Among the various people thanked in the first edition of The Big Issue was a man who reminded me of the comedian Tony Hancock. He had the same type of tubby figure, the same slightly pissed off look. I loved Tony Hancock’s face, his kind of sardonic “nothing surprises me” manner.
I first met the person who is listed in the inaugural Big Issue in The Prince’s Head next to our Richmond editorial office. He sat at the bar and we fell into conversations on numerous occasions as our team was struggling to create The Big Issue. It was a very strained atmosphere, largely because we were not quite sure what we were doing. And not sure whether it would succeed.
We became friends and I often bought him pints. He never seemed to have much cash on him. Yet on most evenings he would be there, sitting on a stool at the bar; smiling, reflecting and at times talking. And it was because he was so different in his preoccupations in life – none of which resembled mine – that I felt a kind of tranquillity around him. Then I decided to include him in the launch and put his name down as a supporter in The Big Issue.
At the launch itself he ran into Anita Roddick who was talking to all and sundry, and when she asked him why he was there he said proudly, “I cheer John up.” Anita was not impressed with this. I had to track her down afterwards and say he was not on the payroll.
The money for The Big Issue was coming through The Body Shop. This was all a part of what I called the Peppermint Foot Lotion Revolution. I did not want Anita or her husband Gordon to think I was padding out the workforce with duds. I had to keep in with my sponsors. But how could I tell Anita that my bar friend was a bit like a joy-bringer because he never talked about any of the things we were struggling to face up to in starting The Big Issue?
He was a relief from the serious. He was comic and could see humour where it did not seem to exist. That day at the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields, where we launched, he ate a load of sandwiches and drank countless cups of tea. And he talked to everyone.