We live in an odd society: if you want to give concrete help to people suffering from, say, cancer, it makes perfect sense to go to Peru and ramble among Inca ruins in the mountains, to swim the Channel, grow a moustache or sit in a bath of cold baked beans. It is generally considered obtuse and eccentric to question these and other ostensibly irrelevant and clearly insane activities like jumping out of airplanes or cycling across Vietnam because (drum roll) they raise money and money is, in this society, where it’s at.
In Britain, we are, in the main, deeply afraid of contemplating suffering: cancer, mental illness, suicide, drug addiction are things we seldom talk about… Well, perhaps people talk about drug addiction, but that is because British society refuses to view addictions as tragic afflicting illnesses. Many of us would be profoundly upset – offended, even, at seeing these matters in the same list because the whole category of things that people might have done to themselves scares us most of all. Despite the enlightenment and modern science, we have never quite escaped the idea that certain people’s situations and conditions potentially mark them as tainted by sin and, thus, to be shunned. Many might sympathize, but only a tiny minority are inclined to empathize. Secretly, deep inside, each of us tries to crush the horribly inevitable, but pruriently titillating thought: “that could be me”!
So, way down in the depths among these things that people avoid and shun is homelessness, especially street homelessness. And this is what I love about The Big Issue magazine. It confronts our fears head on; it puts homelessness right in people’s way – sporting bright red tabards and standing in front of shops, offices, underground stations, often wearing a broad smile! On that level, we don’t need empathy nor sympathy – we need people to trade with us, simply to buy our excellent magazine, which is real – you can read it, learn from it – get angry at some of the articles – and do the puzzles. We’re not standing in the street raising money for charity – we’re putting the money in our pockets and taking our lives forward with it, just like any other business people. I’ll repeat it one last time for clarity: The Big Issue magazine is not a charity – it is a business: it needs customers and advertisers, not donors. The Big Issue magazine is a wonderful reminder that homelessness is not a divine judgment on the feckless – homelessness is just another human circumstance that anybody could fall into or might escape.
What, then, is this “call to legs”? Is it a new computer game, a First World War commemorative poem? No, it is an appeal for you to get your skates on and commit to cycling from London to Amsterdam between 19 and 21 September 2015. I know, you are probably thinking: “But he just wrote that these activities are bonkers and, anyway, he also wrote that The Big Issue magazine isn’t a charity!”… I typed those opinions; I didn’t carve them in granite. Anyway, if the great Russell Brand can’t change the system, I certainly can’t, so roll along with my blatant hypocrisy here.
This cycle ride is to raise money (remember, money’s where it’s at!) for The Big Issue Foundation which IS a charity that meets the vendors half way – we get out into the streets and sell, but by the time most of us come to be vendors, typically, an awful lot has gone wrong with our worlds and we are either socially excluded already or teetering on the edge. The Big Issue Foundation gives practical support in looking for routes out of rough sleeping, access to regular healthcare, counselling, career development, supporting vendors into long term employment, housing and much more.
I had the good fortune to help out with The Big Issue Nightwalk in March when 300 walkers and a cat (yes, a cat) walked around central London in the middle of a blustery night and, guess what, that act of collective madness raised £56,000 for The Big Issue Foundation, money which will materially benefit Big Issue Vendors, the family and loved ones affected by their situation and, ultimately, everybody because, instead of dying needlessly at 47 (average for the UK homeless – even younger for long-term rough sleepers), a few more people can share in the benefits of contributing to the society we all live in together.