Bird talks big issues

The pile of scribbled-on brown notebooks that John Bird keeps in his pocket are testament to how far the founder of The Big Issue has come since he pretended he could read to impress his probation officer.

Sitting drinking a glass of red wine in a bar close to Broadcasting House in London, Bird reads extracts from the book he's called I Bonaparte — a "ramble" that begins with him bruising his thumb while on holiday in Antwerp and moves through his father's violence, "low-life gob-shitey behaviour and struggling to get out of it" to politics, the anti- Semitism he was brought up on and "my disdain for racism — and yet they were the first feelings I had", global homelessness and Israel.

Bird's infancy in the slums of Notting Hill, the neglect, violence and homelessness, along with a three-year spell in an orphanage, provided fertile ground as he moved through shoplifting, vandalism and arson to several prison sentences.

It was in his twenties that Bird began reversing the process, getting involved in politics, working as a printer and going on to run his own business.

Now, 15 years after he founded The Big Issue magazine with Gordon Roddick, Bird, who earlier this year re-established his role as editor-in-chief of the magazine, says his inspiration for writing the book are WG Sebald's Austerlitz and Thomas Bernhard, and talks about his aspirations to write serious journalism in the same vein as George Orwell, George Plympton or Gore Vidal.

With his broad London vowels softened, but still intact, Bird doesn't come across as affected or as taking his life for granted — even words he treats like treasured objects to pick up and gaze at occasionally for the sheer wonder of having them.

Perhaps it's because he knows what it takes to get a life on track that Bird uses phrases such as "tough love" and "unsentimental" to define his approach towards the homeless.

But his uncompromising stance — on everything from the way he treats the vendors and staff to the thorny subject of immigration — have contributed to his uneasy relationship with the press.

The vendors themselves have been the source of some controversy, and councils including Liverpool and Peterborough threatened to ban Big Issue vendors.

Charges of hypocrisy were also levelled at him in 2002 when 10 staff, including the editor Matthew Collin, took redundancy amid speculation that he planned to move the operation out of London. Bird answers that the changes he made were necessary for the survival of the organisation, and rejects claims that he interfered editorially.

He has an easy air of command, but equally effortlessly appears to create a certain kind of chaos for those who follow in his wake that is often associated with ‘big personality'.

Bird, who answers about 10 phone calls during the course of our interview, is driving The Big Issue project as never before, having reasserted his role as editor-in-chief following the departure of editor Matthew Ford at the beginning of the year.

Since then, he has been working on changing the editorial focus of the magazine and is introducing a system of advance purchase ordering of copies for businesses, in addition to the system of selling through street vendors. If all this comes together, Bird might be on his way to having the magazine he always wanted.

"The Buddhists say life is a terrible experience full of struggle, pain and suffering. But I'm not Buddhist and my staff aren't Buddhist"

I don't believe in conspiracies, but I think there are a lot of people who have a vested interest in describing how bad the world is. A lot of these people have enormous budgets — I'm talking about TV, radio, newspapers, magazines. You might call it "reasons to be fearful".

But they never answer any questions, they just make you feel: "Oh God, the whole world's coming to grief".

Every generation has had all sorts of scares to put up with. If it's not the scare of the Irish coming in, it's the Jews or the blacks or the Poles, and if it's not them it's the Bosnians. And if it's not that, it's Aids or the climate and now it's the Islamic fundamentalists. All these things coalesce into taking the edge off life, and they leave people very leaderless. They're getting you all rushing to the nearest air raid shelter.

"The streets are getting crowded"

I've just walked down the road and I've been offered a paper, three leaflets and a coupon for a nearby restaurant. It means there are many more messages being delivered in the street and that makes it more difficult.

"We haven't got the money to do the really big fear"

We need a different concept of what news is. I think news should be what is important. The news content is going to be around leadership and answers — who's got the answers out there.

We haven't got the money to frighten the shit out of our readers like the Daily Mail, The Sun, or even The Guardian do.

