Opinion

John Bird: Poetry or placards – we’ll keep our message out there

Let’s also write poems, write letters, organise and campaign, once we get over the worst, to stop the decanting of homeless people back into the streets at the other end of the crisis

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An official vendor of the Big Issue street newspaper on the streets of Cambridge, England, UK.

Scattered around the streets of my neighbourhood are churches with a new banner: “Try Praying”. Two within walking distance of each other suggest that we need this now. But hopefully not in place of masks and protection for our health workers who are often not protected by adequate supplies of masks and gowns, gloves and disinfectant swabs.

The danger of working on the front line has greatly increased with the amount of those succumbing to the virus. And we are only in the foothills of the illness, so we are told.

You may wish to pray for the improvements we could do with now, or you could write a poem. The First World War (not so much the Second) threw up some great poets and poems that resound to this very day. Perhaps it’s time to help us survive our isolation, and the horror that we know is happening in our hospitals, by stopping and putting pen to paper.

Perhaps The Big Issue could itself run a poetry competition and publish poems about surviving the deadly virus, and the disabling isolation; as well as the suffering tragedy it throws up.

I was reminded of a poem from my youth when walking through my neighbouring streets in exercise mode last week. I rushed home after the idea of The Deserted Village sprung to mind to see if I still have it. And there it was, asleep till this moment on my bookshelf.

Mr McGee, boys’ reformatory gardening instructor par excellence, sprung to mind. It was he who had rehearsed and learned its lines as a boy and repeated it to us as we went about our morally improving labours:

“Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain,

Where health and plenty cheered the labouring swain,

Where smiling spring its earliest visit paid….”

The poem is elegantly written by Doctor Oliver Goldsmith, an Irish writer. Goldsmith wrote it exactly 250 years ago, and in its description of deserted streets and village life he conjured up for me the emptinesses of our present plight.

Goldsmith though was describing a geography that was going through enormous changes in 1770, the year of publication. Our growing world of consumerism and plenty, displacing basic qualities that we may have lost:

“A time there was, ere England’s griefs began,

When every rood of ground maintained its man;

For him light labour spread her wholesome store,

Just gave what life required, but gave no more:

His best companions, innocence and health;

And his best riches, ignorances of wealth.”

For I am sure it has occurred to many of us that there are lots of things and stuff we do that we may look at questioningly after the curfews have been lifted.

The poems of the First World War in particular tried to concentrate the mind on getting deeper meaning out of the grief of war, and about the everyday heroism of the many. We may be more questioning and more nourished by the heroism of our health workers. We may question to what extent the leadership of government did the right thing. And we may regret the death of every last health worker who may have survived if better protected.

Perhaps The Big Issue could itself run a poetry competition and publish poems about surviving the deadly virus, and the disabling isolation

All these poems will not bring back someone lost, nor repair the damage done to us all by the poor decision-making of our decision-makers. But we still must find a place in our hearts and minds to find a way to make the future better, by us surviving into it.

The campaign to save The Big Issue by retaining 60,000 readers – who can now get their magazine through subscription, supermarkets and digitally – continues. It will ensure that, coming out the other end of the crisis, we are still there for those who need us.

And because we go 50/50 with our vendors we can ensure that they get money and help while they are socially isolated. It’s a hard task but we are doing what we can to find a link with our circa 2,000 vendors.

Not wishing to make light of this, but perhaps a poem about the difficulties of getting people off the streets? Certainly the promise has yet to be realised: there are still people vulnerably out there in the streets who should not be there.

Let’s also write poems, write letters, organise and campaign, once we get over the worst, to stop the decanting of homeless people back into the streets at the other end of the crisis.

Many things will come under scrutiny after we have come through. I hope we learn a new sociability and solidarity, the kind that we learned in this period.

My poem?

I’ll have to wait for it to mature. But hopefully it will be wise and thoughtful and capture the spirit of our troubling times. And like in Goldsmith’s day be about real things that mirror our needs.

Certainly I will devote the time in these changing times.

Pencils at the ready!

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

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