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With an eye on the future our breakout will be stronger

This is the time for a vast effort to get every last grain of good out of quarantine, says Big Issue founder John Bird.
Escape from reform school: There were fewer sharks on the way to Waterloo at least

If only to take your minds off the last year, let me tell you about one of the worst years of my life: 1962.

I started the year as a 15-year-old reformatory school boy. The new year began and it all looked bleak. I had at least two, if not three, years of confinement to face. I had been in the reformatory three months and there was little light at the end of the tunnel.

Green, a fellow inmate, was desperate to abscond, as it was legally called. When he heard that I was not against the idea we hatched a plan to run away together. The night of our departure, though, I developed a heavy cold and was put in the sick bay, a small hospital-like building.

Each night Green would visit and try to get me to run off. But I was too ill. And in some ways I was changing my mind.

After leaving the sick bay I had a few days of recuperation and Green then wanted to depart. I felt split between staying to make a go of it and getting out.

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But I had made a promise. So I stuck to it. I did the planning. We were going to walk cross-country to the local station, and get on the train and pretend we had lost our tickets. Not before finding out the full cost of the tickets.

Most runaways took the local big road, the A3. Needless to say they were soon caught. Even though London was only 32 miles away very few ever got there, where most of us came from. I had chosen the train route to London because I was such a bullshitter that I could confuse officialdom with an artificial upper-class voice. I must have sounded like the youthful Boris Johnson, so good was I at the Etonian accent (it was difficult to avoid the accent when I had spent so much of my early working life delivering meat and wine around Knightsbridge).

We got to Waterloo completely undetected. Green was euphoric. We stole a car, visited nightclubs I knew, and got chased disastrously by the police, leading to a smash up at nearly a hundred miles an hour.

Study, reading, learning: that’s what got me out of the sticky stuff. And I believe that this is what is going to get us out of our Covid-19 hell

Some few months later I was back at the reformatory. After a good beating, and then being put in the charge of a top boy, I was allowed to carry on with my sentence.

It was grim and I felt that life had stopped. But miraculously I had become a much-improved reader in a matter of weeks in the boys’ prison that followed my arrest. And then I discovered books and my ability to paint and draw.

Hang on! What am I talking about? What 1962 did in fact was turn my life around. It gave me the basis of my social mobility out of poverty and crime.

So it was a bad year, but it laid the foundation stones for what I did later, including starting The Big Issue. Many of the skills I picked up in 1962 allowed me to do what I do now.

Study, reading, learning: that’s what got me out of the sticky stuff. And I believe that this is what is going to get us out of our Covid-19 hell. Working on ourselves will mean that we can put up with the lockdown thrown at us post-Christmas. This is the time for a vast effort by people on getting every last grain of good out of this forced quarantine. Making a minus into a plus.

It’s not going to be easy. But we will have to grasp this break in life if we are going to come out of Covid better.

I know what The Big Issue will be doing: trying to survive. Trying to continue to work with homeless people. And to continue preventing thousands more joining homelessness because of Covid-created poverty.

Over the next few weeks we are running a campaign to support my bill in Parliament – the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill. This is about getting governments and politicians to not allow legislation that harms the future of us all, and also harms those not yet born. Based on the work already carried out in Wales with their Future Generations Act (actually enacted), we are trying to prevent the lack of preparation that we witnessed with Covid-19.

Prevent our hospitals being full up with people who are the working poor. Prevent a low-wage economy producing unhealthy and poor people.

It is interesting that I started this article to write about my worst year. But then I look at what I actually started in that year, how I laid the foundation stones of the useful work of my maturity; and I realise that it was the making of me.

I am not being flippant about what 2020 took from us and what 2021 might bring our way. But I do believe we can make the most of the hand we are dealt and come out stronger.

The Big Issue, though, will be fighting to stop homelessness. And continuing the fight to create a better world to come: a world where future generations don’t have to clean up after former generations.

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue.