John Bird: By coming to The Big Issue George Michael befriended the neglected

Big Issue founder and Editor-in-Chief John Bird remembers how the seeds of this unique and special relationship were sown...

In the mid 1990s I lived in North London, in Crouch End. One afternoon a very nice young woman moved over to my table in a cafe and started to talk to me with great passion about The Big Issue. Her and her brother were great followers of it and bought it and read it whenever they got a chance. I listened as I ate my sausage roll; or was it a piece of pecan pie?

Then she stood up and was about to go when she dropped a kind of bombshell on me. That her brother was George Michael. I stood up and got her to sit down and then begged her that she asked George to do a Big Issue interview. A full cover job. She politely said that George had not talked to the press for some six years and was not likely to start now.

The press were mainly puerile, obsessed over the details of his private life. And George, she said, wanted a private life, not a public/private life.

We had captured some big names in The Big Issue. The early days of Oasis, the return of the Stone Roses, and were soon to do guest edits with Damien Hirst and Will Self, which would bring in big names in their train.

The press were mainly puerile, obsessed over the details of his private life

But George Michael would have been a winner and I forgot my extreme modesty and even suggested a statue of George on the roof of The Big Issue building if she got an interview for us. (I lie. However, I did promise the earth and other parts of the universe.)

Still she insisted that being stitched up by the press over his personal life was not George’s idea of a nice cup of tea. Though because we were The Big Issue (“The Last Bastion of honest journalism,” Nick Davis, The Guardian a year or two earlier) he might consider it.

I told my team and we mused over it but carried on with our pursuit of the Big Names because Big Names brought Big Sales, and Big Sales help Big Issue vendors! It was that simple. If you want to spread the name and power and sales of The Big Issue, then about five years old, you needed the Big Names for the Big Sales!

What people did not seem to always bear in mind was that the really radical thing about The Big Issue was its distribution method. That it instantly aided people in need. No third party there!

I did not know the music of George Michael. I probably still don’t. But I knew he had had a public struggle and was trying to cope with some of the ‘shit’ that people I knew were coping with. So George seemed a natural fit with The Big Issue. People winning control of demons.

It must have been six months later that George’s people got hold of our people and said that George wanted to do an interview with The Big Issue. This would be one where George discussed stuff he had not discussed elsewhere. That he was breaking his six-year silence with us!

As he left I introduced myself to him and he sat and spoke about our vendors and their struggles

This was a tremendous honour. That a street paper started a few years before, sold by the most neglected people on the face of God’s earth, and sold for their benefit, was to be awarded a story that George Michael felt safe to tell.

I cannot claim that I was the midwife of the story. There seemed to be a change in the George Michael team; that George wanted to tell his story about his sexuality and wanted to do it where it would not be made sensational, or dealt with derisorily.

We not only sold more copies, we helped increase the reputation for a place where honesty and integrity were the hallmark of our journalism. And increasingly vendors were seen as holders of news that was worth having.

I only met George Michael once when a few weeks later I was in the Cafe Rouge in Highgate and he was sitting with friends. As he left I introduced myself to him and he sat and spoke about our vendors and their struggles. I was astonished at his passion. But he knew the evils of addiction. He knew the struggles. No one has a monopoly on that struggle. It can be shared and is shared by people in all stages of life.

How do you defeat the demons that can bring you low and transform you? Alas George lost that fight over Christmas. And the world is definitely a poorer place because of it.

George was a North London boy, an area where Cypriots moved to in the 1950s. George’s family came that way, a part of the new immigration that enabled the UK economy to get back on its feet. Even today this is Greek and Turkish territory, from Muswell Hill to Highgate, a constant movement as prosperity comes through their labours. The HQ of The Big Issue sits among what is a prime area of this immigration, with Greeks and Turks in and around our office in Finsbury Park.

George Michael was more than a local boy made good

With questions again being raised about immigration we should remember George’s ascendancy to the music ‘hall of fame’ status from limited beginnings.

In the same way that when people complain about social security they should remember that the whole Harry Potter phenomenon grew out of the efforts of a woman supported by the state. Negativity should not rule OK. All we should insist on is that social security, and immigration, should be used constructively.

I digress. I wanted to write this piece because over Christmas when I heard the news about George Michael I felt I had lost a friend, even though one meeting in a Cafe Rouge does not add up to intimacy. But I felt that by recognising us, George had befriended people who I and hundreds of others at The Big Issue have devoted the last quarter of a century to aid and increase.

It was a shock to hear that George had lost the struggle for life, and that though his work would live on, we needed George to be with us.

Compression brings art. Struggle and dedication. It comes at a price. That is why so many artists, and George was among the best, find it so hard to cope. And there’s no one out there giving classes in how to survive untold success and the ceaseless attention that goes with it. Or if there are I haven’t heard about them.

George Michael was more than a local boy made good, but it is good to remember how he resolutely stuck to parts of the manor he came into as a young boy. But his music did go worldwide and did enchant and inspire many others. That he died so young and so talented is something we at The Big Issue regret; along with millions and millions of others.

However, I will always remember a man who could understand what we were trying to do in our work among the homeless, the defeated and broken struggling to get back on their feet. And he could understand those demons, those coping methods that could maim and harm and kill.

No, I didn’t really know George Michael; but he touched the life of me and The Big Issue in a big way. And for that we will always be grateful. Long life to the memory of this real, troubled, but brilliant man.

John Bird is the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Email him: john.bird@bigissue.com or tweet: @johnbirdswords

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