"I don't mind being questioned, but give me the chance to answer"

I was on Hard Talk for half an hour of disruption, because the bloke asks you a question and doesn't wait for an answer. "You've said this, you've ridiculed the homeless and the poor, you've described your family as trailer trash…"

All this stuff is a part of a philosophy, an action, a methodology, but all they did was extract what they wanted. They end up with punchy TV and I have a prizefight with a professional geezer. It doesn't change anything. If people were given the chance to listen to what I had to say, they would then find out if they agreed or not.

It's not about finding the truth, it's getting two people throwing body blows at each other. I think that's actually detrimental to democracy. If someone is aggressive, I'm aggressive to them, so I will come across as a bar room brawler, which I'm not — I'm a passive smeller of flowers and I love humanity.

"I meet people who cover politics and think, when are you going to grow up?"

I don't think the way the press covers politics is very mature. I watch Newsnight and all the journalists are smart arses, all the writers who go on it are smart arses. I feel sorry for the politicians. They are players and they always play the rotten game and the wrong game.

The spectators, they're the journalists and the columnists. They know when everybody gets it wrong, but they can't tell you how to get it right, so they define themselves by the failures of others.

When John Pilger was speaking at the University of Lincoln journalism school, I spoke to him from the audience and said: "John, it's interesting that you do all this exposé, you go all around the world and say: ‘look, this is wrong and this is wrong' and you've actually built a school of journalism — people all want to be John Pilgers and they all want to ask questions and expose what is wrong, they all want to do investigative journalism.

"But don't you think you ought to not simply be exposing, but maybe you should pause every now and then, stop and look at the answers and come up with some ideas and some suggestions."

He said: "We leave the answers for people like you, John." I told him that's not good enough, because what you do is turn news into a commodity. You go to East Timor and it's a commodity, the Ethiopian famine is a commodity because it's presented in a packaged form. It's not presented in a way that the public can do anything other than give money, which is not always the best thing you can do.

I would say John Pilger's a very good writer, who produces good journalism, but he turns it into a commodity. There has to be a balance. There has to be the people who expose, and they have to work with the people who come up with the answers.

"The dumbest people on Earth are the ones who give answers — the smartest are the people who ask the questions"

I wrote that little aphorism. If I ask you a question, you might give an answer, but because you've got to give an answer you look dumb — because you are excusing yourself. But the person who is asking is detached, they don't have to do anything.

"My father really enjoyed hurting people"

My father loved a fight. On occasions he would attack people he said were becoming pervy with us.

I don't know if they were, because I was too young, but he beat the shit out of people. He had this look –– and when he hurt me, he had the same smile on his face.

"I'm a brash loud survivor, and people love survivors"

My personality helps when I go into a prison, when I go down among homeless people, when I go and speak to young people in schools and universities, because they like people who are punchy and can pull their weight and have been homeless and in the prison system and have seen complete arseholes.

When you get the porcelain liberals who break very easily, I think I'm a bull in the china shop and they don't like me. And you know, fuck 'em. I'm not here to win friends and influence those kind of people.

"The longest sentence I have written so far is 4,500 words long"

I occasionally write very long sentences. You've got to do something while you're living. Before I got involved with The Big Issue I had been a bit of a writer, and I'd sold advertisements, I'd done a lot of printing and I'd done design and had aspirations to write serious journalism. I'm not there yet, because I still stagger and I don't think I'm a George Orwell, a George Plympton or a Gore Vidal.

"I don't know Naomi Campbell, but if you read the news on her, you would think she's up there with Adolf Hitler"

People are defining themselves on the limitations of others. It's so interesting that some of the ugliest people on earth comment on style and beauty. I'm not going to listen to a dowdy, badly-dressed woman on the limitations of my couture. I want people who are connected.

I'm not going to listen to John Pilger, who says: "I don't vote and I don't participate in politics". If you think politics is that throwaway, I'm going to look for people who believe that politics is real.

"Somebody said to me, if you were wrecked on a desert island, what group of people would you not want to be wrecked with? And I said, journalists"

It is a major problem that the people who lead our taste and our concept of news are people who have got no idea of what life is about.

I would rather be shipwrecked with an accountant, because a good accountant would give me the bottom line, the value of the palm tree and the coconut that falls from it.

The journalist would just tell me how bad things are.

The limitations of journalists are that they are socially dislocated and don't get their hands dirty.

