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Prince William, Gazza and me: A vendor’s chance encounter with footballing – and actual – royalty

When vendor Karl Burns heard Prince William was in town, he went to see if he could shake his hand. What happened next was something he will never forget

Big Issue vendor Karl Burns was sitting on his camping chair selling the magazine right in the heart of
Bournemouth when he heard Prince William was in town. The 55-year-old noticed a crowd outside Pret a Manger across the square where he sells the magazine. 

It was an opportunity he would grasp with both hands. 

Burns decided to go over to see if he could meet the future king. He was hoping William’s history with The Big Issue would get him in. As well as help from one of his regular customers. 

“I already knew someone who was there and that was Paul Gascoigne,” says Burns. “I’ve known Gazza a little while. He buys issues off me and talks to me a couple of times a week.” 

Emboldened, Burns thought he’d ask one of William’s aides whether he could go inside. Burns could scarcely believe what happened next. 

“I turned around to the royal protection officer and said, ‘On behalf of The Big Issue, I’d like to donate you The Big Issue and I thank you for what you’re doing here today.’  

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“So I was escorted right down to the back, past all the public, past everyone who was there and I was standing with Gazza and his manager.” 

The next thing Burns knew, Prince William was heading his way, with Dragons’ Den star Steven Bartlett in tow, fresh from trying his hand at making customers’ sandwiches with Pret staff. Burns stuck out his hand, brandishing a magazine. 

“What’s this?” the Prince of Wales asked as he took the magazine while Gazza tapped him on the wrist, arm outstretched. 

“Big Issue,” says Karl. And the penny dropped. 

“Ah, are you selling it outside?” asked William as he motioned for an aide to come over. “Can I give you some money for it?” 

In the end, the future monarch went further than just buying a copy of the magazine – he made sure Burns didn’t go hungry either. “I said, ‘Thank you very much for what you’re doing, and helping the homeless and those of us who are less fortunate than yourself’,” says Burns. 

“He paid for my lunch. He told them to make sure that I’ve got a lunch on him. He also got his secretary to give me a tenner to pay for the issue. He was a lovely bloke.” 

Meeting Prince William was a momentous milestone for Burns. He started selling the magazine in 2018 after he fell into homelessness when his relationship broke down, spending two months sleeping rough in a tent under Bournemouth pier. That meant the stay-at-home father of two also lost contact with his children. 

Selling the magazine helped to support him until he was savagely attacked in Bournemouth in April 2019. 

It took him 17 months of hospital treatment to recover from devastating injuries including fractures to his jaw and the base of his skull, shattered teeth and multiple bleeds on his brain. Burns struggles to walk as a result of his injuries and uses a camping chair when he sells his magazine on his pitch. 

The vendor returned to sell the magazine in Bournemouth’s town square around a year ago and since then his fortunes have been transformed. 

Burns now has a place to live and that has allowed him to rebuild his relationship with his children. He’s also a vendor co-ordinator, selling magazines to other vendors on behalf of The Big Issue. 

Royal recognition is the latest step on his road to recovery. 

“You can help people as long as the people that you’re helping want to be helped. I was at the point where I was ready to get help,” he says. “I went from having nothing, I lost all my children and lost my partner. 

“Now, I’ve got my head back together, I’ve got a flat in the road where my children live with their mother. Now I see my children every single day. They are back in my life and I was given a second chance. Meeting royalty and all that, that was a blessing. 

“When my children saw me on the telly the other night with a future king and a world-class football player, my boy’s got ADHD and he hasn’t stopped skipping since he saw me. It’s brilliant.” 

Burns’s story could be more relatable to Prince William than you might think. 

Last summer the future monarch tried his hand at selling The Big Issue, donning a red tabard alongside vendor Dave Martin in Central London. 

It was part of a learning process that led to his own mission to end homelessness. In June, he announced his Homewards programme which will give £3 million to six locations across the UK – to demonstrate how homelessness can be prevented, tackled and, ultimately, ended for good. 

Homewards brought him to Bournemouth alongside new programme advocate Bartlett. The pair were at Pret to hear how the sandwich chain has committed to help at least 500 people at risk or experiencing homelessness into jobs through its Rising Stars programme over the next five years. 

Burns believes Prince William’s programme is “an absolutely brilliant idea”. His own success story is one Homewards will be trying to replicate across the UK. 

And for Burns, the secret to that success has been The Big Issue. 

“I just love doing it because you meet a lot of people. It gives me communication skills. It gives me confidence. It gives me a lot of joy,” he says. 

“I don’t think I’d still be around without The Big Issue. This has just kept me going. Now having my kids back, it’s helped me out so much. I can’t even explain how much. I would be lost without doing this job. It makes me get up every morning.” 

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