Big Issue Vendor

John Bird: In the middle of the chaos, an oasis

St Martin’s is a clear sign that many people’s hearts are in the right place

The West End of London is grimly returning to what it looked like when we started The Big Issue, back in 1991. Much of the motivational force that caused the streets to fill up with thousands of rough sleepers and beggars was the alarming emptying of British industry into the historical dustbin of the 1980s that Margaret Thatcher had orchestrated. Preparing the way for globalisation on a vast scale, with the UK losing basic industries that meant we had to buy overseas. Jobs were exported, both here and in an America that quickly adopted our slashing and burning of big industries that had not innovated sufficiently.

The Thatcher era that saw a breaking of the postwar compromise over such things as secondary education, long-term employment, trade union membership, and council housing; culminating in the poll tax riots and the vast increase in street homelessness.

Now we have community-destroying austerity as the main driver to filling the West End of London with people in desperation. Cameron oversaw and orchestrated austerity with his sidekick, the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg.

We launched The Big Issue in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields in September 1991, at the epicentre of the West End. St Martin’s has been a beacon of support for the stranded urbanite for over a hundred years. Doing its bit for those who need help as the crowds swirl by in their impatience to shop, eat or take in a show.

So St Martin’s is a place of sanity in a mass of need. And we should remember and support their efforts.

On December 4 at 7pm there will be a fundraising carol concert which you are invited to, to raise money for the work St Martin’s do bringing help to the homeless. I unfortunately cannot be there. I remember when sleeping rough over half a century ago tiptoeing diffidently into the church at St Martin’s and feeling that for all of the inhumanity of a city rushing, it was an Eden of caring love.

Of course only when we address the damage done to the social fabric by austerity and the banking crisis of 2008 will we finally be able to stop the flow from failed or non-existent hearth to city streets. From broken life to destitute doorway.

That’s going to mean upping the thinking game of government and politics. So much of government investment is in the wrong part of the needs chain, responding when the horse has bolted by locking the stable door. Short-term thinking is governed by isolated budgets from a government that doesn’t work across a problem, but as independent departments. If you want to solve a problem you work across it in unity, you don’t do a bit here and there.

St Martin’s though is a clear sign that many people’s hearts are in the right place. What we of course do need is to make the money-spenders in government rethink their poor record on preventing the shit hitting the fan in the first instance.


There are currently around 2,000 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

Interestingly, the grubbing up and destruction of millions of jobs in old industries in Thatcher’s Eighties is the big shadow that still dominates us. We got rid of coal, the major part of iron and steel, heavy engineering and shipbuilding and replaced it with little else. The vast investment in reskilling people for new industries and the creation of new industries did not take place.

Hence our low-wage economy and the wretchedness of the lives of many of the working poor. We didn’t grab the educational challenge that should have accompanied the closing down of all those jobs. And the social despoliation that went with it as towns lost their reason to be.

St Martin’s has been a beacon of support for the stranded urbanite for over a hundred years

But back to St Martin’s. They do their job commendably and have been supporters of those who need that helping hand. If you can get to the carol concert please do so.

I though will be on a retreat in the West Country. No talking for 12 days. No reading, no eye contact. Just meditating. No drinking and note-taking and all the stuff I have filled 73 years of life with.

If I have an advantage it might be those times of privation from half a century ago. When I was without for much of the time. And then the weeks of solitary confinement for misdemeanours in boys’ institutions. Then the soulless, lost times when I wandered without purpose.

I don’t know how much of that I will be able to dig up. But at this moment I am looking forward to my self-imposed isolation to help me with many of my addictive needs; around gallons of tea, red wine, chatting and talking to everyone; and a constant need to feel I have to be doing something useful at all times.

And of course perhaps a cure for trying to do too much at the same time, often with disastrous effect.

I might sling in the towel early. But I will have at least tried to sort some of the manic behaviour that has dogged me for an eternity. I’ll let you know how I did.