On the road with big John Bird

Deborah Hobson

It's the morning of my interview with the wealthy self-made man and founder of The Big Issue, the weekly news and current affairs magazine sold by the homeless. I'm meeting John Bird midday at the GMTV breakfast show studios at Southbank, near Waterloo, south London, in Britain, and the encounter promises to be anything but dull.

The 61-year-old has a chequered past. He's risen from petty criminal to lauded businessman, chat show favourite and advocate of social justice for the poor and homeless.

John was born into a London Irish family in a deprived part of Notting Hill. He was homeless at five, in an orphanage between the ages of seven and 10 and then began shoplifting, housebreaking as well as doing vandalism and arson. By his late twenties he had already served several jail sentences.

At 11:10am I receive a text message informing me that the interview has been rescheduled for 11:30am. I jump into a taxi at London Bridge and telephone John to say that I am likely to be at least 10 minutes 'late'. The venue has now changed to his Wedge discount card basement office in Upper Marsh, Waterloo.

The Wedge Card is John's pet social enterprise project. It's an affinity card for shoppers with a social conscience and is designed for use in local, independent stores. It costs  £10, is valid for a year and entitles shoppers to discounts and special offers from participating retailers as well as price reductions at bookshops and concessionary entry fees at art galleries.

Half of the card fee goes to charity, if it is purchased online, the other half is divided equally between the shopkeeper and The Big Issue. If the card is bought directly from a retailer, they gets an extra 25 per cent and the charities 25 per cent less.

It's 11:45am and I've just arrived outside the Wedge office where John appears. He's dressed in trade mark denim jeans, black shirt, black and white tie and navy blue blazer. He bounces up to me with the exuberance of a man half his age and introduces me to his friend Nicky. We walk to a silver Mercedes parked close by and still on loan from GMTV with driver Mr Appiah. Anne Garbarini, his personal assistant and project manager with a charming continental European accent, is in the back seat. I'm told we're all off to Roehampton where John lives. He has a meeting with 'Andy', a local community activist. My interview with John is to take place during the car ride .

I start by asking him what he most likes about living in London.  "I love Ken Livingstone. No seriously, I was born here so I'm use to it, but when I was growing up it (London) was boring, white and working class. Now with all the different cultures and people you can go anywhere in London and eat Argentinian and Dance Brazilian". As an avid cyclist, he hates the traffic in London. The former London mayoral candidate, against Livingstone the present incumbent, says that if he was mayor for the day he'd  "probably ban all traffic into London and issue a load of bikes like they do in Paris".

Besides homelessness, what did he think are the other major problems faced by Londoners? He replied, firmly:  "Tackling the increasingly exaggerated house prices and the increasing gentrification of London. Also the destruction of the high street."

John dislikes politics with a big  'P' and when asked to name the politician he most admired at the moment dismissively demonstrates this, when he says:  "You mean which carrier of the bubonic plague do I most admire? Frank Field (Labour Member of Parliament for Birkenhead and former Minister for Welfare Reform) because he's always asking  'why do we keep people in so much poverty?' He says a lot of controversial things".

Field sounds like John Bird himself. John's next project is The Big Movement which will be headed up by 'Nicky'.  "What I want to do is create a social movement that will lead people of all political classes, all political persuasions to help us dismantle poverty," says John. He adds:  "The three main political parties are part of the problem not the solution".

We arrive at Roehampton to meet Andy at the community centre. I sense I'm not going to get much more from John. Andy, in his thirties and a Christian, needs to raise awareness and funding for his work with the elderly and disadvantaged youth in the area and John wants to help. There is talk of a fund raising evening and mention of someone called 'Woody' who has just been released from Ford open prison.

Andy says Woody knows celebrities like Jordan, Peter Andre and Sharon Osbourne and could get them to appear at the event. John is on first name terms with these celebs and many others who have appeared on the front cover of The Big Issue. Andy's not sure if Woody has these contacts and John muses that he knows a Woody but 'he's in Strangeways prison for murder'.

I receive a call from the Editor of The-Latest: How's it going? he asks. All I am able to report is that I'm on a mini rollercoaster ride with John Bird and I'm not sure whether I've got enough to write a story about this fascinating yet mercurial man of the people.


1 Response to "On the road with big John Bird"

chris's picture


Sat, 11/24/2007 - 15:54
<p><strong><u>Chris Gaynor</u></strong></p>I&#39;ve never been a fan of John Bird but I agree with him that we are keeping people in poverty! There is no aspiration now of wanting to move up in the world by hard work - most people want everything &#39;yesterday&#39; which in my opinion puts a strain on three things. A) Relationships - which is what David Cameron is alluding to in his social responsibility policy. B) The type of people we are breeding - in other words people who expect to be given things and not working for them C) The Media and Celebrities are tapping into people&#39;s bitterness by making them buy the latest fad which some people simply cannot afford.