Opinion

John Bird: Times change but the laws of the market never will

"We forget the marketplace in all of our hearts, as it presses in on us, and determines our relationships"

Big Issue founder John Bird

“Up in the morning and off to school, the teacher is teaching the golden rule” are the opening words of a Chuck Berry song. It bounces along. It is about a schoolgirl who, once she lays down her schoolwork, she can really live. The first part of the day is like living in exile from the real schoolgirl’s aspirations. She wants to get to the jukebox and play records until she’s exhausted but then has to go home and do the stuff that adults expect of you.

Since that song was released in the late ’50s, probably three generations of schoolgirls have grown up to become mothers. And each one of them will have had to get their girls to concentrate on school, often against their will. Why? Because school is a kind of block to personal desire.

Other songs similarly celebrate the contradiction between dancing and music-making, and serious stuff like schoolwork. Sam Cooke’s What a Wonderful World does the same, throwing up the idea that school is secondary to living. And living is enjoyment. The singer declares he is thick, doesn’t know what a slide rule is for but knows that he loves the object of his dreams and desires.

He knows that, in a way, love is superior to whatever skills you may pick up in a classroom.

But is not all pop just crooners who swoon over love and joy? Shakespeare is full of men and women who only have time for love and moping about not having it. You will note though that the mopers also have money and retainers, and people to run round and do things for them. Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Henry IV, Part 1, etc, etc. In one Shakespeare play a member of the prince’s staff, Iago, is so annoyed at all of this love stuff he decides to kill it and, by so doing causes murderous jealousy, as if to simply stir up the world; as if to say: “Get real, Othello!”

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You will note also that nothing really happens in Beatles songs, other than someone gets laid, or doesn’t, or is kissed, or not kissed. Later, of course, under the influence of their own brand of surrealism, they do talk about things other than penetration and its preparation. It’s all fun. Good fun for a while.

I was reminded of all of this over the last few weeks as I wrote a story about Fulham Broadway, where I partly grew up. Fulham Broadway is a confluence of a number of roads. It had everything when I was young. A music hall, two cinemas, an Underground station, a market and a record shop run by Felicity. Lovely and kindly Felicity, whose dad also owned one of the cleverest pieces of capitalism I ever ran in to.

It was a bookshop that sold paperbacks that came in cellophane wrappers to protect them. You bought the book for the full price: cowboys and Indians, war stories, and love stories for girls and women, with lots of broad-shouldered good-looking men for a wonderful girl who might well work on the till in the Co-op.

Crude times and tastes, you might say – but the laws of supply and demand were much in evidence.

Even in our little backwater, the Greenleaf library, as the shop was called, practised blood-curdling capitalism. So the trick was, you bought the book full price, and if you returned it in perfect condition you got half your money back. Hence the cellophane wrapper so that even the
dirtiest little hands and sweaty fingers could preserve the transaction.

Credit was frowned upon and only used sparingly to get a telly with more inches to the screen size

In reality you bought the book for a week, and then returned it for half price. It was a con. You were in fact being charged half the price of the book to rent it for that week.

We forget the marketplace in all of our hearts, as it presses in on us, and determines all of our relationships, with some rare exceptions.

My story tries to reconstruct all of the important things I remember about Fulham Broadway. And how the cafés were all Italian or Greek, and there seemed to be loads of them. Tony’s is the real epicentre of my story. The story is called The Greatest Egg and Chips in the World. And it was about Tony’s café and the warmth that flowed from him and his wife Sandra. A home from home for me.

Those times have gone in more ways than one. Innocence, yes – which really means a lack of gadgets and digital toys. And instant contact with all and everyone. Bullying of the old kind that did not involve knives and Facebook. Consumerism muted and held back by a lack of money. But more than anything the parsimonious governments pre-Thatcher that believed you should only spend the money you had in your hand or your pocket. Credit was frowned upon and only used sparingly to get a telly with more inches to the screen size. And then fridges and washing machines followed on.

And social security handed out so sparingly that it was like pulling teeth to get anything like state support.

And doctors who did not spend time on you because much of what they called social medicine tried to prevent you getting sick in the first instance.

And no local government looking after your mum and dad when old. You were stuck with them. Times really have changed radically. Wow!

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

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