"If you employed 1,000 plumbers and you sacked them all, you wouldn't get a mention on the 28th page of the Cheltenham Accuser, but if you sacked one journalist it's a crime"

In fact we sacked nobody, but they all took voluntary redundancy because they were told that the editorial was going to amalgamate with the Manchester office.

I kept saying: "No it's not going to move to fucking Manchester, it's all bollocks." But they didn't believe me, and they didn't trust me. I think one of the reasons is they always thought I was in opposition to them.

It's largely because I haven't been very nice about journalists, because I'm looking forward to meeting journalists who are socially located.

“No one ever fulfilled my desires for the publication, but it’s not their fault, because I never really told them what I wanted”

As a devout ex-Catholic, I swear that I never got involved with the editorial. I would occasionally make comments about what I thought was a lightness of dedication, too much personality, too many stars, too much frippery.

I've been hands-on for the past nine months.

Matt Ford did a highly commendable job, but when he left [in January] I reasserted my role as editor-in-chief, which was a moribund role for years. I thought: "Let's look at where we want to be, how we can be more hard-hitting, how we can be more about a guide to action." The only person who could do that was me. New staff don't know why I started it in the first place. So I became a kind of fundamentalist.

I read how I would come in and change the front page. I wish there was evidence to tell me when I used to do that. I asked a number of people: "Did I do that?" and they said no.

I might have done it once or twice in the first year, but after that I let them get on with it, because I was absolutely awash with distribution problems, administration problems — I had to do all the press and I did everything possible to get any kind of publicity.

I've been prostituting myself for the cause, so I never had any time for the paper. There were times when I didn't have time to read it.

"You don't go through the things I've been through and survive without having some dents in your character"

I'm not an easy person to be with. I'm totally passionate about helping homeless people, I'm not passionate about how the magazine achieves that.

If it means being popular and being like Heat, if that sells two million copies, great. If the vendors tell me that the issue with the pretty butterflies and the puppy sold more copies, then I say: "Let's have more butterflies and puppies than George Michael". But they don't say that. They say they love the buzz, people coming up and saying they heard about this on the television. They love feeling part of the family, so they don't prefer the fluffy puppies. They love the lustre and life that comes from us interviewing people such as Samuel L Jackson, Jack Nicholson and George Clooney — they absolutely loved him. They mobbed him and they loved Beyoncé. They just adore anyone well known.

"The first adult I met who was not crazy was my probation officer"

He was the first person who didn't judge me, didn't dismiss me, didn't blame me, and didn't chastise me. I couldn't believe it — where did they come from? I had never met an adult who didn't tell me off or correct me.

When you have parents who are violent, who don't pay the rent, who would rather smoke and drink and go to the pub than go to the landlady's, you think, where are the rational adults?

He gave me books to read. I didn't want to tell him I couldn't read, so I would get my brother to read them and tell me what they were about, and then I'd talk them over with this probation officer.

I was in love with this wonderful geezer.

"I come from the doormat class, but I am not going to be a doormat"

I am really pissed off with the way the world is organised so that the poor and ordinary are shat on. But I also want the poor and ordinary to stand up and not be the doormat to the wealthy, and unfortunately there are too many people who accept that position. I probably go to the other extreme of making the better classes pay for using the doormat. I think I'm a bit of a revenging, avenging person.

Learning Curve

I knew I had made it when…

 

… we broke even and made a small profit in September 1992. I thought: "Wow, we've mastered the sums". That was always the weakness in any form of social intervention.

Normally when you are trying to help the world, you manage to screw up the bottom line.

The person I most admire…

is Martin Luther King, because he's just like me. He kept fucking it up, but the movement was bigger than him. I can do the most disastrous things but end up getting it right, largely because the movement is bigger and stronger.

I've done things wrong, I haven't really kept in touch with the money, I've shagged a load of women, but none of these foibles is bigger than the movement. The movement is bigger than me.

Even when I've got it wrong and been drunk on television, I've sworn and walked off, you'd think I was the Oliver Reed of homelessness.

I read that Martin Luther King never prepared his speeches and I don't prepare, I'm spoken through. I rivet people whether they are Merrill Lynch or Pentonville nick, and it's largely nothing to do with me, I don't even know what I've said.

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