Advertisement
Opinion

In a tent in Devon, having a field day

A camping trip in the West Country reawakens memories of John’s grandmother, a woman from the Victorian era who shaped his early life.

Waking up in a Devon field has many advantages to it. Even in the heavy heat, if you are up early enough you can smell the smack of nature upon your nose, before the hotness sets in. 

I rise early as I have done since my days as an industrial worker, then a printer, then a social advocate. Early mornings are a gift to us all that many do not feast on. I once advocated in these pages an Early Morning Association, based on witnessing in Beijing one sunny 5am the wonderful sight of largely older people in the public parks doing tai chi, the slow-motion exercise that brings energy storming back into your body, quietly, gently, kindly. 

The field I am in is no ordinary field, even though it has no features other than its fieldness. It is a retreat where kids can roam and parents do things like meditation and yoga. I am not a meditator. I am here to chaperone my daughter and spend my own free time writing the book I have been writing since god knows when. 

My mind is full of Victorian times because I have now arrived at the woman who took us in when we were made homeless when I was five. My father’s mother, therefore my grandmother. She took us in at the age of 65, four children and two parents into her crammed slum mews cottage above a woodcutter’s stable. And for a year had to put up with us and our madness. 

Subscribe to The Big Issue

From just £3 per week

Take a print or digital subscription to The Big Issue and provide a critical lifeline to our work.

So I sit in this Devon field while meditators meditate and I recreate that old woman born in 1886 who lived her first 14 years under the tutelage of the old Queen, Victoria. And I reimagine her conversations with me as I stood on a chair stirring the breakfast porridge while my brothers sat reading comics, or “picking the scabs off their arses” as my grandmother so rudely described those at leisure. 

And telling me in no uncertain terms that Britain went down the tubes when Victoria died, because she had kept things moving and avoided the European cousins falling out with each other – which then led to two world wars. The 20th century which she lived in for 66 years was full of sex, laziness and self-indulgence and was likely to end badly for us all. 

Advertisement
Advertisement

A prescient old bird, you might call her, dressed in her old black Victorian clothes walking with a swagger due to her “done-in” hips, as she called it, done in from too much charring – a charwoman being a cleaner. She travelled from Notting Hill to Harley Street to do the stairs and steps and corridors of the posh doctors six mornings a week at 6am. Yet her black clothes were always kept in order by a pristine, short, white apron that I never saw her without. 

A formidable, hardworking member of the poverty classes who had an opinion about everyone and everything. And sitting in a Devon field I recollect her and reconnect with that formidable force in my early life. 

Of course, she went off me when later she heard that I was in trouble with the police and had turned into a “ne’er-do-well”, as she called the thieves and liars and cheats of our slum world. 

The world seems distant as I sit and recreate the incredibly clean slum we lived in together. Where the rats and fleas were kept at bay by her incredible application of bleach and disinfectant to all surfaces, corners and cupboards. She was at war with her surroundings and bitterly fought against the creeping paralysis that poverty often brings. 

Alas I became the slob that I became and ended up “bent”, as she called me, always looking for the shortest route out of labour; until of course I found my calling. Which was to try and be useful to those less fortunate than myself. 

Support The Big Issue

Give your local vendor a hand up and buy the magazine

Each of our vendors buy their copies of the mag for £1.50 each, selling them for £3 and keeping the difference. Visit our interactive map to find your nearest vendor.

I hate the sun and there is too much of it in a Devon field, so when I am not chaperoning my daughter, or writing about my granny – the first adult I ever truly knew, my parents behaving like kids – I walk the tight lanes that surround the field. I take photos and draw snippets of wood and water. Occasionally someone stops to ask if I need a lift. But I declare that I am able-bodied and enjoying my peregrination. My cap, modelled, I’m sure, on those caps that made caps famous again in Peaky Blinders and got from my local garden centre, makes me look like a road labourer or itinerant from my grandmother’s time; my pack full of drawing and reading and writing stuff. But the generosity of country strangers, farmers and field hands and tractor drivers seems immense, blotting out most things that are happening in and around Downing Street and in the minds of the BBC. 

But the book demands my time. Walking, tramping the lanes is great joy, but I am here also to finish the final stages of my vast book that explains the whole history of humanity and why we need to stop repeating this history. And, of course, refine my thinking around my polemic against governments’ ineptitude towards poverty, making it so expensive to keep people poor rather than exiting them out of it. Or preventing them falling into it in the first place. 

I have to share this Devon field, therefore, with my grandmother and the most pressing issues of the day, that are not going to sort themselves out without direction and guidance. Obviously, though, my delusions of grandeur have not deserted me in my Devonian paradise. I return replete. 

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

Advertisement

Bigger Issues need bigger solutions

Big Issue Group is creating new solutions through enterprise to unlock opportunities for the 14.5 million people living in poverty to earn, learn and thrive. Big Issue Group brings together our media and investment initiatives as well as a diverse and pioneering range of new solutions, all of which aim to dismantle poverty by creating opportunity. Learn how you can change lives today.

Recommended for you

Read All
Bowie thrived on chaos, but this government's mess is something else
Opinion

Bowie thrived on chaos, but this government's mess is something else

Will Keir Starmer lead Labour back into government? The view from the party conference in Liverpool
Labour Party Conference

Will Keir Starmer lead Labour back into government? The view from the party conference in Liverpool

As an era closes, what now for the future of Britain?
Opinion

As an era closes, what now for the future of Britain?

Where are the superheroes among the super-rich?
Paul McNamee

Where are the superheroes among the super-rich?

Most Popular

Read All
How much will the Queen's funeral cost?
1.

How much will the Queen's funeral cost?

The internet's best reactions as Kwasi Kwarteng cuts taxes and lifts the cap on bankers' bonuses
2.

The internet's best reactions as Kwasi Kwarteng cuts taxes and lifts the cap on bankers' bonuses

From benefit claimants to bankers: Here’s what the mini-budget means for your pay packet
3.

From benefit claimants to bankers: Here’s what the mini-budget means for your pay packet

5 ways anti-homeless architecture is used to exclude people from public spaces
4.

5 ways anti-homeless architecture is used to exclude people from public spaces

Sign up to the Big Issue Newsletter to receive your free digital edition. Featuring some of our favourite archive pieces from Letters to My Younger Self with Olivia Colman, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Terry Gilliam, Chuck D and Rod Stewart.