Opinion

John Bird: Birthday reflections conjure hopeful feelings

At 45, John Bird started The Big Issue. As he turns 78 he celebrates our ongoing work

From left) Anita Roddick, John Bird, Sheila McKechnie and Gordon Roddick launch The BigIssue in 1991. Image: Big Issue

My mother, always my greatest critic, believed when I was 15 that by the age of 18 I would be hung. Not by some ruffians but by the state, by the men in dark, dark blue uniforms who would crowd round me before my swinging, and make sure that I was made bereft of breath. Fortunately her prophesy was found to be wide of the mark, and here I am at the foothills of my 78th birthday proving that she was wrong, her reasoning based exclusively on the fact that most of those who got hung for murder started off as petty thieves and insignificant wrongdoers. And I was certainly of this calibre.

Attaining this late-70s age, which so far has not reduced me to pain or immobility, is no compensation for the fact that that woman I loved more than anything, in spite of the slaps in the face, the bowls of hot porridge poured over me, the knives thrown at me, died so young. What a welter of contradictions was Eileen Mary Bird, née Dunne, who crossed the Irish Sea aged 18 to suffer not a moment’s peace until she died aged 52, halfway between my 27th and 28th birthday. 

Change a Big Issue vendor’s life this winter by purchasing a Winter Support Kit. You’ll receive four copies of the magazine and create a brighter future for our vendors

But survive the hangman I did, with her at the time adding the insult that she would not even visit one of the hanging prisons of London – Brixton, Wandsworth or Pentonville – on the morning of my execution to look at the great big oaken prison door that would have a little note pinned to it announcing that John Anthony Joseph Bird had expired a short time before. 

So here I am, 60 years on from that loving mother’s prediction that tried to scare 10 colours of shite out of me. But I was saved by nothing more than the fact there had been a Russian Revolution in 1917 and the effects echoed all the way through to 1967 when I, through sexual opportunism, joined the cause and jettisoned my criminal underclass life, becoming a middle-class, sanctimonious defender of the international peasantry and its attendant working class. 

Seventy-eight puts you in a strange relationship with the world because if you are conscious, you will remember in all those distant decades the racism of the people around you, including yourself; the antisemitism, including yourself; the hatred of homosexuals, including yourself; and disdain for animals, including your own. And if you are of the working classes, the sense that you are little more than social rubbish. And if you are of the offending type, then the ample supply of blue-uniformed civil servants who loathed you enough to hit you indiscriminately.

As I said recently to a man who spoke to me about the good old days at an art gallery – him talking about some high point in art – the old days were vile, and I still struggle against the inherited vileness that I was marinated in. 

As I said recently to a group of young people that if you are as old as I am, chances are you’ve been fucked in the head prejudicially, and defenestrating that stuff takes a lifetime. 

I always remind people who are worried about verbal insults passed about that there was a time when the proffered riposte to insults was ‘sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me’.

But I did not intend this piece to harp too much on the past. Rather to celebrate how aged 45, I and my younger team started The Big Issue; and that 33 years later we are still endeavouring to help people get out of the sticky stuff. And that our work becomes more complex because of the growing complexities to be found in the world.

Recently a reporter for a magazine said that we had lost our way because we started way back to help homeless people. But now we were helping and working with housed Romanians. That we had slipped our moorings with the indigenous homeless and now it was young women with long skirts – obviously a reference to the fact that they were foreign, because none of us indigenous were to be found clothed in long skirts. The author was adamant that we had scrapped our original remit, working with people from an expanded Europe – from the days before Brexit – and no longer with the indigenous locals.

Obviously the reporter had not heard the original reason why we set up The Big Issue: to work with the homeless, the ex-homeless and the vulnerably accommodated. That is, work with those on the streets, and those who could fall onto the streets if we did not support them. And that we were ‘a crime prevention programme,’ because we – and I in particular – realised that crime feeds off poverty.

Homelessness has certainly changed since the days when we first set out our stall in the marketplace. Now there are so, so many supports for homeless people – all inadequate though, with some rare exceptions – that selling the paper is not the only means of getting by.

We work with Romanians as we would work with anyone whose life would be undermined by need if we did not offer a legitimate way of earning money.

For my 78th birthday I will be spending a quiet time with the family. An Indian meal, a giving of presents; and a hearty thank you to The Big Issue for its unremitting commitment to continue its labours helping those in need, and those in grief, to be given the means to scale the walls of social isolation and become able in their own right.

I hope we all have a happy new year, and please excuse the tardiness of this hope.

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

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more

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!

If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. 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

Support our vendors this winter and beyond

If you can't visit your local vendor on a regular basis, then the next best way to support them is with a subscription to the Big Issue. As a social enterprise, we invest every penny we make back into the organisation. That means that with every subscription, we are supporting people in poverty to get back on their own two feet.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Millions on universal credit left cold, without food and in debt – because the system is failing us
food bank
Helen Barnard

Millions on universal credit left cold, without food and in debt – because the system is failing us

Police trust is at all-time low after years of scandals. This is what I learned from new recruits
Chris Warburton

Police trust is at all-time low after years of scandals. This is what I learned from new recruits

The roots of NHS decay can't be hidden by soundbite veneers
Paul McNamee

The roots of NHS decay can't be hidden by soundbite veneers

Why Larry David is the menopausal woman's spirit animal. No, seriously
Lucy Sweet

Why Larry David is the menopausal woman's spirit animal. No, seriously

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Here's when UK households to start receiving last cost of living payments
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Here's when UK households to start receiving last cost of living payments

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know