John Bird: Tackling the big issues

John Bird talks about the possible solutions to homelessness and the role that the Big Issue plays on the streets

Reading through the transcript of my interview with John Bird, the Editor-in-Chief of the Big Issue,  I am reminded of Donald Trump. It is sprawling and constantly changing. Every sentence finishes on a different subject to its start and each thought is a non-sequitur.

The reasons for this, however, are very different. Whilst Trump is cynical and confused, Bird is positive and his mind is not distracted but overflowing with new ideas and solutions to the problems that he sees in the world. Also unlike Trump, if that comparison could ever be valid, Bird was not born with a spoon is his mouth. By the age when most of us were thinking about university applications, Bird had already lived in an orphanage, worked as a butcher’s boy, and served multiple spells in prison.

He tells me, when we talk in a café near the Houses of Parliament where every customer is a political name. “I don’t begrudge one iota, everything that happened to me in the end, turned to its opposite.” He criticises those who have left poverty and never looked back. He says: “I went back to where I came from, so to speak, and struggled to get other people out, and that is just so rare.” Whilst others escaped poverty and let that become just one part of their story, Bird has made it part of his life.

He is incredibly self-reflective when we talk. It would not be hard to when your life has gone from one extreme to another. He analyses some of the flaws in his personality. “I am incredibly talkative” and adds that he has “a super abundance of belief in myself which is a bit disruptive.” He even talks about how when drinking “I tend to over egg the pudding so to speak”.

Bird served multiple spells in prison when he was younger. He looks back on this as a positive. When he went to prison at the age of 16, he did not know how to read and write. But while incarcerated he learnt and said that this “changed the trajectory of my life.” Here, his mind starts to overflow and he side-tracks to talking about the history of welfare. He is fascinated by history and says that he wants “people to know that we are all historical and we are all to do with wonderful inventions.” It is enjoyable, but I try to get him back on track.

I ask him about the Big Issue. In 1991, he and his long term friend, Gordon Roddick who co-founded the Body Shop, started the magazine to combat rising homelessness. More than 20 years later, the Big Issue now publishes in nine countries and has over 80,000 readers. One of the magazine’s mantras is to give people ‘a hand up not a hand out.’ The phrase is synonymous with the Thatcher-esque critique of welfare. This is something that Bird seems to agree with. “What has often happened in poverty is we say here you are, we will give you this, you don’t have to work for it and you don’t have to earn it but you will use it wisely and its up to you. That is a hand out.”

This is not to say that he agrees with the full meaning of the critique. He accepts that the results of a hand up are limited by an abusive political system. “Most of those [people given hand ups] will never become eye surgeons at St Thomas’s hospital”, he says. He is also deeply sympathetic to the individual factors, which limit the chances of the homeless. He knows better than most the day to day problems that are caused by homelessness and is constantly working to correct them. “They have been destroyed by the conditions that they live in and they have added to that through self-medication in drink and drugs and all that stuff,” he tells me.

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However, there is a worry that the Big Issue is not having as great an impact as it could. Bird says that idea is to “simulate what most of us have to do.” But simulation is not enough. Real change doesn’t take place through simulation but through action. The Big Issue fails to tackle the big issue. Despite this, he believes that the magazine can help people get out of homelessness. He calls this the three per cent method, which means breaking down problems into small portions.

He says that he got the inspiration for the idea when he was in prison and was given a task digging trenches by a prison officer. He says that he started dividing up the work into more manageable chunks. When the officer asked him “what the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he said, “well, if I come here and look around, it’s going to overwhelm me and it’s going to piss me off.” Breaking up the task made it much easier for him and changed his perspective on homelessness.

He has a solution for homelessness, but does not believe that it is will ever end. He says that there is a “churn” of people becoming homeless and the statistics seem to back this up. Rough sleeping has increased by fifteen per cent in the last year and, with changes to Universal Credit and more austerity to come, this will only get worse. Bird analyses deep symptomatic issues in governance which have caused homelessness. “The way to change homelessness is to go right into the centre of government, which in itself produces the mechanisms.”

Institutions, for Bird, are at the core of the homelessness problem. “You have to got to cut the cancer out of poverty,” he adds. The discussion brings out a question of Bird’s personal politics. He sits on the cross-benches in the Lords but has previously told the Express that he is a “working-class Tory with Marxist-Leninist/Labour leanings.” A possible oxymoron? He doesn’t think so. He says that he finds liberalism “incredibly hard to live with” and isn’t a nationalist but it is hard to place his politics.

Perhaps that is because he has an issue that is so close to his heart and no one is successful in combating that. Everything is related to it. He labels Brexit as “the greatest opportunity to declare war on poverty.” He seems to be frustrated by the inability of politicians to experience real environments and live real lives. He spoke publicly about wanting Trump to visit so that he could show him the poverty in Britain. He tells me: “I would love to take him somewhere where he would be transformed and humanised.”

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He goes on in stronger terms. He imagines politicians in a Hollywood film and says “I would transport the fuckers back to poverty. I would take them to a hospice and I would lock them in.” He adds, in slightly calmer language, that this also applies to British politicians: “spending time with people in deep poverty or need would do them all a good shake up.”

Most of all, his politics seem to come down to principle and not policy. He says that although there “are people that I would choose not to associate with” in the House of Lords, “I have very little problem with people who are committed to social justice irrespective of their politics.” Political differences don’t matter as long as someone wants to make a change.

Bird is a man with many plans. In answer to one question he tells me about a tea towel he is going to sell for charity, a plan for sociable housing, and a bill that he is sponsoring to combat homelessness in the Lords. His mind overflows with thoughts, plans, and solutions. He is a nightmare to interview, because each question causes a run of thought that has no imaginable end.

He is someone who has, in a very real sense, lived two lives. He was once unable to read and write, he is now eloquent and educated. He once was without a roof over his head, he now lives in a 17th century cottage. He once worked in the kitchens of the Houses of Parliament, he now sits on the red benches of the Lords. He explains the contrast to me. “The world is divided between the rescued and the rescuers… I was once of the rescued and I became a rescuer, and because of that am fascinated by the idea of doing it for many many many millions of rescued people.”

Bird is passionate, unsatisfied, and excited. He tells me of his dreams in life; to constantly keep learning and doing. “I want to fill a table with books and I want to sit there and bowdlerise them, or whatever you do, and essays and… I would love it, I would love it.”

He may be excited, but this often seems to lead him to frustration as a campaigner who wants change and expects more from people. “We have to say to the poorest in the country: don’t just whinge about the government. Get out there!” “We are very good at locking the stable door after the horse has bolted.” As we wrap up our interview I ask Bird if he has anything else to add. He recites a poem to me that is going to be printed on the tea towels that he is trying to sell for charity. He jokingly says that it is “up there with Lord Byron.” The poem is about a weed, and is sweet, with each line starting “weedy, weedy, weedy.”

There is nothing particularly moving in the poem itself, but the idea gives an insight into Bird’s mind. He believes that he has personal responsibility to help others. While he cannot be expected to cure the homelessness problem single-handedly, his dedication and enthusiasm should make the cynical among us think twice.