John Bird: There’s always more to learn about being human

Each summer, I was more sensitised to the need to extend our world view

I stay each summer in a beach campsite next to a nuclear power station in northern France. I come a day or two after Mr Johnson put together his combative cabinet. I come with the publisher of Chapter Catcher, who was also my first helper in starting The Big Issue. I bring my two youngest children while my wife attends a ‘hermetically sealed from the world’ vipaśyanā retreat.

It rains, then it’s full of sun, it blows, it does it all.

My main preoccupation is with rewriting a book I wrote a few years back about fairies that, last new year, I realised was crap. So each morning I rise early and apply myself to writing. I hope it’s good this time. Even though I write and have written enormous amounts, I don’t see myself as a writer.

I see myself as a thinker and a doer. Writing, in some ways, is an attempt at making that ‘thinking and doing’ more universal. Spreading beyond the confines of my work.

Phil, the publisher of Chapter Catcher, our new magazine to widen and deepen people’s reading range, is happy to fly kites and tell stories. He’s also happy to sit in the dark and light and talk incessantly about purpose and life. But what he’s truly good at is playing the guitar, writing songs and performing. Young music players on the campsite play enthusiastically with him.

I have learned to ignore the power station. To marvel at the kind of unity of the French when they eat and drink and congregate in cafes and restaurants. And think about things like how the biggest of people seem to have the smallest of dogs. And vice versa.

It is a paradise that seems to be losing certain elements. Shops disappear gradually, and restaurants are left empty. The finest little restaurant that has sustained me over half a dozen summers is gone. And with it, its incredible bouillabaisse, a Provençal fish soup that I love.

Gone also is the dour man who ran it, and who, like a lot of people who serve you in France, seemed to be doing you a favour. But his manner was spiked with fun. And the delight of recognition. “You came back,” his manner seemed to say; “That’s good!”

Gone from the campsite is an Algérienne family we saw every year. A mother and a boy and two daughters. The boy was a tremendous footballer and taught my son some incredible turns with a ball. Alas, one of the girls was disabled and each year seemed to have lost more mobility. One year, lively and establishing independence. The next, less so. And so on.

It was her plight that awoke in me a sense of respect and pushed me into thinking more on ability. Late in life, I saw what a child can do to fight on. It made me desire more humanity and humility in myself. Each summer, I was more sensitised to the need to extend our world view. From disability to ability, it has been described as.

I came to France therefore to learn more about being human.


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My book seems to write itself. Will it be finished soon? I ask the penman inside me to get on with it. Not to waste time on ancillary stories. It’s a book within a book and I do feel it’s turned a corner and I’m dragged along behind it.

Its logic seems to always be brought into question. Some nice people are suddenly murdered and then brought back to life by a fairy; only then to be killed by another fairy. All in the hot pursuit of what?

Each morning I rise early and apply myself to writing. I hope it’s good this time

Much of my book’s setting is around the Royal Parks of London. I was born minutes from Kensington Gardens. The action extends into Notting Hill and Bayswater. And into Park Lane, and down to Parliament Square. Yet here I am, sitting on the sandy north coast of France where it almost becomes Belgium, writing about fairy murders and public hangings at Marble Arch.

Situated in the campsite is an apparently indestructible part of the Nazis’ colossal Atlantikwall (or Atlantic Wall). This was where the biggest concentration of defensive barriers was put up to avoid an Allied invasion in the Second World War. The sight of this monstrous bunker always brings me back to the fragility of civility. It’s as though coming to Camping des Dunes is like a summer school, if I keep my eyes open.

Perhaps this year I’ll sculpt among Dunkerque’s extensive sands and bushes of gorse the completion of the fairy book. Writing a history book through the prism of fairy life, whilst sitting in parts of the debris of history.

We do take one sortie away from Dunkerque, to Lille. It’s a city full of shoppers. I lived there on and off 18 years ago while writing my autobiography for Penguin Books. The flat I lived in has been converted into a shop. The bar I drank in, called in English The Drunken Boat, is now a shop. Extensive shopping for clothing seems to turn the beautiful city of Lille into a clothing catalogue.

But a week away. A summer camp of thinking. And sand and gorse, and a power station as company.

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