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In these times full of care, anxiety feels like a logical response

The Big Issue's founder John Bird remembers well the anxious times in his youth in the early Sixties, and is calling on the government to help our young people find their way to a brighter future.

In 1962, the pre-Ringo Beatles were also having a bad January when they were rejected by Decca Records after an audition Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

So much of the conversation these days seems to be about anxiety. What kind of future is coming down the line? And January, never the most fun-filled of months, seems more particularly grim and anxious this year.

In our own work we face the loss of vendors’ street sales because of people working at home, with the added continuing ravages of the pandemic. It seems we need a fillip of a sound political kind, some thoughtfulness and some generosity to those struggling.

As if to cope with current anxieties I recently recreated for myself a list of anxious-ridden Januarys of my past, and concluded that January 1962 – 60 years ago – was probably the most anxiety-laden January I have ever had.

I started the year well in my reformatory, but after three months of well-behavedness I had the urge to kick over the traces. At the age of 15 going on 16 I decided to run away. A fellow inmate wanted to go as well, so one night while the place continued its business we absconded, as it is called.

I planned the perfect exit that got us to a local station in time for the 7.25pm London train. And with my ability to imitate the posh vagaries of the privileged, I went looking for the ticket collector – never let the ticket collector come to you if you haven’t got a ticket – and asked for the train to be stopped. For I had left my wallet on a bench on the station platform, hadn’t I? I argued and argued, almost pulling the cord myself, which completely threw the ticket collector, and he told me to sort it out at Waterloo, the terminal station. Needless to say, due to my superb logistics we were in London about half an hour after they would have discovered our absence at the reformatory.

But some hours later I was sitting in a police cell having been apprehended after a major smash-up in a stolen sports car. Then the anxiety crept in, destroying the rest of my January. Police courts, prison cells, beatings, parents – in fact Mum, pouring her heart out to me as to what an abysmal failure I was to her. How I was shortening her life of 41 years and driving her to madness.

I was returned to my former reformatory and the beatings continued as the punishing of me for letting the institute down. By the end of winter I was a jelly of mental instability. All brought down on myself from a whim to skedaddle from a three- to five-year sentence that technically would end the day I reached 21. What could I do?

Anxiety is bad news because it cuts out from under you the feeling that actually you could solve what’s making you anxious. It robs you of thoughtfulness and makes you see life only as a string of griefs that always seem insurmountable. The next bad anxiety-soaked January was exactly 30 years ago when we came out of our first Big Issue Christmas selling thousands of copies – but the advertising, the supposed lifeblood of our success, was not arriving. So on every copy we sold to our vendors we made a loss. The losses accumulated. It was all going to topple. And it was all down to me. I drank, I smoked, I did everything to hide my anxiety but it was so thick it felt like I was encased in a suit of armour; slowing me down, making me unable to think.

So I had got out of crime and was no longer running away. But from the frying pan I had jumped into another fire; I was wasting money and building something that was unsustainable, and soon I would be exposed for the fraud I really was. A foolish man who could not organise a piss-up in a brewery.

Of course I survived and you might say it makes you strong. But anxiety probably postponed my ability to solve the problems I was in earlier.

Or as the old folk ditty says:

“Too much care will make a young man grey,

Too much care will turn an old man to clay.”

Knowing so much about the world, being so open to news reports, must add to the anxiety. Being speedily up to date about every little variation of world politics probably adds to the crisis in people’s lives. Is there a better balance to be had?

Certainly there is a big fight necessary to bring mental wellbeing to the fore. We have to understand that earlier times were simpler times, and our children have reason to be anxious about their future. More reasons, I might add, for a Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill. So the Bill I’m putting through Parliament has not come a moment too soon. Let’s hope government rallies to our concerns. 

‘Post Covid’ is still some way off. Anxiety has gone up because of Covid and concerns over the environment and other pressing issues. Our duty is to tackle anxiety as the depressing precursor to other illnesses, and as a sign of legitimate concern over our future. This isn’t about our kids being soft, it’s about their future.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue.

@johnbirdswords

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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