A few months ago I sat on a train with some social entrepreneurs and reeled off the chapters and the links and realised that I spoke a brilliant book. They were capitivated. Needless to say, it did occur to me that like those who can ‘talk a good fight’, I may well be a person who can only ‘talk a good book’.
I know where I was in 1973 when Parliament’s wish was confirmed and we joined. I was legal after six years of hiding from the state and its enforcers. It was the first year in many that I could stop looking over my shoulder, expecting to be ‘nabbed’ by the boys in blue. It was the first year of my new marriage, and of getting a really serious job that would give me skills as a printer and as a small businessman; and publishing books and selling them from the back of a motorbike.
It was the year that my mother died in the hot heat of a summer, surrounded by an incredible array, even back then, of machines and medical apparatus. It was the year, because she had a Jewish doctor, of her saying that “the Jews aren’t so bad after all”. And was actually encouraging to her West Indian-born nurses. Her racialism, as we used to call it, seeming to disappear in the fight to keep her alive.
I was a printer for the English Folk Dance & Song Society up in London’s Camden Town, living by the Grand Union Canal at Paddington basin, and a few minutes’ walk from the different world of slummery I had been born into post-war. A Marxist anti-racist, anti-European – we saw it as ‘Fortress Europe’, a more sophisticated way of drawing profits out of the working class.
I rarely go back to Paddington these days, and the station, I think named after a bear, is not my regular haunt. But last week I took a very clean and beautifully dark, dark green train to Slough. I was going to a Thames Valley educational talk that I was giving. I gave it at a Roman Catholic school called St Joseph’s and I had a wonderful time. Telling people many of the lessons of my life, and warning them that if they don’t pull their socks up they might end up in the House of Lords!
The Thames Valley Learning Partnership brings together a number of schools from the area, including Eton College, and it seems a wonderful mix of experiences. Certainly the idea of schools banding together to draw upon each other can hopefully bring us to a better place for our children.
I walked from Paddington Station to King’s Cross for my train home. I am obsessed with my 10,000 steps a day. I passed through a wet, ever-changing London, most of it changed since I was a boy and young man. And most of that change occurring in the period of that membership of Europe. Some would say that Europe helped us rebuild ourselves after the UK helped rescue Europe from Nazi oppression. But that is another, longer argument, some of it contained in the entrails of my new book.
What I actually did for my birthday was forget about reality, have a late breakfast and go and see the new David Copperfield with my family, and noticed how antisocial popcorn is when you’re movie-watching, the rustling coming from my son beside me. We certainly didn’t have those big, US-invented popcorn boxes in the days when we went to see Elvis in GI Blues.
Many things have changed, perhaps not all for the good. Certainly the world is more about the consumer than it has ever been.
One of the last questions asked at St Joseph’s was the relevance of Greta Thunberg and her angry voice. I said we can’t dodge that. That that is definitely the big, big issue of today. Do we have a future?
I trust we will all rally to ensure that, inside or outside Europe.
John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue.