Freddy Parton talks to John Bird, founder of the Big Issue John Bird, founder of the Big Issue, is not your average charity worker, or even entrepreneur, for that matter. Homeless at the age of five, in an orphanage by seven and imprisoned by ten, he still managed to set up the most successful street newspaper in the world.
Unlike the smug entrepeneurs who appear on Dragon’s Den, John Bird is incredibly modest about his success. He defines an entrepreneur as ‘someone who sometimes gets it right.
‘Being an entrepreneur is a bit like being an actor,’ he says. ‘It’s a very lonely world and one that’s open to misinterpretation.’ John has certainly had his ups and downs; when he met with Gordon and Anita Roddick (founders of the Body Shop) in 1991 he had virtually nothing, was drinking heavily and had just broken up with his first wife. ‘I was a bit of a waster and wasn’t going anywhere’ – or so he thought. It was through talking with these old friends that the idea of the Big Issue came about. Gordon Roddick had been to New York and seen the free papers there, and was interested in starting up something similar in Britain. John, having been homeless himself, was keen to take on the project and, like all entrepreneurs, knew that he had to have money to make it work. ‘You have to learn to be charming’ he says, grinning. ‘You’ve got to stick to people with money like shit to a blanket.’
It wasn’t easy trying to set up the Big Issue. Homeless people thought it outrageous that they should have to buy the paper from John. The fact that the Big Issue, though a charity, does make a profit also caused more than a little controversy. For the first six months it was very difficult to get any vendors to work for the organisation. John describes the situation as pretty rough, as he and his helpers continuously got beaten up. ‘This didn’t last too long,’ says John. ‘We selected the troublemakers, the biggest brutes, and bought them over. They stopped beating us up and became our bodyguards.’
Having been homeless for most of his childhood, John feels that he can relate to the mindset of those who live on the streets. He describes his mother as the worst example of ‘Macawberism’ – always believing that something good would turn up. But by the time John was five, he and his four brothers were living on the streets.
At the age of seven he went into a Catholic orphanage from which he says he emerged as ‘a raving nutter.’ I ask John if he feels that his Catholic background has affected his attitude towards charity and the homeless. He nods and argues that it has given him the determination to never give up: ‘You believe that there will be answers to problems.’ What about his decision to become Marxist? ‘When I became a Marxist it was like moving from one religion to another.’ I ask what he views himself as now. ‘A Troto–Cath. I am lucky to have been blessed with two world views.’
John’s views on the treatment of the homeless are pretty controversial. His first principle is that you should never just give the homeless money. The problem, as he sees it, is that the Government is maintaining people in the state of homelessness instead of getting them out of it. ‘Paternalism is destructive,’ he shouts, emphatically waving his arms about. ‘They have to learn to stand on their own two feet. The tools that have been used for generations are actually enslaving them…homeless people have to be independent.’
These views aren’t always palatable to people who buy the Big Issue. ‘I used to get into all sorts of trouble at parties’ admits John. ‘People would come up to me and say, “Oh, I love the Big Issue, I always give them an extra tenner at Christmas” and I’d reply, “What!? I’ve just got the fuckers to work and be independent and you’re making them reliable on your charity again!” It didn’t go down that well.’
John does a lot of work advising governments on poverty. ‘I met David Cameron the other day,’ John laughs, ‘and I asked him how much he thought it cost to get him where he was today – he reckoned about £300,000. I replied, “David, you’re bloody cheap.”’ He goes on to explain, ‘Do you know it costs the government £60,000 a year to maintain one homeless person? And that might be for at least twenty or thirty years. We have the most expensive poor in the world.’ John has a very low opinion of social benefits. ‘Social security is the kiss of death…you have to be very strong to survive.’
I ask whether John approves of big charity events such as Comic Relief which emphasise the importance of giving. He pauses. ‘The problem is that a lot of that stuff you see on the TV only works if it gets into the hands of the people. As I always say, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” You’ve got to make sure that the cure is not worse than the illness.’ He doesn’t dismiss these charity events completely. ‘We’ve got to be optimistic that it’s clear that people want to help.’ Nevertheless, John believes that help will only work if charities work on the local level. ‘We’ve got to get away from big government formulas.’
John is very concerned about communities at a local level. His latest project is the Wedge: a sort of loyalty card that aims to save local high streets from being swallowed up by major brands. The business has been going for less than a year, but John is positive that it will be a success. ‘It’s a new way of stopping your community dying,’ he says emphatically.
John is a realistic man and he knows that the Big Issue system is not perfect. He admits that the homeless do sometimes abuse it by using the brand to legitimize their begging. ‘The people we work with aren’t all nice…they can be honourable and dishonourable, scabbers and thieves.’ He’s currently trying to turn the magazine around too. He laughs. ‘Half the people who buy the Big Issue don’t read it because it’s fucking boring!’
You can see why John has worked with the likes of Tony Blair. As well as being a great entertainer he’s utterly focused on his desire for social justice. Fundamental to this, is his belief that the homeless and those on benefit schemes have to work for themselves. ‘Like I said to Peter Mandelson once, “You have to fare well on welfare to say farewell to welfare.”’