John Bird: The answers lie in the ground beneath our feet

The threat of coronavirus is forcing us to have a good look at our fragile supply chains

Aged 27 I was a bullish, loud-mouthed printer working for the English Folk Song and Dance Society in Camden Town, London. Newly married and ambitious to be a publisher, I wanted as many people as possible to be able to hold what I had printed and published. I was knee-deep in revolutionary politics, so I decided I would do arty stuff to offset the dry realm of economic and political verbiage that I was awash in.

I bought an old book of prints of the bridges of the River Thames, made printing plates and printed off a new version of the book. All blessed by my employers who liked me aspiring beyond machine-minding.

In my holidays I jumped on my little 125cc Velocette motorbike and went up and down the Thames Valley selling the book at shops from London to Oxford. And loved it. Alas, amidst all of this joy my mother died. And I was lost and remain diminished by her going.

I had all of this flood back into my mind simply by picking up The Big Issue book put together by our talented books editor Jane Graham. Letter To My Younger Self is a brill book. I opened the opening story and read my own letter. The best bit of advice I gave was “love yer mum and dad”. They may not be here forever.

I do not mean this to make you grim about the mouth. But to remind us all how temporary is the world we live in. That we need to treasure the living ones who made us, something I did not do, throwing away the dozens of letters, for instance, that my mum sent me when I was banged up.

The coronavirus, galloping about the place, reminds us all also just how insubstantial and perilous are our universe and our universal supply networks. Building an economy based on the fact that supplies will be cheaper thousands of miles from us is shown up for the perilous reality it could be. Not to mention the health risk to the young, the old and the infirm brought on by this emerging epidemic.

Rebuild the community. Revitalise the community by getting people active

I shall be doing my best to avoid the virus and have already curtailed handshakes and kissing complete strangers. No hugs from me if you see me in the street. Just a polite nod and the refusal to receive kind embraces. High fives are likewise out until we have passed through this latest expression of our vulnerable passage through life. And of course an ample application of alcohol hand wash.

Amongst all of this thinking about carefulness though I met the founder of Incredible Edible, Pam Warhurst CBE. What a dose of feel-goodness she administers. Like an enormous dollop of common sense and community action as a kind of social medicine. I’d commend to anyone her TED talks on YouTube: she radiates a brilliant social echo.

Taking odd bits of public space in her own small town in West Yorkshire 11 years ago, she planted vegetables for common use. And out of this, hundreds of communities through the UK and throughout the world have taken up the project.

Every day thousands of people are involved in this communal community effort. Giving the chance of improving diet and involving people in their own wellbeing. It’s a ground up project from planting and feeding and no big posh process of making us happier in our world.

Fortuitously there’s me thinking about this perilous supply chain coming apart because of a virus. And Pam introducing me to a concept of going back to the community. Rebuild the community. Revitalise the community by getting people active.

And of course moving towards the day when we can get our supply chains supplied more locally.

It does raise the issue that the next stage of business will probably have to look at ways of trying to trade locally as much as possible. The big supply chains may have to be rethought. And with that the reclaiming of our community supplying.

I picked up a copy of Letter to My Younger Self in a local bookshop. They had sold dozens of copies over Christmas and what they call the book token season of January. Such goodwill issued from the staff towards the work of The Big Issue. All the local vendors were praised. I felt good as I left, leaving the last copy of the Letters book behind. What a fillip.

The last big scare I would equate current concerns with was the Millennium Bug. Meltdown was prophesied. The Big Issue took a full-page ad in The Guardian, then still a large broadsheet. Our message was that the biggest bug facing us post-2000 was that of poverty. And the despoliation of the environment. The fear was enormous. Fortunately it was all seen to be a bit of puff to get people more digitalised. A lot of money was made by the new media.

But coronavirus is more real. This isn’t a hype put together by some oversensitive public. But we need to remain calm. And panicky behaviour, witnessed in panic buying, may add to the problem.

The slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On” is probably a good bit of common sense now. A bit like growing vegetables in our community for the benefit of all.

Photo: Incredible Edible