The 25th anniversary of The Big Issue, the 200 millionth sale and joining the House of Lords… It’s been a busy year for Lord Bird of Notting Hill
He turned a stint in prison into a career, a fight against social injustice and gave homeless people a voice in the process. Most recently, 2016 saw John Bird take a seat in the House of Lords, becoming Lord Bird of Notting Hill, in order to continue the work he started with The Big Issue.
It’s fair to say that 2016 has been a huge year for The Big Issue. It saw the magazine make its 200 millionth sale during its 25th anniversary. Quite astonishingly, even at the age of 70, Lord Bird is still very much a part of the team now. As Editor-in-Chief of the magazine, he sits in on regular meetings and has a strong connection to the social issue features.
‘I look into problems such as obesity, things that come from poverty and how we can cover them in the magazine,’ he explains. ‘As an ex-offender, I want people to get the opportunity I got to read and write when I was banged up, so that when you come out you’re dead posh. I want other people to come out of prison dead posh and maybe start reading The Times literary supplement or The Hill Resident,’ he laughs.
Born in Notting Hill in 1946, Lord Bird found himself in some of the worst slums in London. At the time, Notting Hill had the worst infant mortality rate in the UK and was in deep poverty. ‘There were six of us and my parents weren’t particularly good at paying the rent, so I was homeless at the age of five and we stayed in a void in the roof of a cottage – which is now the Wessex Estate on Ledbury Road,’ he says.
I always feel a little bit more alive when I come to Notting Hill and I chose it as my title when I entered the House of Lords, despite now living in Cambridge, because of this
Unfortunately, the family fell apart and he was put into a Catholic orphanage. This led to him sleeping rough and being arrested in Notting Hill, but ultimately to having very deep ties to the area. ‘I always feel a little bit more alive when I come to Notting Hill and I chose it as my title when I entered the House of Lords, despite now living in Cambridge, because of this,’ he says. Clearly, his childhood in west London had a huge effect on him.
‘I owe it all to Notting Hill,’ he says. ‘If I’d never been born into poverty and found myself a way out of it, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today.’ He is not in the House of Lords as a mark of achievement, but to continue to make a change and scrutinise legislation. ‘You can really see how changing a small nuance in a policy, or even government wording, can have a huge difference in the world,’ he says.
He believes very strongly that the next stage of The Big Issue’s work is to dismantle poverty. ‘I had to move onto government policies,’ he says. ‘Otherwise our work for change could be destroyed by someone overnight. My work in the Lords is an extension of The Big Issue.
‘People have so much respect for the vendors – they’ve all got a good story as well as a bad story – and this has helped people to really listen to my work in government.’
‘I’ve used Notting Hill as a kind of microcosm as it has an incredible range from poverty to plenty. I want to create social justice through opportunity and I want to continue the fight against illiteracy by saving our libraries and bookshops.’
Giving back to society is important to Lord Bird, but are we doing enough in our local communities? ‘We have to accept that most people are slightly exhausted,’ he says. ‘People are running a little bit faster than they would like and are perhaps not having enough time to reflect. So we have to look at ways the general public can be involved without giving up days or hours.
There’s a bit of a down at the moment on consumerism, but ours is social consumerism. It’s useful, and it builds lives and communities
‘That’s what is so interesting about The Big Issue because when somebody buys the magazine, you immediately become a sort of social worker and you help someone who is doing their best to make the most of a difficult scenario.’ It lifts people beyond what you could imagine, just by chatting to the vendors or buying the product they have invested in.
Another big development is the launch of the online Big Issue shop. The organisation, famed for its ‘hand up not hand out ideal’ will sell products with a social echo. It’ll focus on brands that use trade to help people improve their lives.
‘There’s a bit of a down at the moment on consumerism,’ he says. ‘But ours is social consumerism. It’s useful, and it builds lives and communities and makes you a part of the whole process of improving people’s conditions that need improving. It helps others.’
So what is his main message for 2017? ‘Don’t panic yourself into a crisis,’ he says. ‘It’s not just a question of making the best of a bad job, but making the most of what you have. I can introduce you to plenty of people within Notting Hill who started with absolutely nothing and have made wealth, love and happiness. You have to be prepared to run faster than others and we have to encourage this in young people to breed prosperity in communities.’
what the big issue vendors say
From Inverness to Lands End, The Big Issue Foundation has helped so many people at times when they needed it most – so how do the vendors in London feel about the organisation that picked them up when they were down?
Giovanni says: ‘The Big Issue Foundation has helped me a lot, and after seven years on the street they have helped me to get housed. My proudest moment is when I finally engaged with the mental health team, and started to work with them to change my life for the better.’
Corky says: ‘This is a thank you to The Big Issue for allowing me to sell the mag over a number of years up till 2009. This money that I made from selling the mag kept me alive on many occasions. I have come through the hard times and now have a nice house, a wife and baby on the way. I also run my own shop now too.’
Mahesh says: ‘The Big Issue shows that it’s important to give something back and to contribute in life. It’s nice to feel like you play an active part in being part of the solution.’
Rose says: ‘I have Asperger’s, which wasn’t diagnosed for a long time. When I started selling I couldn’t look anybody in the eye. The Big Issue changed my life. It gave me a confidence that I never had growing up. My partner John also sells the magazine in Muswell Hill. We had a week in Weymouth last summer and people rang the office to check we were all right. It feels nice to be part of the community.’