John Bird MBE is about to speak at The Duke Street Church (as I write) about how he launched The Big Issue from an office on Richmond Green back in 1991.
This triggered memories of the time I was first introduced to the notion of a magazine to help homeless people, allowing them a level of independence with a job and income that came from somewhere other than begging. Giving them a hand up, not a hand out as John was at pains to point out.
I was introduced to this new approach to the homeless issue as a copywriter at an agency called Still Price: Lintas, based in Victoria.
One morning an account man bustled into our office saying he had a meeting in the afternoon with a guy called Gordon Roddick, husband of Anita of Body Shop fame, who was launching a magazine to help homeless people from a concept he stumbled upon in the streets of New York. ‘Can you crash out some concepts to present in a few hours?’ he cheekily asked.
My creative partner and I were renowned for working fast, but with quality. This was honed through years of working for one of the toughest task master creative directors in the industry. Woe betide anyone walking into his office with one piece of paper for his consideration. We would always go in with what we’d describe as ‘half a rainforest’ of A3.
So, after just a few hours of beavering away, we went into this impromptu meeting with our headlines and scribbles, hoping we had hit the right tonality in the absence of a formal brief.
It transpired that Gordon and John had been working for months with another agency to crack the brief and when we started throwing down ad after ad, in an attempt to impress with our creative enthusiasm, Gordon decided there and then that we had won his business.
As I recall, John was a much tougher cookie to crack. Little did I know at the time, his background was of a London based Irish Catholic who had fought his way out of poverty, drug abuse, imprisonment and homelessness. He took no prisoners in his brash manner, but here was a guy who was determined to make a difference with the help of Gordon and his financial firepower.
What followed was an immersion into the world that didn’t adhere to the rules of polite Richmond society. We heard mortifying stories of the descent into homelessness, sometimes purely from unforeseen circumstances. We saw the depravity, the mental health issues, the lying, cheating and stealing in order to survive and the dependence on alcohol and drugs in order to escape the nightmare of this torrid existence.
The ads you see opposite were shot with genuine homeless people out on the streets of London in the dangerous underworld where gangs and unscrupulous people control the territories and supply chains that entrap homeless people in this level of poverty.
The pictures were by eminent photographer David Tack who gave the harrowing prints to Anita to keep.
We also produced a commercial highlighting how easy it is to descend into this world and how the Big Issue offered a hand in pulling people out of it.
On my way home to my warm cosy house in East Twickenham, I would often bump into John on Richmond Green. I would visit his office to see the good works and even had an input designing the now iconic masthead.
The talk will be the first time I’ve seen John in many years and maybe time and success has mellowed him. I hope not. He has talked of having not a sentimental bone in his body for people in poverty, as within every family history will be a person who has endured hardship but used it as motivation to change the fortunes of future generations. He refuses to see it as a handicap or drawback.
My own grandfather, from Irish stock, is an inspiration to me in that regard and we should all be thankful those people exist in our midsts and in our pasts..
John Bird will be speaking at Duke Street Church, Richmond on Oct 1st.
Doors open at 7pm.
Tickets £15, £5 for students/under 18’s.
Tickets available at: