Opinion

My mum's toughness helped me start The Big Issue

Thirty years on from the frantic weeks before the launch, John Bird looks back at how his mother's words gave him strength to get The Big issue off the ground.

The summer of 1991 was miserable for me. I had agreed to start on a very big project with an old friend and I felt cornered. I knew the project would fail because it was vast and there were many things to do and I was a common printer and a small-time businessman who had only ever employed one person. Now I had about 15 people on my payroll and it was going to be a disaster and it would all be my fault. And it was difficult to get the respect of anyone who apparently knew what they were doing. Contempt for me was everywhere.

I drank more than I had for a long while. I smoked more roll-ups than I had in a long while. This was all getting too much for me. And there were these people circulating around me who did not know how damned perilous it all was. Many smiles and many brave faces. I realised that the most important ingredient was belief. But if I couldn’t muster up belief what could I put in its place? How could I simulate belief?

I went to my mother’s grave in a cemetery up by a Coca-Cola bottling plant, remembering in the burial ceremony 18 years earlier the sound of the bottling machines echoing out over the graveyard. And the strong smell of industrial chocolate coming from a factory nearby. And the rattling sound of the Great Western Railways over the cemetery wall, the train line that had brought her on her disastrous journey in 1939 into the prison of marriage, violence, poverty and too many children.

I did not do that novelistic thing and talk to a dead person, which you see also in films. I just stopped and thought, what would my mother say to me if she saw me in the predicament I was in? She would probably say that I had brought all this down on myself. That I was always too flash and unreliable and should stop kidding myself that I was anything more than a working-class boy with my head well up my arse. I had cycled to the graveyard up by Notting Hill, where we had first lived. I leant my bike against her gravestone and simply reminding myself what my mother would have said filled me with happiness. Full of a kind of resolve.

For, more than anything, I loved that my mother was as tough as old nails and an enemy of sentiment. The only time I had ever seen her cry profusely was when President Kennedy died in Dallas in 1963. As she said, she “fancied the arse off of him”, for she loved good-looking, Irish-American millionaires.

There is something refreshing for me even today in running into doubters. And my mother was the biggest doubter I ever knew. So skiving off to call at her grave on the anniversary of her burial day – August 3 – was enlightening for me.

I cycled back and carried on with the work, not believing the outcome would be any different. The problem seemed to be that the only person who believed in everything was the old friend who had given me the support to do the big project. It was his project, which he had brought to me. And I was going to screw it up big time.

In those days, I hid behind a vale of false bonhomie and Guinness. I was an apprentice pretending to be a master

So, this time 30 years ago I was not the much-praised recipient of awards. I was the one who hid behind a vale of false bonhomie and Guinness. I was an apprentice pretending to be a master. I was the one who the “homeless industry”, as its critics called it, loathed almost to a (wo)man. Someone without the first idea about the true dimensions of the crisis of homelessness.

Of course, it all fell into place after that.

Many problems on, it became the publication that you now read this piece in. It spawned other street papers throughout the world. It grew a social prevention business. It inspired the growth of the social enterprise sector. It started to work with people in homelessness, and with people before they entered it, to stop them entering it.

Now in our Covid times the publication struggles to lead a big fight against pandemic-created homelessness, brought on by job losses. And a kind of silence and mystification seems to be in the air. Have we lost the plot, some might say. Is there really going to be a big problem hitting us soon?

I visited my mother’s grave again last week. The bottling plant has gone. The industrial chocolate factory is now flats. Everything seems to be flats. A little further down the road from the cemetery, the hospital she gave birth to me in is now flats. They’ve pulled down our Notting Hill slum and built flats. Flats that most can ill afford. But someone must be living in them.

There is more prosperity in our old manor of Notting Hill. You could be on the continent if you went into the pub she worked in on the Portobello Road, so different is it from her time. But wow! Thirty years on, from such a dazed and confusing time.

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

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