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Opinion

The Big Issue is turning 30 but our work is far from done

After three decades of The Big Issue, founder John Bird reflects back on the early days of the magazine and one key figure. The Big Issue is needed now more than ever – of that its founder is certain.

Among the various people thanked in the first edition of The Big Issue was a man who reminded me of the comedian Tony Hancock. He had the same type of tubby figure, the same slightly pissed off look. I loved Tony Hancock’s face, his kind of sardonic “nothing surprises me” manner.

I first met the person who is listed in the inaugural Big Issue in The Prince’s Head next to our Richmond editorial office. He sat at the bar and we fell into conversations on numerous occasions as our team was struggling to create The Big Issue. It was a very strained atmosphere, largely because we were not quite sure what we were doing. And not sure whether it would succeed.

We became friends and I often bought him pints. He never seemed to have much cash on him. Yet on most evenings he would be there, sitting on a stool at the bar; smiling, reflecting and at times talking. And it was because he was so different in his preoccupations in life – none of which resembled mine – that I felt a kind of tranquillity around him. Then I decided to include him in the launch and put his name down as a supporter in The Big Issue.

At the launch itself he ran into Anita Roddick who was talking to all and sundry, and when she asked him why he was there he said proudly, “I cheer John up.” Anita was not impressed with this. I had to track her down afterwards and say he was not on the payroll.

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The money for The Big Issue was coming through The Body Shop. This was all a part of what I called the Peppermint Foot Lotion Revolution. I did not want Anita or her husband Gordon to think I was padding out the workforce with duds. I had to keep in with my sponsors. But how could I tell Anita that my bar friend was a bit like a joy-bringer because he never talked about any of the things we were struggling to face up to in starting The Big Issue?

He was a relief from the serious. He was comic and could see humour where it did not seem to exist. That day at the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields, where we launched, he ate a load of sandwiches and drank countless cups of tea. And he talked to everyone.

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The Big Issue is so relevant today, to ensure we campaign to stop people slipping into homelessness and facing a growth of mental illness and other deep health problems

It’s so interesting when I look back to that first day. I can remember very little other than my bar friend eating many sandwiches with great joy, and other similar incidents – nothing earth-shatteringly big. An angry man who declared, when I asked him if he wanted to sell The Big Issue, that he had been homeless for 25 years! As if it was my fault, his dog toothless and snarling at me. Or a woman asking me for my autograph because she mistook me for a TV comedian with the same name as me.

In some ways it seemed like a non-event. A tame, uneventful event. The press, though, rallied around Anita and Gordon, and photo opportunities were in abundance. I watched and felt perhaps the best part of The Big Issue was over. That it would all be downhill from now on. How could we ever turn this seemingly flat event into the beginnings of something incredibly big and useful?

But that is how life is. The significant is hidden in the everyday, with me remembering my pub friend more than a host of other things.

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Thirty years later we face the biggest of big challenges. We face the problem of Boris Johnson saying that nobody would be made homeless by Covid-19, with precious little evidence that the government is rallying in the face of the mass evictions that are coming down the line. Even now, in the early stages of people being unable to pay their rent due to losing their job, someone is apparently being made homeless every three and a half hours.

Whatever promises the government makes, we do need to campaign for people to keep their homes – their rent or mortgage paid, their arrears paid – and be given enough money to keep their home together. Supported until they get out of the emergency.

And most of all, helped to get another job or trained and reskilled to improve their chances. Recognising at the same time that it is cheaper to keep people in their homes than it is to let them slip, often with their children, into homelessness.

To me one of the biggest challenges we face is working to prevent mass homelessness occurring in the coming period. That’s why The Big Issue is so relevant today, to ensure we campaign to stop people slipping into homelessness and facing a growth of mental illness and other deep health problems.

Not long after the launch of The Big Issue we turned into a more serious, more task-orientated social business and we moved office. I lost touch with the man who cheered me up. The last time I saw him he was cycling on his rusty bike for his daily visit to The Prince’s Head to charm and serenade another lot of people who needed taking out of themselves. He was, in my opinion, an essential ingredient in my role as founder of The Big Issue.

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

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