Bird is the Anti-Rupert, a social entrepreneur who in 1991 founded – with Gordon Roddick, who also founded The Body Shop with his late wife, Anita – The Big Issue, that ubiquitous “street newspaper” distributed by homeless people from Brisbane to Birmingham, Adelaide to Addis Ababa, a “global self-help revolution” as it describes itself.
In these desperate days of the Leveson Inquiry into criminality on Fleet Street, Bird is about the only media mogul with any public regard. But with a profile like that, the last place one expects to meet the man many Britons regard as a selfless saint is in a comfortable office 50 metres from King’s College Cambridge, home of the renowned Christmas choir, illustrious alma mater of barons and earls, princes and PMs. For six distinguished centuries, King’s has been one of the world’s most entitled temples of privilege. Not many rough-sleeping down-and-outs in evidence in its cloistered surrounds. None actually.
“What did you fuckin’ expect?” asks the man many Britons regard as a virtual Nelson Mandela, a vagrant’s champion whose novel idea at self-help has given the homeless of the world hope, dignity and a living, spawning a global phenomenon. “Me sittin’ with a bottle of plonk under a bridge somewhere holdin’ me hand out? I have no problem with privilege.”
Bird uses the f-word a lot.
Like when he confronts those who claim he’s a fraud who’s grown rich exploiting those with nothing. He tells the story of being at a charity event when a man came up to him.
“He said, ‘You’re John Bird aren’t you? You must be absolutely fuckin’ loaded!’ And I said to him, ‘Yeah, I fuckin’ am! I’ve got so much fuckin’ money it’s fuckin’ unbelievable!’
“And he says, ‘You must be broke then.’ And I ask, ‘Why?’ And he says, ‘Because everybody who’s got money says they haven’t got it, and the only people who say they’ve got it, don’t.'”
He accentuates the f-word to describe the contribution the British state has made to The Big Issue. “We’ve never got a fuckin’ penny out of Her Majesty’s Government, and that’s nice,” he says. “I’ve never asked and even if they did offer I’d tell them to get stuffed. I’d rather close down. As soon as you take their own, you have to take their influence.”
He uses it to describe Australians, too: “They come over here and they become more fuckin’ English than the English.”
And he uses it to describe Australian journalists – well, one of them. John Pilger. Bird’s not a big fan.
He once shared a car with Pilger en route to the University of Lincoln, where they both were to receive honorary journalism doctorates. Pilger was “difficult,” says Bird, sitting in the front in silence much of the way. “He was fuckin’ imperious,” Bird says.
But on the podium with the celebrated finger-pointer, as the two gave speeches accepting their gongs, Bird had his moment. Pilger was urging his audience to embrace investigative journalism and expose the world’s ills.
Bird took a different tack. “They didn’t give me the same time as they gave him, so I just said, ‘John, look, you’re a guy who goes around the world coming up with its problems… You go, Look! Look! [He makes finger-pointing gestures.] But you don’t ever look for the answers.’
“Journalism is about asking questions but not so much about finding out who’s trying to solve it.”
The Pilger story illustrates a deeper point, of Bird’s lifelong search for answers, a mission from which he says he’ll never rest. But he’s no bleeding heart. He struggles with “white middle-class liberalism” and the “wankers” who populate it.
He cites the near-cultish hand-wringing in the well-heeled West for the Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi. “She’s suffered house arrest, which means compound arrest; she can’t move out of her compound.
“You never hear of somebody [homeless] suffering cardboard-box arrest. But there are thousands of people who have suffered that.”
Bird says, “There is a real tokenism about how people handle social crises. People buy The Big Issue but they don’t buy into the idea of helping the homeless help themselves.
“There is a real myopia, and I think it’s about time we started re-educating people into understanding that poverty is a human rights abuse, wherever it is.”
When he started The Big Issue back in 1991, there were 501 institutions and charities in Britain devoted to helping the homeless, he says, “and not one of them gave them the opportunity of making money”.
It exposed Bird to what he calls “the homeless industry”.
“The one thing these homeless organisations had was jobs for themselves, so everybody there was getting paid. Get a job working for the poor and you’ll never be out of work because there’ll always be the poor. I find it very, very interesting that so many of us have a vested interest in the continuation of poverty.”
He says he “hates the sight” of the homeless, and says it with the venom one expects of the bulk of us who step over them, and perhaps abuse them as we do.
“Where are the homeless going to get experience? Do they just rely on your pocket money? There’s only one cure for poverty – get the fuck out of it.”
Ian Burrell, media writer at The Independent, says Bird “deserves credit for building an institution that has lasted 20 years. But now in his mid-60s and living in leafy Cambridge, he is more distant from the magazine, which itself appears increasingly less relevant.”
Bird was famously a roughsleeper himself, from his early teens when he “was getting away from a shit family – violent, nasty.” When he was 15, on the run from the police and his family, he says he arrived in Trafalgar Square and there were 100,000 people there protesting. “It was a rally for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a group I’d never heard of,” he says.
But what really impressed him were the chicken sandwiches someone had prepared for the protestors, because he hadn’t had a feed in a few days. Then the police moved in to start cracking heads, and the young Bird made his own protest – that he only came for the sandwiches.
