Opinion

John Bird's Easter Story

Easter is a time of rebirth and rejuvenation. For a young John Bird, it inspired a search for an authentic self

Humpty Dumpty and Alice from Through the Looking Glass, illustrated by John Tenniel. Image: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Easter is a time of chocolate eggs, symbolically reminding us of the rebirth of nature as it moves to the greens of spring.

It used to be the time when I would run away from home looking for my own rebirthing in places like Epping Forest or down at the sea in Brighton. But I found no rebirthing, no ability to shake off my indolent and flat and troubled teenage life and would be returned by the police to the domestic mismanagement of home life in a Fulham council flat. But still there was a stirring in my mind that Easter and spring were possible launchpads for a new life.

How dreamy and prone to illusion I was to believe I could leap out of my pained existence into something new. I probably watched too many advertisements that promised a new life through cigarettes or washing up liquid, or instant gravy called Bisto or Oxo. I had got into the mindset that change could be instant if you had the right product like a magic carpet to lift you to somewhere new. Instantaneous transformation through products.  

The pattern of life then, in the foothills of consumerism when choice was increasing but still limited for the working classes, did promise relishes to look forward to. But something went wrong for me one Easter when I discovered something so completely different from all that I had come from. That I wasn’t heading for the hoped-for consumer paradise of my social equals. That I could – and did – aspire to something different.  

At Easter, aged 15, I was an out-of-work packer and shelf filler and bike delivery boy and I ran off towards Epping Forest to build a new life among trees and nature. I would never return to the urban jungle of my birth. This was me being me. But under the influence of what? What we often forget is that what we hold dear to us and see as our social preferences will be shared by enough people around us to make us heard. I did not wake up and indiscriminately fall in love with Elvis’s music, I was joining millions of others. Likewise with Cliff Richard and quiffed hair; it didn’t just drop out of the sky directly into my mind. I was following trends.  

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Political and social values are largely acquired by us as groups and adhered to. We are not original. Like wildebeests we go with the herd, until some bright spark redirects us somewhere new. And then we join the mainstream of that herd and head that way.  

But I was trying to do something different at Easter 1961. I was trying to be a unique individual. But in order to be a unique individual I needed a model, a representative. And I found it among the Beatniks I saw traipsing along the King’s Road in Chelsea. I saw the rough denim and the long hair. I saw the model I could copy for my individualism. And all I had to do was buy the individualistic stuff to become an individual. So out of my packer’s and shelf filler’s and bike-delivering money I bought the Levis and the denim shirt and the leather jacket and the boots; and became an original 15-year-old.  

Everything is fashion – even revolt. When I was in Paris, six years after I found my model of originality, all of the anti-capitalists I met were in uniforms of revolt. Striped fisherman tops and leather jackets. I, though, was dressed the way Russell Brand now dresses because I was dressing as an individual of the Swinging Sixties. The pursuit of uniforms, and uniform thinking, is extraordinary. Yet that Easter there were no chocolate eggs for me, instead a determination to hide in a forest and build a hidden camp and be myself.  

In life you are given many guiding signs and, as I say, I got them. I got mine from Beatniks who were themselves an import from California, as many things are even today. California informs much of our thinking and our politics and our values. Which is not surprising as we live under a capitalist system, in the most heightened form of capitalism which manages to convince us we are free to be ourselves. And out of California, home of the digital and the political and the consumerist individualism we love, comes many fresh uniformities for us to try on for size.  

I got to the woods that Easter, sans chocolate eggs, and stayed a few days wrapped in a friend’s father’s vast old RAF coat and then slunk home on London’s Central Line and handed myself in for my ritual beating at the hands of my parents. And on the Monday morning found another bike-wielding, shelf-packing job, having been threatened with the building site with my father if I didn’t get otherwise employed. Then waited to get into trouble with the police and begin the journey that led me, via other things, to founding The Big Issue.  

I love the fact that even I was so predictable in my values and ambitions. Uniformity is a part of the human condition which we should celebrate: even David Bowie, for instance, was following a well-trodden path but could still make his own music out of it.  

I remember in California in the 1990s I met many homeless Bob Dylan followers who had left their respective corner of the States to migrate to California and live a life of guitaring and begging. Wretched but happy that they had found the model to base themselves on. But my Easter story did not shift me from wanting to be me, so long as I had the time to find who the me was. I am still seeking. 

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

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