Big Issue founder John Bird has gone from washing dishes in the Houses of Parliament, to return there as a life peer. He was born 1946 in a Notting Hill slum in a family that was made homeless when he was five, and at seven he was taken into care. Much of his teens were spent in reform schools, and he has slept rough and been in prison.
His life has turned around into fighting for social justice and particularly for homeless people. He founded the Big Issue in 1991 with Gordon Roddick and now nearly 30 years on the publication has had over 200 million copies sold and become a multi-million pound social investment enterprise helping some 92,000 vendors earn nearly 120 million pounds.
Speaking to BBC Radio 3’s Michael Berkeley, Bird said: “No-one has ever really been improved by a handout. Whereas a means of earning your own money so you can then move away from poverty is my obsession and that’s how my life turned around.
“I was a heavy user of drink and sometimes drugs and I was begging and stealing. When I actually got the chance of making legal money, even though I was still harming myself, I wasn’t harming anybody else.”
Many years later when Gordon Roddick gave Bird the money to start the Big Issue he was obsessed with giving people the chance to make a legitimate income. Of his own upbringing Bird said: “With my mother, you gave her a pound and it would burn a hole in her pocket. She had to get out there and spend and I inherited that.
“I’m now married to a wonderful woman whose family come from India and they are Sikhs and know how to look after money. Now I can actually pay my way, whereas before I was broke Bird.
“Unfortunately my father every now and then would explode and get very aggressive with me and my mum and that was a very unfortunate part. But he was carrying a load of people. The further away from my childhood the more you reminisce about the good things and you park up the bad things.”
Looking back to his time in reform school Bird said: “I’d been through a number of other [institutions] like remands and assessments and I’d done a short sharp shock where they just beat ten colours of .. whatever .. out of you.
“And then I was in another boys’ prison and I came out and I was put in this reformatory and it was about reforming. If you wanted to climb Everest they’d do their best to help you so long as you didn’t go robbing old ladies afterwards.
“The whole idea of the reform system was the fact that you would be given the blessing of education. I got into art, painting and drawing, and with that I got back into music. The arts are a great leveller, you don’t have to be a great reader or a great thinker but it can lift up your skills and abilities. I want elitism for everyone!”
And of the penal system Bird added: “Prisons are a great opportunity for sorting out people who have slipped through the educational and intellectual net earlier. It certainly happened with me and many friends of mine. They’ve used the custodial system for its benefit.
“What I find so extraordinary now is that we’ve got this really weird belief that we’ve got to cut the costs. So you drop the amount of staff and no sense of ‘we’re going to help you’ and no sense of the recognition of the mental health problems that bring you into prison in the first instance.
“And also if you haven’t got mental problems [already] you will get them when you go into prison and you will get them when you hit the street. .. You’re in a zoo and unless you reinvent the box then all we’re doing is just urinating to the wind!”
Finally, talking of his current position in the House of Lords, Bird said: “I am a champion of the poor. I park up my politics, I talk to the great and the good and I do everything that I can to make sure that we can educate ourselves out of this current crisis. So I get to raise the issue of social enterprise and rather than building jails so that people make a profit out of it why don’t you give it to a social enterprise?”
John Bird appeared on BBC Radio 3’s Private Passions on the 14th October. Click here to listen to his musical choices on the show.