"Beggars detest those who do not give them money and loathe those who do."
When John Bird makes a quote like that, he speaks with the confidence of experience. At the age of 5, he was homeless, his Irish immigrant parents having been unable to pay the rent. By 7, he was taken into a Catholic care system. By his teenage years, in trouble with the law, he found himself in an approved school, from where he absconded, got into trouble again and ended up in a borstal.
At borstal, he was fortunate that he ended up with a prison officer who helped him to learn to read, otherwise he may well have entered adult life with a literacy problem (See Note 1).
After leaving borstal, he continued with his 'nefarious activities' in London, finding time to get a girl pregnant and enter into a disastrous marriage. After a spell abroad to avoid helping with enquiries, he went to Scotland to meet with his estranged wife who wanted nothing to do with him. He ended up in Edinburgh, where he met Gordon Roddick, a 'big-nosed Scot poet' to use John's words. For about a year they became really close friends before drifting apart for many years.
As John Bird spoke with frankness about his early life at the Oundle Festival of Literature event last night, I couldn't help thinking that under some jurisdictions, his criminal activities would have led to the 'throwing away the key' approach. Had that been in place here, then it makes you wonder if there would have been a 'Big Issue' magazine.
The idea behind the magazine is so simple that it is one that makes you wonder why it hadn't been done before. The Big Issue creates a magazine which they sell to their homeless vendors for 70p. The vendors sell it on the streets for £1.50 and get to keep the profits.
It wasn't original. it stemmed from an encounter Gordon Roddick (now married to Anita Roddick of Body Shop fame) had with a street newspaper vendor in Manhattan.
Returning to the UK in the early 1990's, a time when London was experiencing a growing homelessness problem, Gordon approached John to start a scheme in the UK. John turned him down at first, but faced with a cash flow problem, relented and the rest, as they say, is history.
In the talk last night, John spoke passionately (so passionately that he had to remove a loose crown from his tooth to prevent injury to the front row) about his belief that the success of the 'Big Issue' is down to being run as a business and doesn't indulge the homeless.
The principles behind it stem from the need to remove the 'Bastille of Dependency' that had grown up amongst the homeless. In the beginning the vendors were used to getting everything for nothing.
The success of the Big Issue supports his views that to achieve social justice, welfare or support has to provide people with the means to support themselves and be a springboard.
Now the 'Big Issue' is now moving forward with the aim to provide the education to ensure that the principles of social justice are not forgotten in these harsh economic times. Above all that we remember the lessons of history and avoid making scapegoats of minorities the way that the Nazi's did to gain power.
It truly was a stunning talk. I'm sure that given the chance that John Bird would have talked for hours, but in the end time defeated him. Certainly, I have only been able to capture a fraction of what was delivered with heartfelt conviction. It was a great event, I am really pleased that I made the effort to attend.
Thank you for a thought provoking evening, John.
Note 1 : Even today there are issues with the education of children in our care system with 70% leaving care with reading difficulties and 80% struggling with maths. When looking for a reference source, I discovered a paper from the UK National Statistic Department, which is in pdf format and can be found here.