Opinion

How efficiency can change your life 

For John Bird, efficiency became vital for survival as a child and informed life -changing adult decisions

Anita Roddick, John Bird, Shelter director Sheila McKechnie and Gordon Roddick reading copies of the first Big Issue

From left: Anita Roddick, John Bird, Shelter director Sheila McKechnie and Gordon Roddick launch The Big Issue in 1991

I was trying to explain to someone at The Big Issue the other day that I have been in hot pursuit of efficiency all my life. I can remember the stirrings of the love of efficiency in my childhood, living in the slums of Notting Hill. It took the form of asking my mother why she threw old tin cans of Heinz baked beans out of the window into the communal garden, which was really a dug-up rubbish heap. She said there was no other place to sling them. I said but can’t you not just throw them out so that when children run around they don’t cut themselves? She laughed at me and enquired if I came from another planet.  

She would smoke all of her cigarettes, which she would die for (and did eventually), between Thursday’s payday and Tuesday morning. Then she had around three days cigarette-free. We would go into the ABC tea room in Westbourne Grove nearby and she would ask to buy cigarettes from men, always realising that they would give a cigarette but take no money, a hidden form of begging. It was a good thing they never asked for payment because she never had any money, or only enough to buy a long-lasting cup of tea.  

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She hid from the rent man and eventually we were evicted for non-payment of rent. Why did she not realise that being homeless and poor was worse than just being poor?  

Because I was a great believer in Jesus, I prayed to him to give my mother more efficiency, although I did not know the word then. Pay the rent, don’t just throw the jagged cans out where children played; and save some cigarettes for when you don’t have any – don’t just pig yourself on them when money was around.  

My one concession to efficiency came when, after being evicted for non-payment of rent, and after living for a year in a void in my grandmother’s roof, we got a part-condemned garden flat. Then I would take and hide cigarettes from my mother’s packet and give them out to her on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Perhaps two cigarettes a day.  

She was addicted and like addicted people she could get very vicious if you didn’t surrender her fix. So in the end I had to give this practice up because she was hitting me hard when I refused, on a Tuesday, to surrender her allowance for Wednesday and Thursday. Then she would punish me because I had not had the perspicacity to take more from the cigarette glory days after payday.  

Growing up I glorified efficiency in my mind, but my life was a clear demonstration that I was not efficient. I became a Marxist because I realised that in order to keep my Marxist girlfriend I needed to hold the same views as her. Sexual opportunism. But when I got into it I realised that it seemed so remarkably efficient. Getting rid of the stumbling blocks that people were born into in their lives. That if you came from the poor and had little or no education then it was grossly inefficient to be kept weighed down by your inheritance of poverty.

Marxism seemed to raise the possibility that if all of the class debris and impediments, the super-rich and wealthy, were swept away, and everything was shared out, then you could have a super-efficient world. And people like me wouldn’t be going round stealing bikes, cars and cash registers and smashing up schools and waiting rooms. We would turn into jolly thoughtful sorts and efficiency – social efficiency – would rule OK.  

Of course, as someone once said, “There’s many a slip ’twixt the cup and the lip”: meaning the intention does not always lead to the desired result. Politics seemed to make everything heavy and weighty and cumbersome and inefficient.  

Then of course I had the fortune of re-meeting The Body Shop’s Gordon Roddick in my early 40s and he gave me the idea – from the United States – of a street paper, and encouraged me and provided funding and wouldn’t take no for an answer; meaning we invented The Big Issue. And what a piece of social efficiency that decided it would be.  

It would give homeless people the chance to make their own money, deemed as unnecessary by 501 homeless organisations in London, thereby breaking them from wrongdoing. If they had drink or drug habits they did not have to get into trouble with the police to fulfil their needs. They could buy their own poison, as any City trader could do after hours without harming anyone else.   

Social efficiency!  

Then I volunteered and signed up to go into the Lords as a Crossbench peer in order to take my quest for social efficiency on to a higher level. For the government spends money that warehouses people in poverty and does not try and have a big brainstorm to come up with the means to break poverty, it simply accommodates millions within it.  

Efficiency has driven me forward since my slum days, but most often as a concept, for I have rarely been personally efficient. But now I can try, through our work, to be that artfully efficient person, who my mother would have looked at quizzically and suggested I stop blowing smoke up my own rear.  

I aspire beyond my own limitations. I hope we all do.   

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

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