Paul McNamee: This is why The Big Issue remains

Like a bright red beacon of hope, The Big Issue is on the streets of Britain. Not just now at Christmas, but beyond, so long as we are needed

Joe Gallagher came knocking in spring 2015.

He had been selling The Big Issue and was sleeping rough in Edinburgh. Joe wanted to write and asked if he could send some things through.

It’s a question that is asked from time to time. The answer is always yes, though copy doesn’t always follow. When Joe sent his piece, you could see it was different, that there was something to it. It was funny, it was raw, there were echoes of Irvine Welsh. Here was a new voice telling of the reality of street living in ways that hadn’t been properly told in a long time. Joe’s circumstances – he wrote longhand at night, then found a library during the day to type it up and send it through – added an extra layer to everything. It also showed how important libraries are.

Joe Gallagher, better known to Big Issue readers as his writing pseudonym, James Campbell.

Joe started to craft his copy, began to find his voice. We ran a regular series from him. At first, he published under the pseudonym of James Campbell. He didn’t want to alert those who weren’t clear on his circumstances to what these were. We put him on the cover – a picture of his notebook that contained his world.

Over time, Joe started to work up and out of the place he’d landed. He got shortlisted for a major journalism award. He started looking for a place to live and applied for work. He gained confidence. He worked his way from the street, using The Big Issue and his incredible writing skills, and is now in a permanent job. He also gained enough confidence to reveal to those he hadn’t told before that he was James Campbell.


The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.

A few months ago we learned that The Smiths legend Johnny Marr and British acting royalty Maxine Peake had read Joe’s work and wanted to use it. This was some cherry on top of an increasingly good cake. They wanted to take part of his Big Issue diary, title it The Priest and release it as a single – with Marr doing the music and Peake reading the words. Ahead of release, Joe, a huge Smiths fan, went to see the pair, to discuss his story. You can read his piece about the meeting over the page.

Everybody at The Big Issue is proud of Joe and what he has achieved. It illustrates, in many ways, why The Big Issue is unique and what can be done. To offer hope on the street, a hand up into employment, and more if there is more we can do. We were a poverty exit strategy for Joe. AND he’s now on a single by Johnny Marr.

The Big Issue remains. As homelessness spikes, as figures in the lead up to Christmas reveal over 4,000 people in England slept rough last year, The Big Issue remains. Almost 130,000 children will be homeless in temporary accommodation this Christmas. That is a disgrace, a stain on us as a nation. The Big Issue remains. As town centres contract, as local bank branches shut, as post boxes disappear, as previously fixed points of communities move away, The Big Issue remains.

We can’t fix everything, and certainly not all at once. But we offer a chance, a start, a hand up, a way of fighting poverty and allowing those who need it a means of working their way out.

Like a bright red beacon of hope, The Big Issue is on the streets of Britain. Not just now at Christmas, but beyond, so long as we are needed.

Thanks for being with us in 2017. You change lives every day. Merry Christmas!

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