“I’m telling this to the police and they’re saying, ‘Well you’re fuckin’ nicked now.'”
And he was, later finding himself in a cell of 32 people, “including a paedophile who was following me around so much that I eventually gave him a kick in the head,” Bird says.
In state reformatories, he learned to read and write, to become a printer, a bricklayer and gardener. He also learned to fight, to look after himself. How did he get out of the cycle? “I was fortunate because I was nicked by the police and put into various institutions – and every time I got nicked, I learned something new.”
He says the experience helped him learn the art of seeking and exploiting opportunity.
“Unfortunately, there was no cure for my insatiable curiosity, to go around and meet women and get into trouble, and drinking, so I was always in and out of grief.” Bird has been married three times. “I’m a devout ex-Catholic so I’ve always married my pregnant girlfriends.”
I ask the devout ex-Catholic if religion is bunk. “No, religion is not bunk, it plays a very important part in a lot of people’s lives,” he says. “Except mine. There are some people who like science fiction.”
The Big Issue is not a charity but a “very weird business,” Bird explains. The magazine’s charter obliges that whatever surplus it generates is ploughed back into an associated foundation aimed at addressing homeless issues.
“I’m a businessman,” he says. “I’m just very unsuccessful at making big money for myself, but I’ve been very successful at making money for homeless people – millions and millions.”
Some 70 per cent of the magazine’s costs are its distribution network – the homeless street vendors – and that makes it an inherently and perennially unstable operation.
“We run a very uncommercial business,” he says. “We’ve always been slightly above profitability or slightly below it, and that’s because we have the most unreliable workforce on the face of the earth, who often just don’t show up.”
He cites an example a few years back, in Nottingham, when he saw five “tip-top” salesmen get jobs, which he arranged for them. “Our sales went from 7,000 copies a week to 1,200, so we had to close the office down.
“We are always doing things which are materially against our interest of running a business, always against our own interest. But if we didn’t do that, we’d lose our raison d’être.”
Bird describes The Big Issue’s readership demographic as “very, very weird”.
“We do get suits in the City, we get members of the royal family reading it, of government, but we tend to get 60 per cent of our readership from women between the ages of 23 and 53,” he says.
“It’s not The Guardian, it’s not The Independent, it’s a little bit of everything. Only about 13 per cent of our readers read The Guardian. We seem to straddle them all – we have Sun readers reading The Big Issue. We’re kind of left, right and centre – no-one’s ever put that concoction together.”
Bird is the media proprietor who’s not regarded as a media proprietor. “I get a lot of press as an individual, people are always asking for my opinion of this or that, but we’re not really players in the media industry largely because the industry’s pretty closed. The alternative media in Britain almost doesn’t exist, so we are kind of on our own. You’re taken seriously, but in a kind of mock-serious sort of way.”
The Big Issue has a history of guest editors: the chef Jamie Oliver, DJ Fatboy Slim, the artist Damien Hirst and Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler. Of Styler’s turn, the Daily Mail and The Observer sniffed that here was a socialite with multiple homes around the world editing a magazine dedicated to those with none. Both papers, ideological opposites, asked why Bird offered his magazine to a “one-per-center”. Bird responded in a letter that the magazine was launched with the help of a man, The Body Shop’s Gordon Roddick, who had at least three homes – those Bird had visited – and who quite likely owned more.
British Prime Minister David Cameron’s guest editorship also raised a stir. He did it – or rather, as Bird tells, his aides did it – last July during the week he fielded flak and revelations from the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal. But that didn’t rile readers. They were outraged because they saw this as Bird angling for a knighthood or a peerage.
Bird chortles. “David Cameron would never give me, of all people, a gong because you can never trust John Bird -because I don’t know what sectional interest I’ll be after tomorrow.” Besides, he already has an MBE.
Says The Independent‘s Ian Burrell: “As a journalistic publication it carries increasingly little weight and is no longer known for breaking stories, having once had a reputation of obtaining exclusive interviews with stars who supported its mission.”
So in its 21st year, and Bird’s 66th, what’s been unexpectedly good for him with this most unusual of magazines?
He tells an anecdote about a “very big black guy”, a distributor who had a reputation for violence, shoplifting and general intimidation. Bird had to confront the guy, to tell him his conduct was out of order and bar him from selling the magazine.
But the man he met had been “transformed into an angel” who discovered he sold more magazines by being nice to people. Soon he was off the streets, had a job ushering in a theatre and had straightened out. And was no longer homeless.
It was the first manifestation of his mission and it happened just three months after he launched the magazine.
The Global Mail : “So you’re officially a saint then?
John Bird: “Yeah, I am. There’s a lot of people who really do feel I am the bee’s knees, but there’s a lot more who think I’m a shark, a charlatan and I’m in it for myself. I hear a lot from vendors who say
they know my (nonexistent) house in the Caribbean, or in the south of France. My Alzheimer’s must be bad because I can’t find these places, I must’ve lost the key.”
The Global Mail : “Who’s your hero?”
Bird: “I don’t have ’em. I think maybe myself. I am absolutely fascinated why, how the fuck, I survived. There’s not a moment of the day I don’t think, How the hell did I get through all this shit?
“So I’m in love with myself.”