John Bird: From mighty oaks, life-saving street papers grow

A close call with an ancient tree decades ago, and The Big Issue as we know nearly didn't come into being

It’s interesting that the sense of threat hanging over the country isn’t new to me. The threat from not knowing what’s coming down the line seemed eternal when I was growing up. I sat in the back of a car passing through places that, as I grew older, became familiar to me.

A bridge, a shop, a pub, a high street. I was on my way to places that, over the decades, would become the backdrop of my life. As I passed them, I watched people going about their lives and was astonished that they weren’t in a suspended place of not knowing what was coming next. Why were they not suspended, like me? Because they were not me. My world was me. And increasingly, it’s become me and billions of others.

There was a time when it was just me and no one else. And it was feeling like that, back as a teenager in the Fifties, that led me to think that the world should suspend itself until I’d established what the hell was going on in my life.


The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.

Possibly Napoleon felt this. And maybe Hitler, and perhaps Churchill too. Of course, they had reason to because history was flowing straight through them. I wasn’t even a dirty little rivulet. Not even a puddle on the road to history.

Today, amid the threat of social and environmental catastrophe – when suspense and anxiety rule over us – I think back to my youth and how, once upon a time, it was all about me (even though it ain’t any more).

I was once taken to a part of the countryside – a corner of south-west Surrey that’s now entirely familiar, but alien back then – and was pushing a gardener’s barrow.

I left the barrow because I realised I’d forgotten my edging tool on a cricket table; not an actual table, but a big cricketing playing area. I walked the few hundred yards back to retrieve it, then headed back to retrieve my barrow when a vast oak tree, almost 100 feet high, suddenly fell in front of me.

Imagine! No me, no John Bird!

It crushed my barrow, causing my screw-instructor to (jokingly) complain that I had no respect for my tools. I was told the oak tree was probably over 300 years old. It was planted on a particular day and had survived war and revolution. It survived bitter winters and boiling summers. It survived the landowner, Viscount Midleton, making vast amounts of money in brewing and who built a nearby house 250 years before.

It survived the requisitioned HQ of Canadian airmen during the Second World War. And it survived a reformatory for recalcitrant (largely working-class) boys.

The felling of this tree to a 16-year-old London Irish slum boy was a magnificent sight. It just missed the 18th-century mansion called Peper Harow (pictured). It was only later, when I put pen to paper to write to my mum, that the thought occurred to me that I’d been spared for better things. She said as much. That Jesus always had a plan for the survivors of disasters. Perhaps her prayers to St Jude had been answered.

Imagine! No me, no John Bird! No meeting Gordon Roddick in an Edinburgh pub whilst I was hiding from the police! No Big Issue!

Happenstance would have gone in another direction, all because I’d left my edging tool on the cricket table and didn’t linger at my (unfortunately crushed) barrow. I lived to tell the tale.

Not long after this encounter I discovered art, painting and Impressionism. That is, the 19th- century French movement that predominantly emphasised the changing qualities of light in nature.

We will, I’m certain, read books in years to come that will recall the arrival of Brexit as a big tree that fell suddenly

I was shocked by all this light because, for the first time in my life I was living in the light. I was working on a large estate and was outdoors at all times. This wasn’t the troglodyte existence of my earlier London life; all dark, damp and dirty. I walked around the estate and everything seemed to glisten.

Today of course you can see Impressionist paintings – and almost all of nature itself – on your smartphone. You’ve got an LCD backlight; a light that, at times, makes your back-lit handheld world look like a stained-glass window.

But do our kids, well-behaved as well as misbehaving, ever get the chance to be drenched in outdoor light? Or are we now living in a world of well lit-up troglodytism?

We will, I’m certain, read books in years to come that will recall the arrival of Brexit as a big tree that fell suddenly, even though it may have been a long time coming. That the UK’s Eurosceptic rot set in decades before our contemporary times.

Things do have a habit of being a long time in gestation before coming into being. It takes dozens of little things to make up a big thing.


In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

And the oak tree that neatly nearly crushed The Big Issue out of existence – and with it, the enormous impact of a street paper movement that’s permeated the planet – has to be grasped as life itself. Which, often enough, is life going in another direction.

I’m sure you’d have found something else to read without me.

Watch out for big trees: they don’t last forever!

Image: The Print Collector/Alamy Stock Photo