John Bird: The year of understanding

Perhaps Brexit is a precursor to these days that lie ahead?

I like remembering Christmases, even the bad ones. Most of the good ones have disappeared into nothingness. You learn something from the bad ones, hopefully, though often nothing from the good ones.

Perhaps it’s our natural state to suffer. Certainly most of the world has a crummy, distressed Christmas.

One year a transitional girlfriend of mine gave me a pound a day for the whole holiday period, starting off with Christmas Eve and ending on New Year’s Day. And the keys to her flat. She would be away with family in their bourgeois home. There was only one proviso: no wild sex, drink and drug parties.

It was the greatest of Christmases up ’til then. Twenty-one troubled Noëls, and now this yuletide oasis. No fights. No privation. No cramped, sweaty hours before a gas fire in the front room, watching interminable inanities on the telly. There was only a radio in my girlfriend’s flat. It snowed. And everywhere was soft and quiet. A winterous landscape.

The old part of Edinburgh I was staying in was more 18th century, older than even Dickens. I felt that I’d fallen into a time before the Industrial Revolution. I listened to Radio 3 , which seemed to echo this time before modern life. The BBC used to be good at conjuring up time travel; perhaps that’s why they invented Doctor Who, to help with their time-travelling escapades.

That Christmas I met Gordon Roddick for the first time at Paddy’s Bar on Rose Street, where I spent most of my pound a day allowance. We spent Christmas Day drinking together. That was the unusual and brilliant thing about a Scottish Christmas: it didn’t really exist. In fact, Christmas back then wasn’t a holiday; festivities were all loaded on to New Year’s Day when Scotland seemed to explode in goodwill and sociable whisky.

Gordon and I had many drinks and then, in the forerunner of the Big Mac, we ate in a Wimpy bar. He bought us Christmas lunch of a hamburger, chips – not fries – and 20 Benson & Hedges cigarettes.

It’s probably time for us all to invest in making ourselves smarter and deeper in our understanding of the world

There was no phone so my girlfriend couldn’t check on my holiday progress as she buried herself in puddings, presents, game and games.

Three-and-a-half billion people lived on the planet back then in 1967. Global population had gone up by almost a billion since I was born in 1946. But then we would soon add a further 4.2 billion to come to our present total.

There were millionaires and multimillionaires, but I can’t remember anything called a billionaire. There were no vast, life-threatening expansions of consumerism, and with it, only a few cheeses to choose from in the supermarket (still a treat). And as for racks of world wines – and the thousands of things you need now – there was only slim evidence.

But it was all under the bonnet. And soon there would be an explosion, aided by a vast expansion of credit and the machinations of the architects of a new world trading order, Thatcher and Reagan. The American high street arrived in towns the world over after the US defeat in Vietnam and we saw the beginnings of modern chain store-ism. All the signs were there, and the trading world, buoyed by credit expansion, turned into somersaults of demand.

Eventually, we all got dragged into consumer capitalism so deeply that our little purchases fuelled the vast increases of this new globalised wealth, and a widening gap between the richest and poorest. We became the ants in the new citadels of money, shopping and spending. And to keep up with that, we saw increases in our take-home pay.


There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

But back then in Edinburgh’s snowy Dean Village (now a gentrified community), little did I know how soon the fire would be lit under the world – and also under me. In a matter of months, all tranquillity would be ripped from me as I’d be drawn into revolutionary politics and then into social justice. And onward still to this current crisis that we all live in.

Gordon went on to start The Body Shop with his wife Anita, and eventually he gave me money to start The Big Issue.

Will Christmases improve with time? Will the world get economically hotter, as well as globally warmer? There must be a reckoning some day.

Perhaps Brexit is a precursor to these days that lie ahead? When disagreements will be open and public; not hidden under the reality of a ‘them’ and ‘us’.

It’s probably time for us all to invest in making ourselves smarter and deeper in our understanding of the world. And not simply rely on sketchy media reports from supposed experts who are always confused (and perpetually surprised) at the next turn of events.

The Christmas that comes to me most often was when, aged six, someone we called a ‘coloured man’ gave me half a crown as I sat on our slum door, bereft of all but the thinnest veil of creature comforts. It was the making of me.