Martin McKenzie is the star of The Big Issue Christmas campaign film Photo: Louise Haywood Schiefer
At the age of 16, Martin McKenzie was alone in the world. He’d left foster care and was living in a shelter by the docks in Aberdeen.
“Even at that age I was mature enough to be on my own because I’d spent a lot of time on the run from my home,” he remembers. “I suffered violence, so I spent a lot of time running away.”
Martin’s education had been interrupted by his troubled childhood, but between the ages of 18 and 19 he went to literacy and numeracy classes to catch up. It was a glimpse of the resilience and drive that has helped him overcome an incredibly difficult start in life.
The day he got badged up to become a Big Issue vendor is when Martin says his life really started to turn around. “Every week I’m taking a step up. I put it all down to The Big Issue,” he says. “I had quite severe depression before, it comes and goes, but selling the magazine has helped.”
Since he started selling the magazine, Martin has become a core part of the community in Finsbury Park, London. He’s put his mechanical skills to use by repairing bikes for locals and has even become one of The Big Issue’s Vendor Experts, writing a column for the magazine about how to look after your bike.
“I’ve got mechanic skills, electronic skills, plumbing, joinery… I’ve got trades coming out of my ears,” he says.
Now, Martin is paying back the help the magazine has given him by featuring in the first Big Issue Christmas Appeal video, ‘Remember Me?’, alongside Doctor Who star and Big Issue ambassador Christopher Eccleston.
Martin sees it as another exciting step on his journey. “I’d happily do that all over again,” he says of the filming. “Apparently I had a talent for it, and for the voiceover. I was a natural with that too. I loved it.”
And it might even lead to some more work in the future after the voiceover producer asked to keep his details on record.
“So there might be other voiceover opportunities for me,” he adds “That could be a new income stream for me, even if it’s just the odd one now and again.”
The film takes the point of view of a Big Issue seller, showing their many happy interactions with customers before the coronavirus pandemic dramatically altered British streets. It asks the public to remember their local vendor, whether they aren’t seeing them because of local lockdowns or because they are no longer on their usual commute.
Big Issue vendors across the UK were unable to sell the magazine for 14 weeks between March and July this year. When England went into its second lockdown in November, vendors there were again unable to work for another four weeks.
Martin says the message of the film resonated strongly with him. Being separated from his community this year has had a powerful impact on his mental health.
“I did miss my customers when I couldn’t work,” he says. “I actually got quite upset with myself when I was on lockdown. Generally, you know, a little low.”
At his lowest ebb Martin found support from The Big Issue’s frontline team, who have been offering ongoing social and emotional support to vendors.
“I kept bugging the staff at The Big Issue, every time I felt low,” he explains. “Kev [Big Issue service broker Kevin Feazey] did a lot for my mental health. He doesn’t know that I was low, but he’s always got that positive energy that I bounce off. It reminds me that things aren’t going to be so bad.”
That support was nothing short of a life saver.
“I’ve survived because of the Issue. I reckon if I didn’t have the Issue this year, I might not even be alive, to be honest with you,” says Martin.
“I’m not the suicidal type but my health has deteriorated. Every time I’m inactive, I get sore. There’s no other way of putting it. And when I’m sore, it depresses me. Because I’m a people person. I’ve got to be out, I’ve got to be active.”
This year, he’s also enjoyed sharing his life story in the pages of The Big Issue by appearing in the My Pitch column. It’s been almost therapeutic, he says.
“I’ve not had the support network that most people have,” he explains. “I’ve went through all the good things and bad things all on my own. So talking to you guys, and getting it out there. It’s actually taken a load off my chest.”
As the second English lockdown ended, Martin was grateful to get back to his job, making his income and talking to all his regular customers and friends in time for Christmas.
From school children to pensioners, passers-by were eager to greet him on his return to Stroud Green Road.
“You should see the response when they saw me back on the street again,” Martin said. “Parents with their kids pass me on the way to school every day and they all say hello. It’s the little things that count, you know?”
Though he enjoyed the movie star experience, Martin said his goal remains to set up a bicycle repair business based out of the back of a rickshaw, “like the AA for bikes”.
People would call him if they break down and he’d arrive and either fix the bike at the side of the street or pop it on the back of his rickshaw and give customers a lift to their destination. He just needs to save up for the rickshaw and he’d be ready to get started with the innovative plan.
“I really think it’ll work,” he says.
In 2021, he plans to continue building towards that goal and building a solid foundation on which to grow.
“My ideal situation would be to have my own flat with my name on the tenancy and my business would be off the ground,” he says.
When that day comes, Martin is keen to be the person helping someone else to find their way out of a difficult start in life.
“When I get up on top – which I will, it’s just a question of when,” he says, “I will actually start giving back.”
Find out how you can support The Big Issue’s Christmas Appeal here.
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