John Bird on poverty: Teach a man to fish…

"Poverty is a kind of death. It deadens and cheapens your being, and it should be dismantled ASAP"

I have an obsession that increases with years. How do you dismantle the poverty in someone’s life? How, beyond the stats, the plans, the support, do you get someone on their feet and moving?

To me poverty is the biggest problem in the world, out of which spurts, like leaky pipes, all the other troubles that beset the world. Holding poverty in your life does your head in, and the fear of poverty gets mankind doing the strangest of things.

Poverty is a kind of death. You live outside of life in poverty. You do not live in democracy. It deadens and cheapens your being and should be dismantled ASAP.

I recently re-met ‘Bill the Print’, a fishing, poet friend of mine who kind of understands my increasing obsession with how do you dismantle poverty: not just make the poor comfortable but get people out of stagnation, and moving. Moving, doing, learning and hopefully earning.

The fear of poverty gets mankind doing the strangest of things

Bill the Print in one of his poems describes one answer for one boy.

Bill, like most fishermen operate on a ‘catch and release’ philosophy and this is how he taught the young boy who he helped grow to a man. And shook off the ‘slough of despond’ that would have had him caught in poverty. Caught in inactivity and caught in defeat.

The Kennet, by the by, is a beautiful river in the west, that runs through Wiltshire and other parts.

I hope his poem cheers your day; it did mine.


He was never very bright at school
Slow to learn – the classroom fool.
On top of that, poor lad was fat
And the schoolboys made him pay for that.

His home life too, a tragedy
Mum and dad could not agree
Trapped inside this private hell
He cocooned himself within his shell.

“Wise” counsellors suggested sports
But fat boys don’t feel good in shorts
“Let him try my special therapy”
“A day out fishing – just him and me.”

A docile pond was not my plan
I was a dedicated Kennet man
“One rod for me – and one for you”
“Now copy exactly what I do.”

Enthusiasm plus Dexterity
Soon he’d tie a knot as good as me
With Angling he had found his forte
Academic? No, but a worthy protégé.

His first fish a pike – albeit a Jack
The Rubicon crossed, there’d be no turning back
From sadness & doubt, to elation and bliss
I had witnessed first hand his metamorphosis.

A Barbel and some Perch, Roach Chub and Dace
All landing net size from this magical place
Diffidence gone & we’re both overjoyed
Plus I’d captured his joy on my old Polaroid.

His classroom status – from zero to hero!
Those Polaroid snaps did the trick
Couldn’t read so well but he knew how to fish
There’d be no more taking the Mick.

It didn’t take long till his dad caught the bug
And that was pretty good news
Mother was happy, home life improved
As it helped dad get off the booze.

Well the fat boy got slim, got a job as a plumber
Passed his driving test the very next summer
Still lives at home & the family’s just fine
Through the magical power of a Rod and a Line.

John Bird is the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Email him: or tweet: @johnbirdswords