Big Issue Vendor

John Bird: Building a brighter future should be second nature to us

No, I’m not running away from Brexit, I'm replenishing myself for the big fight

This week I am walking in the Peak District, it being half-term and me being, in spite of appearances, a young father. We are staying at a Youth Hostel Association hostel in Edale in High Peak. It has an outdoor activity centre with caving, climbing, canoeing, fell walking; and generally enjoying the stunning surrounds and of scattered farmsteads (or ‘booths’) of the Edale valley.

We have been here three times as a family. Before that, I hadn’t stayed at the Rowland Cote hostel, on the slopes of Kinder Scout, for about 50 years. The Peak District, carefully placed between Manchester and Sheffield, those titans of heavy industry in the 19th and early 20th century, was a place of escape for the millions of workers from the ‘satanic mills’ of industrial capitalism.

To my generation, you cannot mention the Peak District without remembering the ‘Mass Trespass’ in April 1932 when thousands of ramblers and members of the Young Communist League wilfully trespassed on the private lands of the Peak, with Kinder Scout the main source of this mass social action. Of course, the property owners wanted to protect their rights to keep the public off of their moorlands. But socialists, communists, liberals and unpolitical hikers wanted to get their walks in. And surrounded by the poverty of industrial life, it became a big health and political issue that was successfully brought to a positive conclusion: the people could roam to their heart’s content.

The Peak District became the first national park in April 1951. And it led the way to many others, where nature was seen as the obliging ingredient that made life fuller and healthier for many of us caught in an urban vice.

Caving is one of the most exciting events we do. Taking my young children down, fully clothed for water and the cold, helmeted and rigged up with a head lamp, is one of the most joyous experiences I have had at Edale. Down there, among an earlier world that hasn’t changed in millions of years, is a vital escape. There is no Brexit down there. Just dripping caverns and lots of mud and rock.

My first trip to Edale to stay at YHA Rowland Cote was in the summer of 1962. Being a bad boy, I was being retrained in life through Her Majesty’s correctional custodial system. And one of the joys of being banged up as a teenager was the vast range of things you got to do that weren’t available if you were a well-behaving proletarian of the inner city.


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We got country, rocks, bivouacking and camping; admittedly all dressed up in little brown shorts and khaki shirts. But we were made fit and we were made to work by walking and striving in the face of nature’s, at times, wet and cold bounty. It made me henceforth impervious to cold and a lack of facilities. I can still kip down in the great outdoors. I can still wander in awe at the majesty of nature, as captured by Mam Tor and Back Tor, the two giant hills of the Peak. And walk up Kinder Scout and think of the sacrifices of the mill and factory workers of earlier times, when the poor had nothing more than their obduracy.

No, I’m not running away from Brexit, Parliament, reality and all of the hurt and suffering that goes on in life. I am replenishing myself for the big fight that will fall to us to get The Big Issue Future Generations Bill through Parliament. A piece of legislation that will try to do the kind of bright thinking that led our post-war masters to create our national park network, where millions can touch nature, see weather forming and unforming on distant hills, and explore Britain’s peaks and valleys.

If I am nostalgic for anything in life, it’s the fact that our custodial system for wrongdoers was sidelined, and our probation service trodden into the ground; and all of those brilliant interventions that helped turn arseholes like me into concerned and involved human beings were allowed to wither on the vine. And it’s not even a question of money! We spend an arm and a leg helping people in need on things that don’t help them get out of need. And we spend a fortune on keeping wrongdoing young people warehoused and wasted.

Caving is one of the most exciting events we do. There is no Brexit down there. Just dripping caverns and lots of mud and rock

Unless we create new forms of budgeting, and until we measure our preventative spending – putting a true price on not educating the 35 per cent of children we fail at school – the lion’s share of state funding will be wasted.

A few years back, we built a raft in the Peak District with the help of experts. We managed to float it and actually ride on it. It was a careful and skilful exercise in looking at all of the necessary ingredients to put this raft together. The barrels, ropes, planks, knots. It was a true exercise in planning for a specific outcome – a raft.

It was so complex, and yet simple; looking at the ingredients and not quite knowing how they all fit together. But I often return to that image of me struggling with the elements that made up that raft. Because it makes me think again, and again, how few pieces of government fit so well together as that raft building exercise.

Government is more complex; granted. You could put all of your politicians and civil servants on a raft-building exercise in the Peak District and it wouldn’t change a thing. But to me, it drives home that building a raft is a bit like building a society. It has to float.

Unless we look at how we spend our social money more wisely, we might reckon – metaphorically – we’ve screwed the raft.

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