Opinion

My lifetime of run-ins with the Royal Family

From speedy drive-pasts to wet handshakes, John Bird writes about the times he's crossed paths with royalty

poverty

We didn't have a street party when Queen Elizabeth II was coronated – but we did raid others, writes John Bird. Photo: CLASSIC IMAGE / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

I have had a long association with the Royal Family that stretches back to 1952 when, as a schoolboy, I stood on the bridge over the Great Western Railway in Notting Hill as the train carrying the coffin of King George VI passed underneath on its way to Windsor for his burial. Not long after, we stood on the confluence of Great Western Road and Westbourne Park Road in rapidly constructed stands as the young Queen whizzed by in an open-top car as she toured the country to meet with her people.  

I had to wait another eight years to rekindle my connection with the Royal Family. Aged 14 I was a Saturday butcher’s boy for the Queen’s butchers (Cobb and Co of Knightsbridge) and on occasions delivered meat to the Royal Mews around the back of Buckingham Palace. 

I had to wait many decades before, in 1994, I met the Queen when she awarded me an MBE at the recommendation of John Major, the Prime Minister. I did not refer to my former associations and only told her about the work of The Big Issue. As to the use of taking an MBE, on the following Monday Brighton Council allowed us to use a shop for paper distribution: having previously opposed it, the Tories capitulated and gave us the shop when my MBE came through. 

The next Royal I met was Princess Diana, who always took an interest in anything to do with homelessness. I had a few chats with her and she did comment that I seemed very pleased with my work, and I had to say that “if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t do it”. She accepted my crystal-clear logic. 

Tragically, a few years after, I was given tickets for the funeral of Princess Diana and I gave them to Big Issue vendors. I felt they would get more out of it than me and they were very moved by the occasion in Westminster Abbey. 

A year later Prince Charles came to open our building in Clerkenwell and he arrived too early. I was in the men’s washing my hands when my assistant burst in and said “He’s bloody arrived already!” So I quickly dried my hands and walked into my office. Unfortunately, when he put his hand out to shake mine I realised that I had not done a good job of drying my hands. As he touched them I felt I had to say something. 

“It’s all right. It’s not urine.” 

He smiled and took it all in his stride. Later on he met a vendor who had actually been to his junior school. He was most intrigued with this idea and the press, of course, went wild over the story. 

A few years later Charles revisited us, and when I shook his hands he said “So glad you had time to dry them.” What a memory, given the many thousands of people he had met in between! 

For the Queen’s Golden Jubilee she had a big party at Buckingham Palace and invited me along with 500 others, where I had the pleasure of singing a song with Cliff Richard and chatting with Stephen Fry. I introduced myself to the Queen and had a little chat with her and the Duke of Edinburgh as she passed among us. 

That was then it really with me and the Royal Family. Until I was asked a few years ago to give advice to the Royal Foundation about what William should be doing around homelessness. I said that it’s about time that we had a royal who put prevention, and not just emergency, at the top of the list. Prevention and getting rid of poverty, and preventing homelessness in the first instance. 

I heard nothing, until a few weeks ago when William wanted to celebrate his 40th birthday by selling copies of The Big Issue

I met with him for a few minutes that day and told him about The Big Issue and how I myself had been homeless and got out of grief by being imprisoned where they taught me all I knew, etc, etc; it was a very quick chat. I was surprised that he was about the same size – big – as my eldest son. 

Maybe the Prince could put his effort behind getting people out of poverty and need. We need more emphasis on prevention and cure, not just all of the effort going into emergency. 

I told him all of this at lightning speed, and then I was back to Parliament to talk to a bunch of young people who wanted to do all they could to promote our Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill and work. 

No, actually the first time I saw the Royal Family was at some big event at Buckingham Palace where my mother took me aged three, with about a hundred thousand other people. Needless to say, I got lost and was one of the 50 children that year who was separated from their family. But I was taken by some careful policemen to a location point where my mother told me off for getting lost. That is seared in my memory. 

The scale of interest in William selling The Big Issue by Victoria station was enormous. And it puts our vendors and their sterling work in the public eye again. That’s why we did it. For the interest that the press takes. 

By the by, I was born a 15-minute walk from where Queen Victoria came into the world, as Princess Victoria, in Kensington Palace. London’s that bloody small. 

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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