This is an abbreviated version of an article I wrote a few years back. Reading it back, I’d forgotten how impressed I was with John Bird. He is a real legend. Although, I will blank out the fact that he ran for Mayor of London against Ken Livingstone.
John Bird, is the co-founder and driving force behind The Big Issue, an award winning entertainment and current affairs magazine. The Big Issue is a groundbreaking publication, written by professional journalists, but sold on the street exclusively by the homeless. John Bird, is a maverick rogue who has made his career outside of the mainstream, championing the cause of the less fortunate through his unique and radical approach.
I caught up with him in Putney Bridge, an area he has lived in for most of his adult life. I attempted to find out how someone who, in his own words, “had problems with aggression, violence, drinking and theft”, was awarded an MBE by the queen. Had John Bird become part of the mainstream?
“I actually come from the working classes. I come from the underclass, from the real f*****g culture-less underclass. You come to my family and you see those kinds of people. People who have been on benefits since the thirteenth century. There was nothing in my life that was cultural. There wasn’t anything soft. There wasn’t anything loving. It was vicious nasty and bitter. I had a lot of problems with violence, my aggression. I’d drink to much and get into fights, get arrested, be a thief and that kind of thing” .
It doesn’t take a lot to get John talking. The honesty and transparency he brings to the conversation is disarming. He talks frankly about anything without prompting in a quick-fire, animated manner. He is easy to warm to and is obviously appreciated by his fellow Londoners, who recently named him winner of their BBC Living Legends listeners poll. His no nonsense approach, although uncompromisingly acerbic, wins respect.
He continues a pace. “So, I met a girl and I wanted to get into her knickers. She was a Marxist. So, I had to get involved with the Marxist movement. The problem was, they were all middle class and had no way of relating to me, and I had no way of relating to them”.
This struggle with the middle classes is a recurring theme in John’s life. He may now sport a Savile Row suit and drink latte, but the brooding working class rage still lingers behind the eyes and I feel he may not quite be done.
The problem was, those people wanted to brow beat”. He jabs the air repeatedly. What Marxism and Trade Unionism [have in common is] they all have social democracy, but they want to represent. They don’t want to get down amongst the shit and the scum and get people out of there. I’m the only person in homelessness that I’ve met who comes from the problem, but has become part of the solution”.
John Bird may now own a media empire, but he still counts the homeless amongst his friends. He is a true everyman, untouched by fame or success. The man before me was truly everything I imagined a working class hero to be.