John Bird: We don’t all have music in us. But everyone has a social echo

Public displays of goodness must be encouraged beyond lockdown

My dad didn’t have a voice. He lost it in some childhood accident. He squeaked and rasped his way through life, sounding at times like a loud whisper.

I am convinced that it was this loss of voice that made him a lifelong lover of the voice. And that when Sunday morning came and peace was in the house he got out his Mario Lanza and Caruso records and played them happily.

One of his all-time favourites was Arthur Tracy, commonly called “The Street Singer”. Pictures of him always showed him out entertaining street lollers as he sang and played his accordion, booming and public.

Public displays of goodness must be encouraged beyond lockdown

Throughout my childhood we had street singers aplenty in the slums of Notting Hill. Slums and the street entertainer seemed to go together. The one-man-band would come round and have pennies and halfpennies raining down upon him as he played mouth organ, drum and a kazoo, as well as a guitar.

The streets seemed precious and life-enhancing in the post-war years of my childhood. You can probably see why I’ve never wanted to turn my back on the streets. And why the most successful thing I have ever done in life was start a magazine whose byline was “Coming up from the Streets”.

Of course we have lost the streets and when they return they may never be the same again. Repossessing the streets, which is what we tried to do with The Big Issue, may go through a transformation once we are free of the current pestilence.

When it came to me choosing my six or so records for Desert Island Discs some 20 years ago for BBC’s Radio 4, I had to have a Street Singer song. And there was my first hearing of Trees by Arthur Tracy since the days of my childhood and youth.

“I think that I shall never see,

A poem as lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast”

Of course because the streets have been taken from us we may have to do something clever and different, and that’s what we are working on. How do we look after our vendors and still allow you, post lockdown, to connect with them?

Last week I heard that a person who I know ran a cable out of his top-floor flat down into the front garden of the house he lived in. And there set up his musical instruments. And entertained the neighbours for an hour, giving them Blues to get rid of any blue they had in their banged-up life.

We must keep the streets alive in our future life with some of the spirit of what we have just been through, or are going through

The person described above was the man who I first approached back when I was asked by The Body Shop’s Gordon Roddick to start a street paper, based on an American model. Phil Ryan was and is first and foremost a musician. And a musician living in a top-floor flat with not even a cat to play to. So, finally bursting out for the last few Fridays from the constraints of lockdown, he has entertained his neighbours.

I nearly cried when I saw the little video that he sent over. I love the generosity of spirit that goes with banging pans and clapping for health workers and delivery drivers, postal staff and whoever else is making our lives bearable. And with Phil saying “I will share what I’m good at with others.” My hat goes off too to Captain Tom Moore, who’s raising money for the NHS by walking 100 lengths of his garden in time for his 100th birthday: he targeted £500,000 on JustGiving and as I write he’s raised over £12m – and counting.

Public displays of goodness must be encouraged beyond lockdown. We must keep the streets alive in our future life with some of the spirit of what we have just been through, or are going through. If we have learned something, or are learning as I write, it is how we so dearly need each other. And how we so need to understand that life is a series of social echoes as we pass through time. That everything we do has a relationship to many more people than we think. And that one person’s vulnerability is a chance for us to prove our humanity. Aiding people to get through life and have a better one brings out the best in us.

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