John Bird: Another year, another chance to learn from history

Happy birthday to our readers and vendors, and all those who've rallied to our plangent call

One hundred years ago my father was 18 months old and living in dreadful circumstances for bringing up a child. He had many elder brothers and a drunken barman as a father and a mother who cleaned office stairs and front steps for doctors in Harley Street in London’s Marylebone first thing, before going to her other cleaning jobs that stretched on for much of the day.

Hitler had just joined the embryonic Nazi party as an army spy and my mother waited patiently to be conceived and then born the following year in her native Cork in Ireland. The war may have ended but it was followed by the fierce fight for a free Ireland, and soon after by a civil war.

Britain and its Empire came out of the war looking and feeling like a large lion that had finally realised that its days of holding suzerainty over the world of commerce and territory were now questionable. Yet it would do its best to keep up appearances like you might imagine a once first-class hotel that had lost the prime spot to a younger contender might do.

Or to use a boxing term, a bruiser past his best.

About this time 100 years ago, into my father’s slummy Notting Hill moved a Yorkshireman called John Christie, who 34 years later would be executed for murder at Pentonville prison by the official hangman Albert Pierrepoint. Christie’s victims were all women.

It was a godawful time to grow up and be born and live 100 years ago. Murder for some, and hunger, death through the effects of poor diet and labour for the many.

My father and mother survived in their terrible Notting Hill slum, my mother having exported herself there aged 18 in 1939 from rural Ireland, and produced six boys when at a pinch they might have decently provided for one.

This is all history. It informs us, makes us, emblazons us or dejects us; makes us come unequal into the world. But don’t feel sorry, for there were others worse off.

Each of the above helps distort and inform later times. I, among many others, was a later expression of this array of mistakes. But what of the poor young women, destroyed by a perverted serial killer 70 or so years ago, who never had a life?

Or the widows cut off in their prime by the Great War, followed by another war, and their men and sons lost to keeping peace in Europe?

When you look at the current political debates and postures you can almost feel the complete concentration on the present moment. As if the past and the future do not exist. And the incredible ability of its participants to shrug off their own historical involvement in this imbroglio of confusion and mishap.

I would like once more to thank every last one of you who stood up for a better life for a Big Issue vendor by buying a magazine from them, encouraging and even loving them

Never seeming to see anything along the lines of ‘you reap what you sow.’ Or the laws of unintended consequences coming home to roost. Or the equally important laws of cause and effect.

I now know how our forefathers’ ruling class could take us into The Great War through its parliamentary system. Or could brown-nose Hitler and donate him Czechoslovakia.


Our vendors buy every copy of the magazine from us for £1.25 and sell it on to you for £2.50. Which is why we ask you to ALWAYS take your copy of the magazine. We believe in trade not aid.

You only have to be around Parliament or simply observing it to see that it’s always someone else’s fault, not the fault of those voting.

But last week my mind was suddenly caught up with a shortened version of history when neither I nor The Big Issue celebrated 28 years since Gordon Roddick and I, blessed by Anita Roddick and The Body Shop, founded The Big Issue.

Gordon and I had history stretching back to my criminal past and his early inventions of youthful love poetry. Twenty years later we took a wager on building a social business that would “help the homeless to help themselves”.

You reap what you sow.

I would like once more to thank every last one of you who stood up for a better life for a Big Issue vendor by buying a magazine from them, encouraging and even loving them. And the scores who have passed through our doors to build our radical alliance against lies and cheats and poverty. And of course all the staff, volunteers, friends and supporters who’ve powered our movement for almost three decades.

Pardon me for throwing a load of dates and sufferings at you in our birthday week. But if only we lived in a cognitive democracy, where we and our representatives looked at the consequences of votes and decisions. If only we designed our educating minds to become experts on what’s important in the world.

What is appalling, 100 years after my father lay in his cot, is that we keep building big monsters of division and potential murder around us. As if we go through the motions of learning but leave decisions to representatives who cock it up and hide their heads.

That is why our Future Generations Bill, based on the Welsh example – and which I’ll be introducing in the new session of Parliament – will try to take the guesswork out of what damage the present is doing to the future.

Let’s not have damage. And let’s stop leaving the future to the tribal deniers who occupy our lives. When it comes to decision-making, and the way we design our democracy, our failure to learn from the past in our decision-making today means we risk harming that future.

Happy birthday to our readers and vendors, and all those who’ve rallied to our plangent call.

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


Image: Getty