, then known as the ‘drive-by shooting capital of the US’. He taught street kids to play the game and they were a resounding hit. They even came to the UK and thrashed, among others, the parliamentary cricket team at the Oval. Using sport in such a dramatic way even led to Disney making a film about the Reverend Ted Hayes and his team of unlikely players.  

Social repair and complete reinvention through sport must be up there as one of the biggest ways of calming the troubled spirit and turning it towards creative uses.  

When I was a boy facing the bitter poverty struggle around me I had a desire to imitate south London boxer Don Cockell. He was a heavyweight champion who went nine rounds with the great world champion Rocky Marciano. But if you are going to imitate you have to do your homework. The slogging. The fitness regime.  The 10,000 hours that Tiger Woods references that you need to put in to achieve excellence. Alas I was not prepared to imitate and therefore only dreamt.  

What will be my next imitation? I will of course keep you informed.  

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

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This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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