John Bird: My mind’s clear. Next year we will fight on

Let’s kick 10 holes in poverty and hate, prejudice and need

Twenty-eight Christmases ago we had our first Big Issue Christmas. It was incredible. It launched a few months before Christmas and almost all the doubters began to eat their words. Or moved their doubts into other areas.

Were we really helping people to get out of homelessness? Wasn’t it like sticking a plaster over an open sore?

Charging homeless people money to buy the paper seemed to fly in the face of the generosity associated with charity.

Of course, we would have never started if we didn’t have a vision of what we intended. The Big Issue was started as a crime-reduction programme. London, the launch site, was awash with thousands of homeless people sleeping rough in and around the West End. And they were getting into trouble with the police and the public.

Many of them had drink and drug problems. They may not have had them when they arrived on the streets, but the streets turned them to palliatives soon enough. To anything that would blind the reality of cold and desertion felt in a bustling city.

So we wanted to stop people getting into trouble first of all. Then we could hopefully begin to stabilise them through working with The Big Issue.

Working not begging became our mantra, as a stage away from the destitution of street life. A comradeship could be and was developed. Slowly our work took on a common sense, and questions raised about what we were trying to do got fragmented by our obvious achievement in giving people a hand up.

Although, I had to repeatedly explain to countless doubters and questioners why we got our vendors to pay for the paper. How else would The Big Issue survive, I said. We had to pay our way.

We had not started a charity – we had started a social business, which meant we had to have income and pay our way through street sales and selling ads. The difference between us and other businesses was that the surpluses went back into the business and not to shareholders.

If you could get people who had fallen into homelessness to start working and earning you were giving them the chance to participate in our general world of commerce, where we are all controlled by market places. This stops them from being walled off in the at times invisible, at times visible, ghetto of poverty. 

The enormous thrill of seeing thousands of people talking to our vendors – buying from them, humanising them by social contact – it was a source of great joy. Millions of people over the years bought and talked, something people thought they could not do with beggars.

More recently I was in isolation from all things for 12 days, which ended last week. From mobile phones, from elections and news, from all things other than meditation and “noble silence”. I was doing a Vipassana course based on the teachings of Buddha, but not run as a religious retreat. You were welcome whatever religion or non-religion you held. Welcome at no cost to you, to live in isolation and reflection.

DID YOU KNOW…

If you pay for the magazine you should always take it. Vendors are working for a hand up, not a handout.

If you wish to make a donation you do so afterwards. And only people who have done the course can donate.

It felt like the most difficult 12-day period of my life, and I had none of the things I had decked myself out in. Books, writing, audiences, booze, endless teas and snacks; all of the trappings of my 73 years.

From 4am to 9pm you are meditating and listening to talks about how we have to go  beyond anger, hate, judgement, stimulants. One hundred men and 100 women separated and concentrating, focusing.

I did it because I could see what it did to my wife, who completed a course last summer. Pain and suffering, concentration! Such concentration. Such tranquility but such mental turmoil.

I am not emptied of my love for the fight to destroy poverty, prejudice or injustice. I just hope to do it better with a clearer head.

A young fella said it all: “It was the most torturous and painful of times that we should all do.” I have no idea what long-term effects it will have on me. I lost weight because it was all good and simple vegetarian food. And no evening meals, just fruit at 5pm with a cup of tea. But aside from moving to the last notch on my belt the signs are all to come.

Will I become more thoughtful? Will I stop drinking wine by the bucket? Will I love and try and understand people whereas once I railed and seethed at them? Will I see the wonders of a simple life?

It’s probably not for everyone. But it certainly helped me with the sense that happiness and anger are at times illusions. But that’s a personal take.

I am not emptied of my love for the fight to destroy poverty, prejudice or injustice. I just hope to do it better with a clearer head.

On the last day we got to talk. And virtually all the people I spoke to were looking for a method to fathom their way through the world.

And that’s exactly how I saw this whole 12-day exit from the madness of media and the neuroses associated with the madness of everyday life.

But next year’s a big year! Let it come! And let’s kick 10 holes in poverty and hate, prejudice and need.

I wish you the seasonal best. My nut roast awaits.