John Bird: The white heat of technology is yet to burn away health inequality

Poverty is still feeding the problems that stop people living fuller, longer and healthier lives

At 9.10 pm last Wednesday, my niece Karen died of cancer.

She passed away in the elaborate and supportive arms of the NHS, on a life support machine, in an induced coma, and loaded down with expensive and complex medical interventions.

Born soon after Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson came to power having promised the “white heat” of technology, she died in the days of Facebook and Amazon, of Trump and Brexit, making her 53 years seem like a big lump of important history.

We had not been much in contact the last 20 years. The death of her father – my favourite brother – growing up, seemed an obstacle to us  seeing each other.

But it was also that she was growing up into a young punk, and I was trying to save the world, full-time. Music was her passion and whenever I saw her I was convinced by her stylishness – which was surprising when you consider that the Bird family always seemed too traditional, much too old hat.

As a baby, when her mother was in hospital for a few months and her father was an early working milkman, my young wife and I looked after her. Later, as she grew, her father would  bring her over to us and we would all push our prams into the local park, an enlarged and loving family.

But instability ruled our lives. I was not long in my marriage due to an inbuilt disdain for work – and some wrongdoings – and my brother seemed to have our mother’s disdain for the rent man. But whereas my mother cut it fine (and surrendered the money in the end), my brother went the whole hog.

We didn’t get the strong educational opportunities, nor the up-skilling, that Wilson and the Labour government seemed set on providing

Just as Cathy Come Home was being made, and other films like Up The Junction and Poor Cow seemed to heroise the struggle of the young, working-class Brits – uneducated and listlessly lost in the mid-Sixties – my brother and family were being made homeless.

The morning of the eviction, Patrick (my brother) and I barricaded ourselves into his Fulham council flat, only to witness a very efficient set of bailiffs built like ‘brick shithouses’ bulldoze their way in with consummate ease.

John Bird, left, with big brother Patrick

Walking through Fulham Broadway, where some of the above films were partly set, pushing a mattress and a bedstead through the streets caused laughter as we made our way to my brother’s in-laws. There they were given a small room for the four of them, as they then had a new baby to care for.

The ‘white heat’ of technology never seemed to arrive in the class that we came from. We didn’t get the strong educational opportunities, nor the up-skilling, that Wilson and the Labour government seemed set on providing in 1964. Poverty seemed right around the corner and in the local pub and shop, and we all seemed caught in a time of hope that did not deliver.

But, hey! Why complain? In the middle of this, as Karen grew up, pop stars were around the corner. Coming out of what seemed the uneducated section of society came film stars like Terence Stamp and Michael Caine who seemed to populate our world. Only then to get the exit and rise socially and financially beyond us.

But here we were, all living in and near the Kings Road in the Swinging Sixties (which seemed to swing by us). Karen and her family were puzzled and poor and they never got very far from that.

Looking back on Patrick and his life, and that of Karen, I only wish that Harold Wilson had delivered on the speech he made in 1963

As I have always claimed, my own elevation out of poverty was largely because I didn’t stay at home in Fulham and get on with the low-paid job. I got nicked, and every time I got sent away, I learned a new skill.

Why? Because the State will spend a fortune on you if you’re a wrongdoer, but if you’re a well-behaved worker, you are under-invested in.

It’s a bit like an insurance policy. You break your leg and a wad of money is spent on your recovery. You get a Rolls Royce service. But that’s because a thousand other people didn’t break their leg. And insurance businesses only really work – and only make big profits, the intention of most businesses – if there’s not too many broken legs.

It’s the same as how they treated the working class, post-World War 2: spend the money on the naughty boys like me and underspend on the reliable and well-behaved.


The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.

Karen never got a Rolls Royce service. She worked away and lived her life. And when I think of her life, I cannot get over the even shorter life of her father, my precious brother, who only made it to 44.

Looking back on Patrick and his life, and that of Karen, I only wish that Harold Wilson had delivered on the speech he made in 1963. A new Britain, forged in the “white heat” of a scientific revolution, with a “totally new attitude” to the apprenticeships, training and re-training for skill.

For Patrick and Karen might have had fuller, healthier, longer lives, and not had to carry the problems around with them. In particular, they might have avoided the health problems which grow and feed on poverty.