Lee Welham and John Bird celebrate The Big Issue’s 30th birthday. Lee ordered the balloons himself especially for John’s visit. Photo Courtesy of Lee Welham
Here’s what happened when Big Issue vendor Lee Welham met co-founder John Bird for a wide-ranging chat, covering everything from the launch of the magazine 30 years ago to plans for the future.
Lee Welham: So the first question is, where did you come up with the idea for The Big Issue?
John Bird: I didn’t come up with the idea. I came up with a name. The idea came from New York. Gordon Roddick of The Body Shop, who was the person who gave me the money to start The Big Issue, he was in New York and this guy – Gordon said he was like a wardrobe walking down the road – asked, “Would you like a copy of my paper called Street News?”
He said, “I buy it for 50 cents and sell it for a dollar.” Gordon asked, “Why do you do it?” And he said, “I’m just out the penitentiary. I’ve been in and out of prison most of my life.” So Gordon thought, wow – this is brilliant, we’ve got to try that over here.
LW: Did you think it would be popular?
JB: I was interested in something very simple. I had been a rough sleeper, and I got out of that by going into prison, which was the best thing to happen to me because I learned to read and write and do other things.
I really hated the way people looked at homeless people as if they were another species.
Some of them would be very nice to you, but they wouldn’t do anything practical. And I thought, well, why don’t we give people a bit of money? If they are, you know, taking drink or drugs at least they’re not harming anybody else.
You decriminalise people and you gain respect from the public. Because you’re a trader. You’re a retailer on the high street, just like WH Smith, but without a door.
LW: Not as high rent too. And we get to work from home, which is brilliant. What’s your proudest moment with The Big Issue?
JB: I will remember this for the rest of my life. I was going to take a badge off a very large vendor in the middle of Covent Garden [in Central London], who was really being a pain in the rear.
I thought, how am I going to do this? I’m going to have to charm him or threaten him. And as I walked towards him, I saw a copper go over and take him a cup of coffee and a sandwich. And they were chatting, patting each other on the back. I’m not sure if they were high-fiving because I don’t think that was around then. But you’d have thought they were two mates. This was interesting.
So I followed the copper and said, “I saw you talking to that Big Issue vendor.” He said, “Yeah, why are you asking?”
I said, “Well, I started The Big Issue”, and he embraced me. He said, “You know what? That guy had been an absolute pain up until a week or two ago and he’s now changed. The reason he’s changed is because he knows so many people who like him now because he’s selling The Big Issue.”
That was a real eye-opener. That’s when I knew we had something bigger than simply, here’s a few magazines, go and flog them.
‘We have to find a way of preventing people ending up in need’
LW: Did you have to debadge him?
JB: No. He had been transformed because he met people who liked him and believed in him. People complain to me, “Oh, I met this drunken Big Issue vendor”. With time they will change.
LW: I call it limbo. You don’t want to live, you don’t want to die.
When you don’t want to live, you don’t want to improve the quality of your life. When you don’t want to die, you don’t want to get worse off. Some guys, they’re stuck in that limbo. And selling The Big Issue, they start believing in themselves again. That’s what The Big Issue does.
So what does The Big Issue need to do in the next 30 years? Do you even want The Big Issue to be here in 30 years?
JB: In the first editorial in the first edition I said, with the passage of time we’re hoping to put ourselves out of business, which is still my ambition.
The problem is that we don’t spend the right money on supporting people when they’re born and when they go to school.
Most of the people at The Big Issue, or when I was in prison, if you asked them: put your hand up in the air if you did badly at school, most hands would go up. They’d say they didn’t get anything out of school. We have to find a way of preventing people ending up in need.
Social services and charities are very good at responding when the shit has hit the fan but they’re not very good at preventing.
This is why I’ve got a Wellbeing Of Future Generations Bill going through the House, because what I’m saying is until we reinvent education, until we reinvent government, until we reinvent social services, until we reinvent the NHS, we’re treading water. While spending an enormous amount of money.
LW: Like hostels are so over the top. It costs £350 a week to stay there. That’s ridiculous. You could stay in a Travelodge cheaper than that.
I like the idea of these Housing First pods. Give a person somewhere to live and give them support for that year. Teach them how to pay bills. Because what tends to happen is people are on the street for years, they get housed then told, you go and sort yourself out. That’s why the same homeless people are constantly getting recycled.
JB: Without that wraparound support you’re going nowhere.
LW: Have you ever sold the magazine?
JB: Only as a kind of publicity stunt. Way before Virgin, Richard Branson had a magazine called The Student and I used to sell it. The unfortunate thing is, as you might gather, I talk too much. I’d fall into conversation and an hour later I’d sold one copy when I could have sold 10 in that time.
One of the worst things about me is when you start me on to what I love talking about, which is The Big Issue and how it came about, social justice, history. I bore the arse off people.
JB: It’s as simple as apples falling off a tree. You get the Treasury to recognise that if thousands and thousands of people lose their homes because they’ve lost their jobs during Covid-19, they are going to cost us two or three times more than what it costs to keep them in their homes.
Pay off their mortgage or their back rent, give them enough money to survive the crisis, help them find a new job or skill them up. This is a unique opportunity by government to demonstrate prevention.
‘I lost my home, I didn’t lose my pride’
LW: I actually met a fellow a couple of days ago who didn’t want to sleep out any more, so he went into Marks & Spencer and stole a load of stuff then confessed because he’d much rather go to jail. I thought, how awful is that? What was your first night rough sleeping like?
JB: I was eight. I was in a Catholic orphanage for three years. I ran away and slept in a barn. All my rough sleeping was getting away from disaster.
LW: I’m lucky. I literally spent 50 days sleeping outside, the rest was sofa surfing. One Christmas a family kidnapped me. They were vegans and they even cooked me my own turkey! Have you got one of the first copies of The Big Issue?
JB: Well, no. You can see it in the British Library.
We had so many potential vendors who’d said they were interested beforehand, and on the day we launched we only had three. Then we got five. I think by the end of the day we had nine. And we projected that we’d sell about 50,000 copies.
We sold 30,000 and we had to bin 20,000. Each one of those now would be worth… I’ve seen the first issue advertised for 300 quid. ‘Why don’t the homeless just go home?’ [the cover feature of that first edition] because often people say, why don’t they just piss off? Well, where are they going to piss off to?
LW: Some people think there are lots of fake homeless. I always used to wear a shirt. A lot of people were bamboozled because I looked so clean. I lost my home, I didn’t lose my pride.
JB: You can lose your home but if you lose your hope… You’ve got to have hope.
LW: Here’s a random question. If I keep working really, really hard, are you going to hire me?
JB: Well, also in my first editorial, I said a number of things. One was that I wanted the day when The Big Issue was written by vendors. And that day has not come.
Obviously our special issue is kind of pushing it along that road. We’ve had many homeless writers over the years, so we kind of fulfilled part of the remit. And dozens of artists. Unbelievable the quality of work that comes out of homeless people, equal to anything coming out of colleges.
If I can get some geezer to give me a shedload of money then I would spend it on hiring almost like interns for The Big Issue. I’m always looking for new ways to work with homeless people. I do not want homeless people working on the streets for a moment longer than they need to.
I’d like to ask you a question. Where would you like to see The Big Issue going now?
When most people think about the Big Issue, they think of vendors selling the Big Issue magazines on the streets – and we are immensely proud of this. In 2022 alone, we worked with 10% more vendors and these vendors earned £3.76 million in collective income. There is much more to the work we do at the Big Issue Group, our mission is to create innovative solutions through enterprise to unlock opportunity for the 14million people in the UK living in poverty.