Hugh Palmer, 76, outside St Paul’s Underground station (exit two), London
Big Issue vendor Hugh Palmer has a goal: to keep selling The Big Issue on his pitch at St Paul’s in London until he is 100 years old
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I want to sell The Big Issue until I’m 100. I’m only 76 now, so it’s a way off. But my mum is 105 and still going strong, so I’ve got it in me. Selling The Big Issue keeps me sharp – the conversations, jokes and regular customers are as much a part of my day as the sales pitch.
A few years ago, when I’d been featured in the magazine before, somebody came and offered me a job selling things on the phone. I’ve often felt people don’t want to know once you get a bit older, so it was nice to have somebody tell me age didn’t matter. But the salary wasn’t good, and I discovered you’d get the bullet if you didn’t meet certain targets. I’ve had opportunities to work as a cleaner, or in a coffee shop – but they’re not for me. I’ve got a history degree – World War 2 is my passion – and I’m qualified in finance.
My pitch is at the top of the stairs of exit two of St Paul’s station, in the shadow of the cathedral. You get all sorts coming up from the tube, and I can chat about anything – there’s surprise sometimes when I hold court on the Ukraine war, or any other issue of the day. But that’s part of it, that’s why I keep at it.
I started selling the magazine 10 years ago after becoming bankrupt and realising, really, I had only the clothes I was standing in. It was only meant as a temporary thing, but I quite liked it, and here I am.
I’m here for 12 hours a day, Monday to Friday. Being right in the centre of London, things have been hard since Covid. It used to be a stream of office workers, but with everyone working from home, things are quieter – especially on Mondays and Fridays. Before the pandemic, I’d sell 150 magazines a week – now I get through about 90. It’s building up slightly, but I do rely on older customers coming back. I would love all my old customers to come back and buy The Big Issue at St Paul’s.
From just £3 per week
There’s a wrong way and a right way to sell it. If anything, I reverse sell the magazines. You can’t push it in people’s faces. When I talk to people, I don’t talk about The Big Issue – I talk about something else, and gradually bring it back in. If you’re nice to people, people will be nice in return. I always say if you’re nasty, you’ll get nastiness. If somebody needs help carrying a pram down the stairs to the tube, I’ll be there helping out. At Christmas, I give out cards. The trick is to get the previous year’s ones while they’re still cheap. I get a few hundred and write in each one. I try to do as personal a message as I can.
A few weeks ago I collapsed in my flat, but I’m on the mend now.
My health is good and I’m still sharp. Some people use drink to work through their problems – I talk to Jesus. It’s free, and you don’t need drugs.
I spend a long time on my pitch, always keeping a smile up. But I’ve still got my time on the weekends. I live in a flat in Wood Green [in North London], and it’s easy to get to places.
World War 2 documentaries are a great way to relax, but it’s books that keep your mind active. On Sundays I’ll head to the library and read through the papers. That’s important to me.
At my age, goals aren’t quite as simple as they were. I want to go as long as I can. The target is 100. Maybe I’ll outlast the magazine.
Interview: Greg Barradale
1 Cheapside, London EC2V 6AA, UK